From June 7th to June 9th 2018, les Grands Ballets Canadiens dropped the curtain over the 2017-2018 season opulently with the first ever edition of the Soirée des Étoiles, titled “Dance Me to the End of Love”. Under the artistic direction of Ivan Cavallari, this production featured world-class artists from reputable dance companies including The National Ballet of Canada, the Boston Ballet, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris and (naturally) Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. The evening was comprised of a compilation of excerpts from other renowned productions — ranging from classical to contemporary dance — intertwined with (not-always-recognizable) Leonard Cohen songs performed by the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal (local boys choir).
The structure of the Soirée des Étoiles was reminiscent of a brief ballet overview — a 2-hour and 40-minute soirée may be somniferous for some, but it is quite insignificant relative to the centuries of history that the artistic medium has known. Thus, the production was conceptually perfect for fulfilling the roles of both closing this year’s season and opening the world of dance to the eyes of the layperson (i. e. myself).
With every scene, the stage music, aesthetic and mood changed at a very fast pace, keeping viewers on the tips of their toes (luckily, the dancers’ pointes were much more spectacular than the audience’s). Furthermore, the lighting constantly adjusted to the tone of the music to compensate for the minimalism of the set design. Three Leonard Cohen songs were interpreted by the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal: Dance Me to the End of Love (most ecclesiastical-sounding rendition of Cohen’s Holocaust-referencing piece that I’ve ever heard), Suzanne (doesn’t sound quite right when sung by anyone but its original writer) and Hallelujah (breathtakingly rendered by the choir). Overall, the combined power of so many individually sweet voices awed the crowd into silence.
Throughout the production, contemporary dance (the epitome of athleticism) was constantly juxtaposed with classical ballet (the epitome of grace). For instance, costumes ranged from traditional tutus (The Dying Swan) and rich flamenco attire (Don Quixote) to the avant-garde androgyny of two nipple-baring dancers (male and female) wearing neon green skirts (Herman Shmerman’s Pas de deux). However, the cover image of the dance production was a little bit misleading: none of the costumes seen on stage seemed half as elaborate as Anya Nesvitaylo’s (dancer photographed by Sasha Onyshchenko) steampunk fingers, tentacular curls and golden hues. Nevertheless, simplicity is never a barrier for achieving strong visuals: during a rendition of Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 2, the female lead’s black top and white pants were set in bold opposition with her male partners’ white tops and black pants.
L’École supérieure de ballet du Québec opened the dance somberly with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 (Second Movement) and in flawless synchronicity. Next, two Dick-Van-Dyke impersonators leapt around the stage to My Way. Although the choreography did not build up to a climax like the song does, the act was refreshing and evoked the charming campiness of musical theatre. However, as an audience member, I was more focused on the beloved familiarity of Frank Sinatra’s voice than on the actual choreography, which may explain why ballet traditionally avoids vocals. Next, the choreographies for Schmerman’s Pas de deux and the Sospiri Duet presented prime examples of contemporary influences, as the dancers exuded absolute control over every muscle in their bodies. In fact, the lithe unpredictability of their movements often seemed to defy the laws of kinetics. Svetlana Lunkina’s stellar delivery in the Sospiri Duet (costarring Evan McKie) also foreshadowed the climax of the evening: her solo performance as the Dying Swan. The Russian star interpreted this hallmark role just as it should be: lighter than a swan feather and unfathomably fluid. The entire audience held its breath: no need to know technical jargon to feel that we were witnessing something supernaturally beautiful.
In the second act, a contemporary excerpt from Dream Away was sandwiched between two classical ballet scenes — the playful Bedroom Pas de deux from Manon Lescaut and the heart-wrenching Chopin Concerto No. 2 from the Lady of the Camellias — helping viewers compare and contrast the two styles of dance. Stephan Thoss’ choreography (Dream Away) lead the dancers to surrender themselves to madness, perhaps inspired by the grotesque sensuality of Butoh. The muffled piano, a dying butterfly, fluttered in and out of the audience’s field of hearing to the ruthlessly immutable tick of time (percussions). Suddenly, in the bloodshot lighting, two enigmatic figures dragged the fierce and tiny Emma Garau Cima away from her partner — just like tuberculosis (not anthropomorphized) tears Marguerite away from Armand in the subsequent excerpt from the Lady of the Camellias. The audience is thus left on a note intriguing enough to entice us all to watch the entire Dream Away production.
The Soirée des Étoiles finale encapsulated a very large corps-de-ballet where many limbs and torsos writhed sensuously, occasionally bordering on controlled chaos. Although aqua-dynamic Olympic swimsuits do not make for elegant ballet attire, their fabric faintly reflected the light, making the nimble mass of humans into a school of silvery fish.
Through the inclusion of popular music, an accessible presentation and dazzling performances, the Soirée des Étoiles punctuated this season of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in a lavish stroke. Hopefully, it will have sparked the public’s interest in uncovering next season’s productions: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake (presented by the Polish National Ballet), Giselle and Parlami d’Amore. The Soirée des Étoiles was also renewed for next year (titled “Et je t’aime encore”), paying homage to another local superstar: Céline Dion.