Review: Encount3rs proves to be a major cultural happening

A scene from Dark Angels. Photo: Michael Slobodian

One evening, six world premieres.

It isn’t often I get to feel like my critic predecessors in 1880s Vienna or pre-First World War Paris. But on Thursday night, the NAC presented three brand-new, half-hour Canadian ballets, each with its own orchestral score by a leading Canadian composer.

Co-presented by NACO and Cathy Levy at NAC Dance as part of Canada 150, Encount3rs packed the kind of “major cultural happening” thrill rarely seen in Ottawa, but becoming more common since Alexander Shelley arrived in town. If last year’s Life Reflected project established the new music director as someone open to engaging with his community, Encount3rs proved that Shelley’s commitment to interdisciplinary work and creation is more than a passing fancy.

The curtain rose on the Alberta Ballet in Jean Grand-Maître’s Caelestis, with music by Andrew Staniland. This was the weakest of the three ballets: a rather clichéd take on notions of the Golden ratio, fractals, math, and Euclidean geometry. The dancers spiral, circle and spin, like the heavenly bodies they are, while video projections of calculations, old manuscripts and scientific drawings flash on an enormous back panel and along the floor. There were some attractive pictures, but I found the orbiting patterns repetitive and overly literal, the dancers turned into nothing more than parts of an orrery.

Grand-Maître’s women are almost exclusively passive, dragged around and carried by the cyclonic pull of their male partners. While the men had plenty of opportunities to shine solo, with flourishes of jumps and tours en l’air, the women were given endless variations on supported arabesque and lifts in developpé position.

Staniland’s composition, Phi, is more eloquent in conveying the cold beauty of numbers and stars than the choreography. Thundering percussion, colossal blasts of brass, and sinuous, nervy woodwind lines create a seductive field of orchestral texture and colour. There are faint echoes of Firebird’s supernatural mood, especially in the flute solos.

A scene from Caelistis. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Ballet BC was up next, with Emily Molnar’s Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming. Molnar’s abstract meditation on dreaming and escape draws you in with its impeccable balance between tension and release, exterior bustle and inner stillness. There’s a lovely purity to Molnar’s work, despite its almost frantic energy level. She has a gift for triggering an emotional response out of simple means, such as the way the haunted expression on the dancers faces contradicts the aggressive bravura of their movements.

I love every note Nicole Lizée writes, and her score here is no exception. Lizée works her usual wizardry between the acoustic and the electronic, employing effects like speeding up and slowing down, clashing time signatures, Dali-esque glissandi, and fantastic percussion combinations, tied together with wit and the kind of originality that makes you grin at the sheer balls of it. In a world of minimalists, Lizée’s music celebrates manga video-game superhero maximalism. Shelley and the orchestra handled the tricky speed shifts and hairpin turns as deftly as Formula 1 drivers.

Guillaume Côté’s lush, atmospheric Dark Angels closed the evening in breathtaking style. Written for his peerless colleagues at the National Ballet, the piece is unabashedly romantic, but draped in a thoroughly modern sensibility. Here the woman were strong, sensual and dominant. Côté’s choreography demands ferocious attack, fearless speed, and enormous amplitude from the dancers, and they delivered in spades. Christopher Read’s gorgeous costumes — metallic bodysuits in tones of silver, gold, bronze and copper — made the dancers look like fallen Egyptian gods.   

A scene from Ballet BC’s Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Kevin Lau’s score exploits the orchestra’s virtuosity as thoroughly as the choreography challenges the dancers. Lau gives subtle nods to Stravinsky — those pounding Sacre chords, the exotic woodwind solos — but also to Rachmaninoff, Strauss’ Salomé even Samson et Dalila. At the same time, the music is elevated beyond mere pastiche by Lau’s astonishing mastery of form and development. It’s an extraordinarily accomplished, expressive, complex and polished piece of writing.

Encount3s mostly delivered on its ambitions. The evening’s success underscored the utter absurdity of the silos that have existed between the NAC’s various performance factions for too many decades. Although it may be some time before we see a collaboration on this scale again, let’s hope this wasn’t just a one-time fling.

Encount3rs will be performed April 21 and 22. For more information and tickets, please see

Main Art: A scene from Dark Angels. Photo: Michael Slobodian

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.