Alberta Ballet’s Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century is a three part evening featuring two ballets by the great neoclassical choreographer Balanchine, Divertimento No 15 and The Four Temperaments, and In the Upper Room by Twyla Tharp. The ballets were accompanied by Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for the Edmonton performances on September 21st and September 22nd.
Divertimento No 15 showcases the strong technique of Alberta Ballet. Jumps and turns materialize from nowhere with no visible preparations. The dancers bring a calm and unhurried air to the musicality that Balanchine’s work demands and to the complex, shifting formations. While Divertimento No 15 is a classic of neoclassical ballet, I have to admit, I’m not a fan. Balanchine’s choreography is elegant and beautiful but it lacks shifts in tempo and mood. After an hour I find myself longing for some passion.
The Four Temperaments, inspired by the medieval belief in four different humours of the body, delivers the passion and illustrates the adaptations Balanchine made to the classical ballet vocabulary. The slight forward push of the pelvis that occasionally appears in Divertimento No 15 and the angular use of negative space are foregrounded in the choreography.
In the Upper Room, the final piece of the evening, makes you forget everything that comes before. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra rises to the challenge of Philip Glass’s frenetic score that whirls the dancers into motion and sets the driving pace of the piece. The lighting design fills the stage with a mist so thick that you cannot see the dancers enter or exit; they emerge and then recede into the darkness. Into the mist and at the height of the Jubilee Auditorium’s stage, beams of light are projected, subtly suggesting a cityscape. The dancing is perhaps not as precise as in the earlier Balanchine pieces, but the fierce joy and abandon that the dancers bring to the piece more than makes up for the occasional technical errors.
Placing Balanchine’s work against Tharp is a stroke of programming genius on the part of Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maitre. Balanchine’s work finds beauty in geometric order and asks for the illusion of weightless, effortless movement from the dancers. Tharp’s work perfectly contrasts this. Her formations are constantly moving, bringing dancers in and out of relationship with each other. As soon as one particular pattern is established on-stage it dissolves and another forms. Tharp’s staging is a celebration of the ever-evolving messiness of human relations. The choreography too asks the dancers to celebrate the effort of the movement and find joy in the unrelenting athleticism of the piece.
Alberta Ballet’s Great Masterpieces of the 20th Century is a study in the breadth of approaches and forms that ballet can take. From the precise lines and geometry of Balanchine to the athletic joy of Tharp, Alberta Ballet delivers.