Poor National Ballet of Canada. This distinguished ballet company had the unenviable task of following/replacing the New York City Ballet at the Saratoga Performing Art Center.
On Tuesday night, the ballet ensemble with full orchestra opened its three-day stay with modern works by two of Canada’s best-known choreographers: James Kudelka and Crystal Pite. And while the dances, dancers and musicians were excellent, they were not on par with the ballet company that has spent the last 48 summers there.
But comparison is not fair as the Canadians, led by the company’s former prima ballerina, Karen Kain, stood firmly on their own merits. Yet certainly, the spirit and vision of the George Balanchine’s ballet company lingered. Consequently, to the Canadians’ detriment, everyone in those seats couldn’t avoid measuring them against what they have come to know.
And sadly, audiences stayed away. The evening had among the smallest attendance in years. However, that will likely change tonight and Thursday, when the group presents its “Giselle” for three performances. SPAC audiences do tend to show for evening-length classics.
Or at least one can hope, as the Canadians deserve praise and people in the seats. This was best demonstrated by Pite’s “Emergence,” a hypnotic ballet, in which a hatch of insect-like creatures exploded and then infested the stage.
Set to an original score of echoes, hums and vibrations by Owen Belton, the work instantly drew the eye with an astonishing opening. On a dim stage, a dancer contorted on the floor, her protruding elbows and shoulders creating sharp angles that jabbed and collapsed randomly.
Another stood over her, hoisting her, trying to land her steadily on her feet. She slumped and stumbled while her insistent cavalier raised her again and again. Finally, they were swallowed into an upstage hole — the very one from which seconds later an army of identical and masked male figures emerged.
They moved in a wave, with the recurring theme of elbow, head and shoulder jerks. The women followed, counting as they multiplied. The two ultimately met and merged into a menacing hoard of black, spidery, spiky creatures that were heartless and so fierce it was impossible to look away.
The program opened with Kudelka’s dramatic “The Four Seasons,” to the familiar Vivaldi score. The work was a slim narrative, sketching out the birth-to-death experience of one man, performed by Guillaume Cote. The piece depicted his first love (spring) and its loss (summer), as well as a mature relationship (fall) and doddering old age (winter).
This work had a languid touch and did not really reveal the man’s character until the entrance of Stephanie Hutchison. A lovely dancer, she poured more heart into her role than the other dancers combined. She inspired Cote, who danced casually (even when he lost his beloved, portrayed by the buoyant Greta Hodgkinson) until then. Their union was meaningful and the highlight of this otherwise tepidly performed ballet.