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A menacing wedding: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal.

Classical Fury
By Mae G. Banner

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 21

A circus and a wedding, grand occasions for mass celebration, provided the settings for two big ensemble ballets danced by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal last Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow. But, TooT (2005) and Noces (2002) shadowed the celebrations with a dark, sometimes ferocious edge.

Les Grands, as they’re known, are a ballet troupe with a difference. Their director since 2000, Gradimir Pankov, has skewed the repertoire toward works by modern European choreographers with a fresh, mordant angle on dance.

Both ballets were danced barefoot and in whiteface. Both filled the stage with hordes of dancers, but kept them tightly organized even when the choreography pushed them to go out of control. Both were set to bombastic scores by 20th-century Russian composers. And, through brilliant choices of lighting, costumes and set-pieces, each created a self-enclosed world of its own.

TooT, a U.S. premiere, presented its 15 dancers as clowns or mimes, all in white with cone-shaped hats. Some had red hearts sewn to their chests; some wore red wax lips. They danced on a floor lit poison-green and set with long slightly-curved , shiny benches that suggested a circus ring, but became a set of bleachers mounted by a controlling leader with a megaphone.

Later, dancers upended the benches to create a group of cartoon skyscrapers, or bore them on their backs like coffins, as they danced to a slow Balkan dirge.

Choreographer Didy Veldman set TooT to Shostakovich’s circusy Jazz Suite No. 2 and music by the Balanescu Quartet. She packed the dance with ever-changing scenes that captured the gaiety of clowning—including a commedia-style duet with the Pierrette hidden behind a huge cluster of red balloons. But, when her Pierrot plucked the balloon bouquet, there was no-one behind it.

The shadow of loss was always there. It appeared as a certain urgency in the dancing, an exaggerated giddiness, or outright breaks in the action when the mime with the megaphone would chastise dancers aloud. “Stop having fun and join the group,” he snapped, and so the ensemble began a set of extreme leg extensions in unison, then a passage of fencing moves to a French waltz.

When the dancers refused to obey him, the megaphone man switched gears and addressed the audience directly. “Now, sit up and listen to me.” The dancers got the last laugh in this inversion of roles. They ended the dance standing face-front in a ragged row behind the circus ring, which now became the footlit boundary of the stage, and, in various postures of amusement, they split a gut laughing at us.

Noces, by the Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis, was even more startling. Set to Stravinsky’s Les Noces, the dance was, on the surface, a far cry from Bronislava Nijinska’s Russian wedding ballet made in 1923 for Diaghilev’s avant-garde troupe.

Celis has abandoned the original images of the lumpish, reluctant young bride and groom, literally pushed into marriage by their parents and the whole village, all to the strident singing of Stravinsky’s chorus. Gone are the revelrous matchmaker, the drunken villagers, and the cowering bride and groom.

Yet, the new Noces thundered across the stage with its own force, always loud and ferociously on the beat. The backdrop was the Pillow’s own weathered barn-wood, lit incongruously with two chandeliers, all crystal teardrops.

The men wore formal black suits, while the women were decked out in amazing gowns like ragged white swans escaped from the corps of Swan Lake. These tulle gowns by Catherine Voeffray were ripped and stuffed, cut low in back, fluffed out in unexpected poufs at the waist or belly, slit to the thighs, so the women looked not merely bedraggled, but ravaged.

The dancing was more like a war than a celebration. The men sat stiffly like paper cutouts on three long wooden benches set at stage left at stern right angles to the proscenium. The women, far from them at stage right, bowed and galumphed noisily before them on stamping bare feet, sometimes twitching their hips in a strange attempt at seductiveness. They retreated, and the men rose and approached them menacingly.

The consistent sound of heavy feet was a counterpoint for Stravinsky’s propulsive vocal music. The highly patterned dance included suggestions of a folk wedding. There was much call and response dancing between the tight rows of men and the decidedly unfeminine, gawky women, whose white cloches were trimmed with long braided ribbons that recalled the golden braids of the bride in the 1923 Les Noces.

Celis’ choreography is totally new, yet true to the spirit of Stravinsky and the intent of Nijinska. Noces is a stirring dance, worthy of Les Grands’ project to remake ballet for a modern age.

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