Finished products have their place, but sometimes it can be just as fun to see a work in progress.
Canada’s National Ballet School’s Spring Showcase is, when it comes down to it, an end of year recital for the students at Canada’s premiere ballet academy. But these aren’t your typical teenagers, and so this isn’t your typical recital. Featuring 125 youth performing what NBS’s artistic director Mavis Staines called a ‘diverse and demanding’ repertoire, the Spring Showcase is comprised of two challenging classical works and two shockingly good world premieres by Canadian choreographers, Matjash Mrozewski, an NBS alumni, and Jera Wolfe. Designed to prepare the students for careers as professional dancers, it also provides audience members with an exceptional mixed programme. While the young students might lack the finesse and polish of professional dancers——as they should, they’re still kids——they more than make up for it with raw energy, grit and bucketloads of talent.
The night opened with an excerpt from Napoli, Act III by Danish choreographer August Bournonville, well-known for his ballets comprised of charming pastoral settings, traditional peasant costumes and the mixing of classical ballet with local colour folk dancing. The Bay of Naples scene performed here offers up solo after solo before concluding with multiple tarantellas——an Italian folk dance performed by a couple——featuring tambourines and brightly coloured scarves. Filled with light and nimble jetes, delicate batterie and dynamic petite allegro, the NBS students admirably worked through the unforgiving and quick-paced choreography. In particular, Camilla Agrasso shines as Teresina, bringing precision, high extensions and a ballon that captures the joie de vivre of the dance to Bournonville’s choreography.
A stark change from the first number, Matjash Mrozewski moves to near stillness at the beginning of Ghost Variations, set to a sombre piano score by Robert Schumann. A grand piano sits in the middle of an otherwise bare stage and serves as a focal point as Evan Williams, a dancer memorable for his nuanced expression and musicality, weaves around it. Eight other dancers are featured in the piece, all moving on and off stage variously, alone and in pairs. Wearing an assortment of minimal costumes, mostly leggings and coloured leotards, the dancers bring a fluidity to Mrozewksi’s choreography that brims with back shoulder rolls, deep extensions and releases, flexed feet and arms almost overextended behind the head. Inara Wheeler is eye catching with high extensions and legato movement, as is Gabriel Buell who dazzles with fiery turns and intensity.
An excerpt from Marius Petipa’s beloved full-length work, La Bayadere, Act III, returns the evening to the realm of classical ballet. The curtain rises to reveal an all-female corps dressed in angelic white tutus with strands of white fabric connected to their hands. They are soon joined by Tristan Brosnan and Pravda Tranfield as Solor and Nikiya, both of whom bring a maturity and steadiness to their roles. Performing a pas de deux typically reserved for a ballet company’s principals is perhaps the opposite of easy, and Brosnan and Tranfield rise to the challenge. Tranfield shows off her flexibility with impressive, well-balanced arabesques and pirouettes, while Brosnan delivers grand jetes and fully rotated tours en l’air with great height and clean footwork. Emma Oullet is also impressive as one of the trio, before she takes over completely in the final piece of the night, Arise.
Choreographed by up and comer Jera Wolfe, Arise is about as good as it gets, not just for a student production, but when it comes to contemporary dance, period. Set to Olafur Arnalds’ haunting Eulogy for Evolution, Arise is a work of sheer magnitude, featuring 110 dancers in a dimly lit, dappled space against the simple backdrop of a black, brick wall. Dressed in light grey biker shorts, matching grey pulled up socks and long-sleeved shirts in dark and light purple, Wolfe crowds the dancers together and utilizes innovative, wave-length movements to evoke the sense of one large, breathing organism. In terms of volume and impact, it’s reminiscent of Crystal Pite’s Emergence, a fan favourite frequently performed by the National Ballet of Canada. But where Pite’s choreography uses staccato movement to emulate a bee hive, Wolfe brings a mesmerizing fluidity to the piece more akin to ocean waves.
Emma Oullet is the certainly the star of the piece, and finds herself interchangeably rolling down an enormous pile of dancers forming a human ramp, walking above their heads- balanced on hands- as she cruises along the wall, and carefully stepping back up the human ramp towards the wall where she pulls down a lone lightbulb before the lights cut to black. Oullett mesmerizes with intense physicality, as does her partner, Evan L’Hirondelle, who matches her with dynamic movement and deep lunges. Throughout the piece, small groups of dancers break away from the mass, perhaps raising questions about group dynamics and individuality, and it offers the chance to showcase some of the younger students. It’s a piece that is powerful, startling and original in all the right ways, and along with showing off the intensity ferocity and energy of the dancers, it certainly proves Wolfe to be a choreographer to watch.
If you’re looking for a finished product on par with that of the NBoC, this might not be the performance for you. There are some rough transitions, slips and bobbles and forced expressions that might be unusual for a professional company. Yet in many ways watching this program is a wonderful reminder of how challenging and difficult ballet is, and how many years of hard work and dedication it takes to become the world-class dancers we typically see on stage. It’s also admirable to see the determination the students bring to their performance, and how much they are capable of already.
Watching the Spring Showcase is like getting a behind the scenes glimpse at a show still in the rehearsal phase. It still needs some work to smooth out the kinks, but there’s little doubt that, with time, it will be a huge success, and produce some of tomorrow’s biggest ballet stars.
Erin Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Toronto. A former dancer and Violist, Baldwin completed her Masters in English at the University of Toronto. She currently runs Truths + Edits, a literary blog dedicated to talking about all things books.