Review: Evelyn Hart shimmers in gorgeous Vespers by Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Evelyn Hart stars in Vespers by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Photo: Stanislav Belyaevsky

Evelyn Hart, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s legendary prima ballerina, made her first Southam Hall appearance as a young dancer more than 40 years ago. Hart left the company in 2005 and retired from major classical roles a year later, but never hung up her dancing slippers altogether.

On Thursday she made her triumphant return to Ottawa, performing with the RWB in Vespers, James Kudelka’s new ballet created especially for her, which fits her like a spectacular, diaphanous couture gown.

In Vespers, Kudelka presents two versions of the Creation myth, by way of Montaigne. In the first act, animals and humans co-exist in natural harmony, cavorting in an Eden of shared supremacy. By Act II, there has been a Fall in the garden, and a permanent divide has set in between people and animals. The two groups can only be joined together again by the sensitive, trusting Everywoman, portrayed by Hart.

Set aside the somewhat convoluted humanist philosophy driving the plot, and you’re still left with a gorgeous, magnificently entertaining ballet. The RWB principals and soloists are cast as various furred and feathered creatures. They wear large, whimsical, expressive animal heads, but from the neck down they’re fully human, dressed in steampunkish vests and frock coats. Bravo to costume designer Denis Lavoie for this elegant solution that blends fantasy with practicality.

The choreography is pure Kudelka: explosively athletic, heady, stylized, studded with complex, interlocking group patterns and sly detail. There are nods to court and folk dance, and even dressage moves like half-pass and piaffe.

Each animal is given a signature: a little hobbling step for the porcupine; lofty attitude jetés with outstretched paws — I mean fists — for the rabbit; and pas de cheval for the horse. Even the birds — hawk, cardinal, mallard — have subtly varying arm positions to suggest different types of wings and flight patterns. Still, it’s just a hint, and the animal characterizations never devolve into pantomime.

Hart doesn’t appear until Act II, but her almost translucent presence immediately changes the energy of everything around her. Her Everywoman is bewildered but curious, tentative yet open. Her ability to convey nuanced emotion through the slightest tilt of her head should be studied by every young dancer.

But for all Hart’s delicacy, make no mistake: Vespers doesn’t treat her like a glass ornament. Even without pointe work or superhuman solo variations, her dancing is still crystalline, precise, light, quick, with pure, taut lines that would be the envy of any 20-year-old. She executes Kudelka’s challenging lifts with perfect control and serenity, a testimony to her steely fitness.

Hart may be the muse and the star, but there’s plenty of talent to go around. Standouts included Yosuke Mino as the lordly Ram, Chenxin Liu as an adorably twitchy Rabbit, Sophia Lee’s tender Bear and Liam Caines as the mane-tossing, charismatic Horse. Hart’s character is given a blandly human consort; all of Dmitri Dovgoselets’ committed partnering can’t save the role from feeling superfluous.

The production’s other star is the score: Monteverdi’s sublime 1610 Vespro della beata Vergine. Andrew McAnerney, musical director of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (when he’s not busy leading Ottawa’s Cantata Singers) did a splendid, acutely attentive job conducting his first ballet. The SMAM choir and soloists displayed outstanding expression and flamboyant virtuosity, although in the pit intonation was sometimes a challenge, and there was some occasional distortion of vocal sound.

The intricate, outrageously inventive Sancta Maria for sopranos and the astonishing motet Audi Coelum, thrillingly sung by tenor Nils Brown (with echo Michiel Schrey), were especially dazzling. You have to love a tenor who can give this music a frisson of operatic power, excitement and drama, while remaining completely faithful to the style. NACO’s gleaming brass section provided Venetian pomp and éclat, while a reduced string septet delivered early Baroque style and Italian flavour to spare.

The RWB performs Vespers again Friday and Saturday nights.

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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.