Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal at Jacob’s Pillow
July 29, 2009 performance reviewed by Jocelyn McGrath.
To spend the evening with Les Grand Ballet Canadiens is something like being with a bunch of long lost cousins at a family reunion; there is a tribal sense of belonging without actually having met each other before. From the first image of a red, hazy sea of undulating arms in Four Seasons, to the raucous and earthy old world dance scene in Cantata, there is a primal connection. The roots of our cultural family tree go deep, deep into the Eden-like fields and valleys of the Four Seasons, deep into social and gender bonds of an old world village. 2014 Jacob’s Pillow schedule, Contact info. and links
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, founded by Ludmilla Chiriaeff in 1952, is a progressive and eclectic ballet company with a long association with Jacobs Pillow. The company’s American debut was here 50 years ago, and since then they have returned many times. The company cultivates the highest level of artistry in a rich, contemporary ballet vocabulary, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti: graceful classical arms and leg extensions seamlessly transition to undulating spinal contractions and quirky, gestural hands. Other traditional boundaries are loosened. These are dancers with voices; they are heard as well as seen. They hum, sing, shout, and yip with delight. They beat their chests, clap and slap, and in one case, audibly blow air like the cherubs painted on a Renaissance ceiling, creating enough wind to roll an intertwined pair of lovers slowly offstage.
The first scene of Four Seasons is lush, a luxurious of sea of bodies (On a stage the size of the Pillow’s, twenty dancers is a sight to behold…). Arms wave in harmony, then differentiate, then couples form. Each couple abruptly embraces and then almost instantly springs apart, as if that one moment time has just reversed. This clutching repeats, rhythmically, percussively. The pointe shoes worn by the women in Four Seasons also become percussive—sometimes in a booming stomp, sometimes in the staccato rhythm of the quickly released releve. The female dancers firmly hold deep lunges on pointe—statuesque in the way of the Roman goddesses. Minimal, filmy costumes in nude and terra-cotta lead to thoughts of natural man and woman, to a time of primal, playful innocence. Humor is an important ingredient in making this familiar musical piece fresh.
The emotional texture of the second piece of the evening, Cantata, originates in the music, performed live by Gruppo Musicale Assurd. Composed of four women vocalists, they are one of the foremost performing troupes of traditional and popular Italian music. In the way flamenco instrumentalist and vocalists are integral to the art, these women sing and play while intermingling with the dancers on stage. Their voices, earthy and raw, lend hope and humanity to the darker themes of human relationships.
For this piece, the back of the stage is exposed, the huge, rustic wooden beams providing a perfect backdrop to a freewheeling old world village scene—a social dance perhaps, with all of the players on stage at all times either watching or dancing. The tenderness and authenticity of the songs balances the disturbing motifs: clustered group of women bite their fingers and hands; the men extend a claw of a hand, mouths wide open; a woman stretches both arms behind her, hands writhing. Women are carried by the men in a strange variety of ways—convulsing, or draped as if dead, or flipped sideways like a board, completely upside-down and then back again.
Though the gender relations are unsettled and tense, the dancers are literally straining alternately toward each other and then away, the emotional resolution lacking in the duets is ultimately found in a joyous full company celebration. Loose-limbed, with flinging hair, the wild energy mounts as the piece culminates in a raucous explosion. And this village is welcoming and generous—we are all invited to join the party—simply as members of the extended human family.
Each piece runs 40 minutes, with an intermission in between.