Tristan and isolde choreography by John Alleyne, with Greta Hodgkinson, Christopher Body, Rex Harrington, Stephanie Hutchison, Geon Van Der Wyst and Victoria Bertram. Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Hummingbird (1 Front East). May 14-15 at 7:30 pm. $30-$114. 416-345-9595. Rating: NN Rating: NNNNN
The National Ballet of Canada's James Kudelka says he'll add a new full-length ballet to the company's repertory each year. Nice goal, but may I suggest something more valuable? Hire a part-time dramaturge.Receiving its world premiere, John Alleyne's Tristan And Isolde suffers, like Kudelka's own The Contract last year, from unclear storytelling. That's unforgivable for a narrative dance work, especially when the National's trying to attract new, and younger, audiences to its seats.
You can say that plots in ballets and operas are far-fetched, and that no one really follows them. But it's not true. The best story ballet choreographers - say, John Cranko - always use movement to establish character, plot and emotion. While watching, you should believe dance is the only way to convey what you're seeing.
Alleyne's choreography for the medieval tale of love, magic and death is, like the production itself, elegant, tasteful and inoffensive. It's also, in the end, pretty dull.
One notable movement motif stands out, though. Through the many easy-on-the-eyes pas de deux between star-crossed lovers Tristan (immaculately coiffed Christopher Body) and Isolde (Greta Hodgkinson), Alleyne slips in a gesture that hints at their future deaths. Amidst the caresses and effortless twists, he has them embracing horizontally on the ground, foreshadowing their tragedy.
There's not enough of this kind of attention to detail to create a unified work. Playwright John Murrell has adapted the story, yet fills the work - especially in the first act - with endless entrances and exits. He continually misses dramatic opportunities for cueing the audience when, say, a goblet is poisoned, or even when we're on a ship. An act-two dream scene lacks perspective and merely confuses. Worse, Isolde (admirably danced by the regal Hodgkinson) has no history to speak of. Why should we care?
Still, Michael Bushnell's and Owen Underhill's neo-classical score has its charms when it's not riffing on historical British film soundtracks. And the transitions between scenes are handled gracefully.
Best? Kim Nielsen's costumes, flatteringly low-cut for the male dancers. Her togs, if not the choreography, signal character - rich colours for the baddies, pale ones for the goodies. Maybe Nielsen should have directed the work.