NAC at 50: National Ballet of Canada returns to a familiar stage with three different dances

Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James in The Dream. Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

The National Ballet of Canada gave the very first performance in the National Arts Centre in 1969. The dance was called Kraanerg. It was choreographed by Roland Petit, with music by Iannis Xenakis, and it featured dancers such as Veronica Tennant and Mary Jago and guest soloists Georges Piletta and Lynn Seymour.

The piece was created for the opening of the centre and fittingly the prime minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, was on hand, as were many of the powerful and political.

Pretty much every year since, the National Ballet, which is 68 years old itself, has returned to Southam Hall to perform. The relationship continues this year on Jan. 31 with a performance of three works that, in turn, seem to symbolize the span of the repertoire that the National Ballet represents.

The show at the NAC, which is celebrating 50 years in operation, will feature the 2013 work Paz de la Jolla, by New York City Ballet dancer and resident choreographer Justin Peck; Apollo which was first performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on June 12, 1928 (the first ballet choreographed by George Balanchine) and finally The Dream (1964) by Frederick Ashton, based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Hannah Fischer, Harrison James and Chelsy Meiss in Paz de la Jolla. Photo: Mark Olich

Harrison James will dance in each work during the National Ballet’s three-day run in Southam Hall. “I’m not doing all three on one night but I am involved in one or the other each night,” he said.

For James, the performance “showcases what we can do, what we have done and what’s in the future I think. It shows the range of the company right now. It’s always good that we can revisit some of the more historical pieces and take ownership of them. We are also bringing in newer works that are really prominent right now.”

Apollo is considered a major work. It has been revived many times including by Balanchine himself.

“He kept redoing it,” James said. “Eventually he kind of boiled it down to the style many are familiar with when it comes to Balanchine which is more dancing and less story. You still get a narrative but it is really physical dancing.

“It’s challenging and incredibly musical.”

This will be James’ first time dancing Apollo.

It starts with the birth of the god who quickly learns how to walk and starts discovering himself. He is given a lyre that he learns how to play. Three Muses enter representing different art forms and Apollo pairs with the Muse representing music and they ride off into the sunset together.

It is a demanding … Balanchine’s works are always demanding, James says. The legendary American choreographer wanted to see the body in motion. But if Balanchine’s choreography is tough The Dream by the British choreographer Frederick Ashton kicks it up a notch.

“The Dream is one of the most challenging ballets I have ever danced,” James said. “We danced it in Toronto in November. That was my first time as Oberon and I’ve never tackled a role that was so difficult in terms of stamina and technique. Then you add a story and artistry to that.”

Oberon is on the move throughout the work. Preparing for this piece, James said, was a job in itself.

The National Ballet does have a lot of rehearsal time which he says is absolutely necessary to build up the stamina needed to perform The Dream which runs about 51 minutes.

The process was pretty straightforward, he said. The dancers ran the ballet over and over again not only to refine the artistry but also to build up the physical strength to carry it off.

“You have to be ugly for a bit just to get the stamina, to get over that hump and hurdle so you can eventually do it and feel like a ballet dancer.”

James does a lot of cross-training to stay fit for his demanding job. His activity of choice is swimming because “it’s good for cardio and there is not as much impact on the body. That’s a personal preference. I’m a water baby,” from a small oceanside town an hour north of Wellington, New Zealand.

Despite the demands, “The Dream is one of my favourites. It’s very beautiful. It’s very English in style. It’s also quite funny. Ashton has been able to keep a lot of the wit that is in the original play. It’s set in a forest that is lush and beautiful.”

James says he finds that the English aesthetic in ballet has a focus on foot work and line and the steps themselves have an element of understated class.

The Paz de la Jolla provides an education in modern American ballet, he said.

“It’s easy, it’s breezy, it’s very fast-paced and high energy.”

Because of the demands posed by each dance, the National is bringing three casts of The Dream and two casts each for Paz de la Jolla and Apollo.

James left New Zealand and made his way to San Francisco for two years, Winnipeg at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for two years after that. Then he gave Europe a go, dancing in Switzerland for a year. He decided he liked Canada better and came back to join the National Ballet in Toronto and sounds like he intends to stay.

“I am naturally geared toward classical story ballets. But I also get to push myself out of my comfort zone in all the contemporary rep that we do. And we are working with all the top notch people around the world who can produce something amazing.”

James is from a family that didn’t dance at all.

“They didn’t really know what was up in that regard either. Initially my mom picked up on it and put him into classes early. I was dancing around the house at a very young age. She asked me if I wanted to go and I was in class at five years old.” Now he travels the world.

National Ballet of Canada
Where: Southam Hall
When: Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and more information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.