The double bill of Stijn Celis's Noces and Didy Veldman's TooT that Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montr_al is presenting in Houston in November has proved to be a critical and popular hit at home and on tour. Both works were on the troupe's program during a special three-week appearance in August at the Grand Palais in Paris. It was in Paris in 1923 that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes staged the original Les Noces (French for wedding celebration). Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, created the choreography with choral music by Stravinsky.
Nijinska achieved a revolutionary synthesis of classical ballet and Russian folk dance. Today, more than 80 years later, when fusing different styles in almost the norm in contemporary dance, it's hard to appreciate the impact that Nijinska's work had on spectators. Its four sections introduced the bride, groom and festivities leading up to the moment when the newly married couple solemnly took their leave. The dancers' Russian peasant garb imparted a highly specific sense of place. Scenes such as the symbolic combing and binding of the bride's long tresses clearly related to peasant tradition. Movements were slow and deliberate, as in a ritual, with trios and quartets often freezing in set poses, a characteristic that hearkened to the classical era.
Many years later, two prodigious choreographers, Maurice B_jart and Jerome Robbins, staged their own versions of Les Noces. In 2002, the artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montr_al, Gradimir Pankov, commissioned Belgian-born Celis to create his version. Celis's approach is a far cry from Nijinska's.
In contrast to Nijinska, Celis created choreography of great energy that exploits Stravinsky's strong, shifting rhythms (mastering them is a challenge for dancers). For much of the time, the male and female wedding guests appear as two opposing groups in a setting that could be anywhere. Catherine Voeffray's costumes clearly emphasize gender differences. The women wear headdresses and billowing white tulle skirts that flirtatiously reveal the body's contours. The men are in simply cut black suits.
The men and women eye each other from opposite sides of the stage. Each side launches vigorous invitations. The women stomp forward, lifting their braided tresses in a subtle nod to peasant tradition, provoking the men with suggestive moves. The men reply with strong stepping of their own. This formal mating ritual ends with the whole ensemble leaving in pairs, in contrast to the original version in which only the newlyweds were united.
Ironically, the two groups are shown in patterns of confrontation at a celebration designed to unite the sexes. But Celis is an artist who likes to delve into psychological conflicts, as he did in 2003 in another work for the Montreal company based on the Cinderella tale.
"I don't voluntarily go into psychology. It just happens, "said Celis during his latest visit this year to Montreal. "The motivation to move, to put one foot in front of the other‹-there's an essential reason."
Sociology, rather than psychology, comes into play in TooT, the entertaining and thought-provoking work created for the company by Dutch-born Didy Veldman in 2005, two years after the troupe staged her highly successful version of Carmen.
At the outset, large portable blocks form a circle. Rollicking music is heard and dancers appear in white makeup. We're at the circus. But this circus is symbolic of society at large with all its jostling, its happy times and its darker moments, too. Veldman's choreography and Marc Parent's lighting skillfully imply the changing mood and uncertain fate of citizens at work and play. So, too, does the music, which ranges from a driving cello pizzicato to Shostakovich's famous melancholy waltz from the Jazz Suite No. 2.
It was Shostakovich and his political balancing act of survival as a composer in the Soviet Union's Stalinist era that inspired TooT's theme of individuals and rulers.
"Is there a type in society who corresponds to the lion tamer?" wondered Veldman as she was putting the pieces of her little circus together. "Do we wear masks in order to function in society?"
Acts of conformism and rebellion are seen in succession, often buoyed by Veldman's ironic humor.
"That's why they're dressed as clowns. Life is still fun, worth living."
The work's title came to Veldman as a result of her living in the heart of London. Nothing quite caught her attention as the loud toot of a car horn. A fitting title for a creation that focusses attention on our roles as citizens and individuals.
Both Noces and TooT are ensemble vehicles that emphasize the whole over its parts. They are a suitable fit for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montr_al, for if there's one star in this company, it's the company itself.
Victor Swoboda is dance writer for The Gazette in Montreal.