By Sarah Helmer
published on Saturday May 13, 2017
This weekend, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents the World Premiere of its latest commissioned work, Vespers. Created by the award-winning Canadian choreographer James Kudelka, Vespers features iconic ballerina Evelyn Hart in a role created especially for her. The production runs from May 10th-14th at Centennial Concert Hall. The new ballet is set to Monteverdi’s “Vespro Della Beata Vergine 1610”, which was arranged and orchestrated by Tadeusz Biernacki and performed live by Winnipeg’s Camerata Nova choir and an ensemble of musicians from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Vespers is a truly stunning ballet, full of power and intentionality. Each small detail of the choreography, set, lighting, and costume design comes together with the music to draw the audience into a fascinating and richly textured mythology. Stepping away from classical ballet’s traditional narrative structure, Kudelka boldly explores themes of Nature and the Fall of Man through atmospheric contemporary ballet choreography in two contrasting acts.
From the moment the curtain opens with the first notes of a single vocalist, we are immersed in a world reminiscent of a Renaissance tapestry. The set, designed by Nick Blais, is visually arresting. What looks like the tangled root system of a great tree is built into the corner of the stage. One huge branch arches upward and across the backdrop, standing backlit against a twilight sky. Dappled light evokes the ambience of a wild, idyllic forest.
Half of the dancers represent People, dressed in simple black tunics and pants. The other half represent Nature, each playing a different animal, wearing gorgeous, larger than life masks designed by sculptor Karen Rodd. The animal masks, which completely cover the dancers’ heads, are complemented by Denis Lavoie’s stately costumes featuring vests, waistcoats, and smoking jackets, resplendent in velvet and shimmering in sparkles that call to mind the night sky.
The choreography throughout the first act invigorates the space with full, exuberant movement, drawing from both classical and contemporary styles, while also evoking the weaving patterns and formations of traditional folk and court dances. We are introduced to Ram, Bear, Horse, Cardinal, Hawk, Duck, Pig, Porcupine, Fox, and Rabbit, who each play distinct social roles and move with their own idiosyncratic postures. Pig’s featured solo, danced impressively by Yoshiko Kamikusa, is particularly charming. She shows off the quivering bristles of her beautiful mask with delightful shivers, quirky angles, and quick footwork before retreating to one of the den-like recesses hidden in the set. We see ritual, respect, and relationships of deep harmony as People and Nature move together in a series of tableaux, seeming to intuitively embrace one another’s characteristics and ways of life.
As the curtain closes on the first act, humans and beasts splinter into two factions in a frenzied group sequence, foreshadowing the division and disconnectedness to come. When the second act begins, the set has dramatically transformed to reflect a cold modernity. The once wild forest has been tamed; the centre of the huge branch which swept across the stage in the first act has been cut away. Tubular fluorescent lights bridge the void, casting an eerie glow over the scene. An imposing wooden table and benches, lined with People, appear to have been hewn from the missing section of the tree.
We finally see Evelyn Hart, the present-day Everywoman whose story we follow for the remainder of the piece. Outfitted in a midnight blue dress, she sits at the foot of the table with her partner Dmitri Dovgoselets. The Ram (danced by Yosuke Mino), who was an athletic and vivacious presence in the first act, looms ominously over the head of the table, disturbingly reminiscent of a hunting trophy mounted on a wall. This sets the tone for Hart’s journey of awakening as she reconnects with the lost knowledge of Nature, which at first feels like madness but ultimately brings her closer to transcendence.
It is difficult to focus on anyone other than Hart once she takes the stage. Her ever-enviable technique underpins a presence that is unparalleled in depth, emotion, and maturity. She dances for the entirety of the second act, surrounded by visions of beasts that no one else can see, gradually coming to accept and understand her unique connection to Nature and growing in her ability to share her wisdom with others. The recurring pas-de-deux between Hart and Liam Caines as the Horse are particularly beautiful and touching. Caines approaches the role with boldness and sensitivity. He, Dovgoselets, Mino, and the other featured men in the cast are all excellent partners for Hart throughout daring lifts and tender moments alike. At the end of the ballet, we are left yearning for more.
Kudelka’s Vespers is rich, surprising, delightful, moving, innovative, complex, bold, evocative, and meaningful. Every element of the production is carefully chosen and adds seemingly endless layers of depth to the world it embodies. Dancers and musicians equally display artistic excellence of the highest caliber in bringing Vespers to life. This brilliant creation is not to be missed.
Vespers continues at The Centennial Concert Hall until Sunday May 14.