National Ballet of Canada Mixed Program delivers marvels

APOLLO/NIGHT/THE SEA ABOVE, THE SKY BELOW/PAQUITA choreography by George Balanchine, Julia Adam, Robert Binet and Christopher Stowell after Marius Petipa.

APOLLO/NIGHT/THE SEA ABOVE, THE SKY BELOW/PAQUITA choreography by George Balanchine, Julia Adam, Robert Binet and Christopher Stowell after Marius Petipa (National Ballet of Canada). At the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). Runs to March 21. $40-$265. 416-345-9595, See listing. Rating: NNNN

Mixed programs are tough. Often too long, with work by less familiar choreographers, they can be hard to market to fans of the big story ballets. But under artistic director Karen Kain, the National Ballet of Canadas have become a draw for connoisseurs of the form.

Kain anchors her latest collection to George Balanchines groundbreaking 1928 work Apollo. Originally made for Diaghilevs Ballets Russes, the work features a score by fellow Russian genius Igor Stravinsky. The role of Apollo (a well-cast Brendan Saye the night I saw it, with Guillaume Cote, Harrison James and others tackling it later in the run) demands superhuman presence and strength.

His three half-sister muses, Heather Ogden (Terpsichore), Jeannine Haller (Polyhymnia) and Miyoko Koyasu (Calliope), bring the feminine authority that Balanchine was instrumental in reinforcing. Apollos simple structure belies the difficulty of its solos and intricate ensemble work. And just when youre lulled by the beauty of all those intertwining arms, pristine lines and long, bent backs, odd details walking on heels, hopping on pointe, Apollo wailing on his lute more like a rock god than a Greek god snap you back to attention. After 90 years, this work feels shockingly fresh.

Former National alumna Julia Adam, now with the San Francisco Ballet, returns to Toronto with Night, which takes inspiration from Chagalls painted nightscapes. Skylar Campbell dances the sleepy dreamer, the star of imagery that flies him through the sky, or hangs him upside down in a cross, supported by an ensemble of shadowy figures. Compared to Apollo, the stage feels cluttered with activity in Night, but the work layers images and plays with tempo in a way that perhaps offers the audience a more joyful experience.

If there was a question with the lineup, mine would be with Robert Binets The Sea Above, The Sky Below. Originally made to celebrate the gifts of principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu (its her farewell season), the piece is danced here by Heather Ogden with Felix Paquet and Harrison James. Binets work can be hard to pin down at the best of times its gossamer and conceptual. Despite the accomplished cast, this nuanced trio feels a bit anemic in the midst of ballets offering more emphatic expressions.

The program closes with excerpts from Paquita, a 19th-century classical showstopper that unashamedly highlights attack and virtuosity. There are many technical challenges for the dancers here and a few went unachieved on opening night. Others came close to perfection Naoya Ebes dreamy tours en lair, Jillian Vanstones passionate fouettes. Its hard to believe anyone could leave the theatre feeling unsatisfied after this packed evening of dance.

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