Review: National Ballet’s delightful triple bill breaks winter’s icy grip with some hot fare

Hannah Fischer, Harrison James and Chelsy Meiss in the National Ballet of Canada's Paz de la Jolla. Photo: Mark Olich

The National Ballet of Canada is making its annual NAC pilgrimage this week. Instead of a full-length production, this year’s tour showcases a delightful triple bill of modern ballets — just the kind of escapist fare we’re all craving in the depths of winter.

Paz de la Jolla, a 2013 work by Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s brilliant young resident choreographer, transports you to a sunny SoCal beach. Set to Martinu’s bouncy little Sinfonietta la Jolla, it blends explosive virtuosity — Peck devises marvellously creative lifts — with terrific wit and charm. Dressed in bright, retro-preppy swimsuits, the dancers frolic and scamper like puppies. In one magical, moonlit vignette, the corps, wearing shimmery, translucent ponchos over their costumes, advance and recede in hypnotic formation, like waves rolling on the sand. Peck starts the piece off like a firecracker, with no preparation, and exuberant redhead Chelsy Meiss attacked her difficult, lightening-fast opening solo with brio. Hannah Fischer is a soft, romantic dancer, and her Girl in white had the air of an Old Hollywood ingenue.

As Balanchine’s Apollo, Brendan Saye danced with majestic grandeur and self-satisfaction. But while his three muses — Heather Ogden, Miyoko Koyasu and Jeannine Haller — were individually strong, I felt the sense of seamless, devoted unison and sculptural lines fell short.

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

Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream,with its Shakespearean source, Mendelssohn score, and acres of scrumptious, moss-green tulle, is one of the most perfectly pleasurable hours in 20th-century ballet. The National Ballet’s revival does ample justice to Ashton’s sense of whimsy and the essential Britishness of his choreography, with its nods to country dancing and pantomime. Harrison James was an imperious Oberon, while Jillian Vanstone’s Titania was light and elusive as air. Their final pas de deux was radiant, with just enough carnal heat to ground their fairy romance in reality. As Bottom, Joe Chapman’s pointe work and gift for physical comedy impressed. But the absolute star of the evening was Siphesihle November, the most extraordinary, astonishingly airborne, irresistibly naughty Puck I have ever seen.

Australian conductor Ormsby Wilkins led the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki’s violin solo in the Stravinsky had neoclassical poise and clarity. The extensive piano part in the Martinu–almost a mini piano concerto–was bracingly played by Toronto-based pianist Andrei Streliaev.

The performance repeats Friday and Saturday.

Related: Read an interview with Harrison James.

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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.