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Flash Review 3, 5-2: My Man Pinkerton
NBC's van der Wyst Takes Toronto

By Shena Wilson
Copyright 2001 Shena Wilson

TORONTO -- The National Ballet of Canada on Friday presented Balanchine's "Serenade" and Stanton Welch's "Madame Butterfly" to a full and appreciative house at the Hummingbird. An evening of many debut performances, April 28 may be noted as the day Geon van der Wyst won me over in the role of Pinkerton, and as the day I came to grips with my growing apathy for Balanchine, and Balanchine-esque ballet, through no particular fault of the NB of Canada.

The set design of "Madame Butterfly" by Peter Farmer and lighting by Christopher Dennis complemented beautifully the ever-famous Puccini score (adapted from the opera, for this version, by John Lanchbery). The use of sepia tones, muted greens, and yellows, suitable for the turn-of-the-century atmosphere of set and costume, was warm and restful, allowing the characters to be the true focus. Especially beautiful were the screens, fans of every size and glowing paper lanterns. Spectacular!

Chan Hon Goh as Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madame Butterfly) was nothing short of sublime. Rebekah Rimsay as Suzuki provided the requisite confidante/maid steadfast strength and an endearing harmonious balance to Ms. Hon Goh, both physically and emotionally. Richard Landry with great allegro in the thankless role of Goro, the "obsequious marriage broker and general factotum," did a remarkable job (even though I found myself dreaming of ways to make the balding-imperial-fringe wig he was given more natural looking). Jeremy Ransom, as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul in Nagasaki, again charmed me with his fluid acting skill that seems to live inside his every movement. Mr. Ransom dances from within, similar to the way Martine Lamy appears to approach her characters: internally, not as an add-on to the steps. This evening in the role of Kate, Pinkerton's American wife, the woman we would love to hate, Ms Lamy brought us to compassion. As Kate asks to rob Butterfly of her precious child, and Pinkerton the fink flees the scene, leaving the others to sort out his doings, the considerable acting skill of these dancers is terrific. While familiar with the classic tale, the emotion in this relatively short culminating scene of tragedy was presented beautifully and subtly. The overall effect was a very successful emotional crescendo.

Not self-conscious, Stanton Welch's choreography is transparently engaging: it serves the story, not vice-versa. My focus remained with character, not steps, and the local-colour of Japanese style did not tumble into total cliche. The pas de deux of Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San is quite magical even though it is inevitably a seduction scene with tragedy clicking quick on its heels. You can't 'blame' Mr. Welch for the awful imbalance of power between the lovers (carefree conqueror and trusting victim) but there were too many lifts for my taste. I would have preferred more of a terrestrial exchange between the lovers.

The other thing about this duet, and particularly Mr. van der Wyst dancing with Ms. Hon Goh, is what I'll call the "Imax effect." Strapping tall blond that he is, carrying his elegant whispy lover, I wondered when she might continue on up into the lighting track. As though banking over a mountain side in the hang-glider on the Imax screen, I found myself moving involuntarily in my seat to re-center hips-over-head, or shift or grip on behalf of Ms Hon Go....There is a natural amount of daring involved in all of this, but I should not "feel" the precarity. Ms. Hon Goh did not for a milli-second give the impression of a lack of confidence in her partner, but continued to soar. Amazingly. (We saw a similar situation between van der Wyst and the taller Greta Hodgkinson in "Serenade," where her open palms brushed the floor.)

Mr. van der Wyst displayed energetic bravado in his dancing but more importantly, and what impressed me most, was the smooth attachment he had with his demanding role as the callous, naive, selfish and charming American soldier. He really held onto it throughout. Similarly, Ms. Hon Goh was feathery and loving and then betrayed, crazed and suicidal. Her squeaky-clean technique and open-hearted presence make her wonderful to watch.

One final note about the Pinkerton-Butterfly post-wedding seduction pas de deux: When was the last time your lover held you high, arms stretched straight up, your body lying back, draped across two palms like a trophy statue poised above an expectant futon? As the gesture of the valiant Pinkerton it sure fits. Fine and dandy. But it is plain funny to consider for more than two seconds, and it is the most literally over-the-top thing I've seen in years.

On to "Serenade" then, which was actually first on. We have your light blue tulle Sylphide-length dresses, high chignons, the men in Wedgwood blue, against a Wedgwood background. (Costumes provided by Ballet Arizona.) Curtain rises on the corps of 20-odd dancers and we are of course in for a good stretch of classical, classical rows of people, meaningless meetings and departures, groups, duets etc. We know Mr. Balanchine said it's plotless. No argument here. Tunes are by Tchaikovsky -- Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra.

Especially glowing and marvelous was Greta Hodgkinson as "Russian Girl." She makes it look so easy.

In the first five minutes or so of "Serenade," there were uncharacteristic hiccups in the total synchronicity of the corps. This is unfortunate since picture-pretty is what this spectacle is all about. Things did tighten up quite nicely however, as Rex Harrington and the corps delighted us with gaiety of clean ensemble dancing at its best. The various portraits of Stephanie Hutchinson, Greta Hodgkinson and Xiao Nan Yu dancing together were also particularly sumptuous. Long black hair and long dark red hair released from their chignons and allowed to spill over lovely shoulders and chime in with graceful limbs produced an incredibly beautiful effect.

For this on-the-whole quite gratifying evening, we had a trio of talented Aussies to thank: Ormsby Wilkins, music director and principal conductor; Stanton Welch; and the Pinkerton we love to loathe, Geon van der Wyst. Cheers mate! If I had tickets to give to new audience members, I'd most certainly suggest the National Ballet of Canada's "Madame Butterfly" as an engaging and spectacular initiation to the world of classical dance.


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