National Ballet launches season with free outdoor performances

The National Ballet of Canada officially launches its 2022/2023 season on Aug. 16 with free outdoor evening performances that present the company’s dancers in new and existing repertoire, accompanied live by its full orchestra, while also showcasing the work of local contemporary dance artists in a diverse range of styles.

This is the second year in a row that the National Ballet has partnered with Harborfront Center to produce “Sharing the Stage” at the canopied, waterside 1,100-seat Concert Stage; but it’s the first time the company has been able to do it the way it always wanted.

Last summer, in its first live performances since the pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020, the National Ballet returned to Harbourfront Center for the inaugural “Sharing the Stage” presentation. Made possible by multi-year funding from the Metcalf Foundation’s “Staging Change” initiative, it is part of a broader company project to engage with Toronto’s diverse contemporary dance community.

Last summer, because of continuing public heath mandates that put challenging restrictions on how the dancers could rehearse and interact, the National Ballet’s outside guest companies could not be included into the evening shows alongside its own members. Instead, the guest companies were given their own discrete concert stage matinee performances. This year the five roughly hour-long shows, arranged into two programs, will be truly blended performances featuring commissioned works from choreographers Natasha Powell and on-the-rise Toronto-born Ethan Colangelo. Guest companies include Powell’s own Dora award-winning company Holla Jazz, Indigenous dance artist Samantha Sutherland, Kathak dancer Tanveer Alam and Alyssa Martin’s self-described “neo absurdist” company, Rock Bottom Movement.

Martin was able to take advantage of a two-week residency at the National Ballet to rework an earlier work she’d developed with students at Toronto Metropolitan University into “DINO,” a 20-minute, seven-dancer work.

“It’s been such a gift to have the chance to sink into this new creation,” said Martin. “We’re honored to give our dance its at-home premiere alongside the work of these highly celebrated choreographers and the National Ballet community. It doesn’t get more special than that.”

The performances have been jointly programmed by National Ballet artistic director Hope Muir and Robert Binet, who holds the mouthful title, Curator and Producer, CreativAction and Special Initiatives. Binet has proactively been seeking out local Toronto dance artists interested in benefiting from what “Sharing the Stage” has to offer.

“We’ve been working on building relationships with dance companies across the city,” Binet explained. “This is a long-term commitment.”

“I wanted these performances to lead into the new season and also show the range of our repertoire,” Muir said.

As an example, although Wayne McGregor’s new Margaret Atwood-inspired work, “MADDADDAM,” is still in the making for its late November premiere, Muir has programmed excerpts from the McGregor blockbuster hit “Chroma” with its powerful Joby Talbot score.

“It’s a nice way to show just how impactful the ballet can be,” Muir said.

Although the Concert Stage is not maximally hospitable to dance – no wings, for example, and not the greatest sight lines if you like seeing dancers’ feet – the charm of the outdoor setting at eventide is unmatchable.

“There’s something so special about watching ballet outdoors,” said Harborfront Center CEO Marah Braye. She sees the National Ballet partnership as an ideal summertime complement to her organization’s own season of contemporary Canadian and international contemporary dance.

While a chilly breeze off the lake can potentially present a hazard for the dancers — not to speak of noise from passing party boats — generally it’s something they look forward to.

“It’s really good to be out there performing this early in the season,” said principal dancer Heather Ogden, who will dance Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” partnered by Harrison James.

The waterside outdoor venue also has nostalgic significance for Ogden.

“It’s where I danced my first Juliet, the Balcony pas de deux, as a young member of the corps.”

There’s more to the National Ballet’s Harbourfront Center residency than the evening performances. At 6 pm, before each show, the company is extending a general invitation to come “Dance With Us” in a series of free outdoor classes taught by local artists in a range of styles, from tap through jazz to Indian classical dance.

For those not exhausted by their exertions, each evening continues with 7 pm “Shoe + Tell” sessions at the Concert Stage where you can hear dance artists explain and demonstrate how the choreography you see is made. Besides members of the guest companies, on Aug.18 you’ll be able to enrich your appreciation of “The Collective Agreement,” a work by acclaimed Black American choreographer Alonzo King that joins the National Ballet’s mainstage repertoire this November. Meredith Webster, a former longtime member and now ballet master of King’s San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, will explain how she goes about staging this stunning 2018 large-cast work.

Concert Stage veterans will be happy to hear that as part of major renovations the old metal seating has been replaced with much more comfortable plastic seats. Among the upgrades Harborfront Center has also installed a special raised section for accessible seating. Check the National Ballet’s website for details. Note that all events are general admission – no ticket required – on a first come, first served basis. If you are attending a 7 pm “Show + Tell” you’re welcome to stay in your seats to await the 8 pm performance. It’s likely a wise strategy since these shows are very popular and you don’t want to end up like many do standing on the periphery.

“Sharing the Stage,” Aug. 16-20, Harborfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W., national.ballet.ca

MC

Michael Crabb is a freelance writer who covers dance and opera for the Star.

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