Rethinking Physicality: The National Ballet of Canada presents PHYSICAL THINKING -- by Erin Baldwin

Heather Ogden and Jack Bertinshaw with Artists of the Ballet in  TheSecond Detail . Photo by Michael Slobodian

Heather Ogden and Jack Bertinshaw with Artists of the Ballet in TheSecond Detail. Photo by Michael Slobodian

If philosophers spent centuries separating the mind and the body, William Forsythe is doing his best to put them back together.

The aptly titled ‘Physical Thinking’--the National Ballet of Canada’s summer mixed programme--brings the intellect into dance, and then coyly draws attention to it. Comprised of three short works by Forsythe (an American dancer turned world-renowned contemporary choreographer) it’s a performance that does away with the elaborate sets, costumes and narratives typically found in the world of ballet. Instead, Forsythe uses intricate movement, unusual staging and an avant-garde music selection to toy with the tradition of classical ballet that he also uses as his guide. Innovative, restless and above all playful, Physical Thinking broadens the boundaries of ballet, and is sure to leave you thinking.

The night opens with The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, the most traditional work on the program and the only one accompanied by a live orchestra. Set to Schubert’s triumphant Allegro Vivace from Symphony No. 9 in C Major, it is performed by three female dancers in olive-green tutus and two male dancers wearing grape-coloured unitards. Forsythe’s choreography is fast-paced---filled with high intensity petite allegro and arms triumphantly raised overhead in a Y-shape. With no plot or backdrop, the attention is purely set on the dancers, who alternately move on and off stage, breaking off into solos before joining back together in unison. 19-year-old corps de ballet member Hannah Galway is delightful in what is perhaps her first leading role and holds her own next to Calley Skalnik and Chelsy Meiss. Naoya Ebe and Harrison James also make a formidable duo, both bringing a precision and physicality to their performance.

Following a curtain call, the house lights are turned on for a brief pause. While audience members chat in their seats unaware, the music for the next piece has already begun. If you can call it music: the second piece, Approximate Sonata 2016, is danced exclusively to what might be called a selection of ambient noise. When the curtain goes up, it takes a moment for the audience to notice and refocus their attention onto the dark stage with the word YES written in dark, neon blue lights on the otherwise plain backdrop. It’s a clever decision that works to break down the fourth wall between performance and audience and draws attention to the space as both carefully constructed and embedded within its Four Seasons Centre surroundings.

Performed by four couples, it is almost exclusively comprised of back to back pas de deux, minus a brief interlude after the so-called ‘2nd Sonata’ where all eight dancers are found onstage together. While the men wear brightly coloured hot pink muscle shirts and deep purple pants, the female dancers have only simple black leotards as costumes, until the ‘4th Sonata’ where Tanya Howard appears in fluorescent green pants, and the ‘5th Sonata’ where Sonia Rodriguez reappears in a metallic black, strapless leotard. Throughout, Forsythe utilises many tropes typical of contemporary works--deep lunges, flexed feet and wrists, high overextended arabesques and intricate partnering--but he juxtaposes it with everyday movements rarely found onstage. In the ‘1st Sonata’, in between complex sequences with partner Spencer Hack, Sonia Rodriguez breaks off and slowly struts away. In the ‘5th Sonata’, performed by the same two dancers, Hack stops and stands staring Rodriguez--almost compulsively dancing--with a voyeuristic, entranced smile on his face.

Rodriguez is eye-catching, as is Hannah Fischer in the 2nd movement, exuding both fluidity and staccato movement. Felix Paquet shines in the 3d Sonata, which concludes with Svetlana Lunkina leaving him onstage to dance alone to a background of crackling thunder. The ominous score, simple backdrop, bold costumes and versatile movement collectively provoke questions: is the YES triumphant or is it sarcastic? Are the couples joyful and at ease, or are they showing off their animal vitality? There are no answers, but if the best art provokes a conversation, this piece certainly does.

Mallory Mehaffy with Artists of the Ballet in  The Second Detail.  Photo by Karolina Kuras

Mallory Mehaffy with Artists of the Ballet in The Second Detail. Photo by Karolina Kuras

For the final work of the night, it’s a joy to see the NBoC back to performing The Second Detail, which was first choreographed on the company in 1991. The curtain rises to a monotone grey set. The backdrop, a line of folding chairs that stretch the length of the stage and the dancers in simple tights and long sleeve shirts, are all a part of the non-colour, the one exception being a white sign placed front and center that says ‘THE’ in black lettering. Fourteen dancers fill the stage, joining together and disassembling into smaller groups, duets and solos while the others sit at the back on chairs, sometimes performing synchronized motions with their arms, or even lie flat on the floor. Set to a high intensity electronic score by frequent Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems, marked by percussion and synths, it’s a mesmerizing work almost to the point of overstimulation, where the stage feels like a warm-up studio with numerous dancers practicing different sequences simultaneously.

The movements of the previous two pieces are found here alongside pirouettes on bent standing legs, high kicks and thrusted hips. There is something exaggerated--jazz-like--and intentionally theatrical about Forsythe’s choreography, and it is highlighted when Tanya Howard appears near the end, walking down the centre of the stage in an off-the-shoulder white dress. When she begins to dance, it is raw and animalistic--all hunched shoulders and flicking limbs--a high contrast to the others. She is dazzling, as are Greta Hodgkinson and Heather Ogden, who rarely get to share the stage, and Siphesihle November and Skylar Campbell, all of whom brim with attitude and flair. Forsythe leaves the audience with one more laugh at the conclusion when a male dancer, before running off with the others, returns to kick over the aforementioned ‘THE’ sign.

Altogether, Physical Thinking is a program of dance decidedly postmodern. If modernism, and historical periods prior, were concerned with order and underlying structure, postmodernism wants to disrupt, show difference, push things to the edge. And this is decidedly what Forsythe does: he takes the tradition of classical ballet and draws attention to it as performance, before mixing it with the ordinary. Dancers walk around casually, sit down in a chair, kick over a sign, smirk and chuckle, high-five, watch and size each other up. If the world around us is complicated and messy, so is the action on stage.

This mixing of high and low culture and the resulting irony produced, is a distinguishing factor of postmodernism, and a breath of fresh air in the ballet world. Putting on a night of Forsythe was a brilliant call by Karen Kain and the NBoC, and a treat for audience members who get a fresh take on a classical art form. If dance can be highly intelligent and tongue in cheek, Physical Thinking surely is.  

Physical Thinking runs until Saturday June 8th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

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.