After almost fifty years, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet has returned to Jacob’s Pillow with a mixed programme that is as invigorating as it is eclectic, as expansive as it is crystal-clear in its focus. Canada’s oldest professional dance company has always surprised first-timers, perhaps because the notion of a major company living and thriving in Canada’s isolated mid-ground (and with winter conditions that can freeze event the most passionate artist’s toes) is just beyond easy reckoning. Perhaps, too, because the Canadian sensibility, as promulgated in American culture, is self-denigrating and much too ‘nice’ to imagine as tenacious, driven and pretty good at not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
Full disclosure: I am a Canadian, living in Toronto, and damn thrilled to have seen ‘my’ dance company represented and wildly embraced by the crowd last week. My annual pilgrimage to the Berkshires always includes as much dance action as I can cram into my schedule, and my earlier reference to American perception must be balanced by adding that Pillow audiences, almost all of whom are Americans, never demonstrate a parochial attitude to the international fare that Pillow Executive/Artistic Director, Ella Baff, brings to the Pillow’s stages.
The RWB presented three dances: “In Tandem”, choreographed by Peter Quanz, the Canadian choreographer whose work was also represented earlier in the season with the Hong Kong Ballet; “Moonlight Sonata”, Mark Godden’s setting to the Beethoven classic; and the company’s signature piece, “Carmina Burana”, Mauricio Wainrot’s interpretation of the Carl Orff composition.
Quanz’s exploration of relationships through space, coupling and re-coupling, is perfectly served by an ensemble of such vitality, technical precision and effortless buoyancy. The sextet dazzles with their calm aggression, if that fairly defines how dancers can propel and explode without appearing to break a sweat. The joy of dance is in these dancers’ bones and they, and their choreographer, project a delight in performance that electrifies.
Godden’s understanding of Beethoven’s sonata is in sharp and welcome contrast to the Steve Reich score that precedes it. The duet, danced on the opening by Jo-Ann Sundermeier and Harrison James, offers a liquid fluidity that further defines the remarkable range of the RWB. The dance is unapologetically romantic and the pairing of Sundermeier and Harrison showcases the depth of richness in the company.
“Carmina Burana”, the second half of the evening, is epic in scale and punctuates the considerable cohesion of the RWB ensemble. Set to Carl Orff’s cantata, first performed in 1936, the work dazzles as it builds to frenzy. The technical virtuosity of the company is tested in this 60-minute dance as the stage fills again and again with couples moving in tight and precise patterns, always in sync with the power of the score and the energy they draw from each other. It’s all the more impressive for me because the score, with its vocal pyrotechnics and extended solo passages, touches and moves me not at all.
In her introductory comments, Ella Baff admitted that she couldn’t believe that it’s been almost fifty years since the RWB was last on the Ted Shawn stage. I hope that they are invited back again very soon.
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