menacing wedding: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal.
Mae G. Banner
Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal
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
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
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
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.
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.