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Flash Review 2, 2-19: Nearly an Ace
Les Grands Ballets 'Queen' Lacks only an Editor

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2002 Darrah Carr

NEW YORK -- Kim Brandstrup's "The Queen of Spades," given its New York City premiere last week by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal at City Center, had all the right ingredients: a short story by Alexandre Pushkin, music adapted from Tchaikovsky's opera, a company of highly talented dancers, innovative video projections, and choreography that skillfully blended classical ballet, modern dance, and elements of folk dance. It was only lacking an editor. While moments of brilliance were peppered throughout the evening, there were also scenes that were predictable and too long. I would watch the beginning and end again, but the middle only in fast forward.

As the title implies, the story is centered on a card game; Brandstrup has transposed the action from Pushkin's 19th century Petersburg to Stalin's 1938 Leningrad. The young soldier Herman (in Saturday's performance, Mario Radacovsky) seduces the attendant (Anik Bissonnette) of an elderly countess (Gabrielle Lamb), in order to gain access to the secret the countess holds of three winning cards. The countess dies of shock when he threatens her, the attendant commits suicide when he rejects her, and the soldier himself realizes one must play the hand one is dealt upon losing everything at the gambling club. The ballet tackles major themes of greed, guilt, love, memory, and fate. Brandstrup's choreography was most successful when it distilled these large issues into small, specific moments.

Gamblers at the club conveyed their greed and aggression through rhythmic undulations of the torso, hands slapped on the table, and sharp kicks deftly placed between one another. The countess's obsession with her youth was evident as she sat motionless, enthralled by dancers representing her former self (one live, another projected on a screen larger than life, as if seen in her mind's eye). Rising slowly, she would reach for them with a poignant gesture just as they faded away. The attendant's longing for love was apparent as she skittered across the stage with backwards pas de bourrees, moving between couples nestled in tender duets. A pair of quarrelling soldiers, a group of buoyant girlfriends, and several charming cyclists completed the park scene during which she eventually met Herman.

Video and dance found a clever meeting place during the play within the play, or rather the ballet within the ballet, in the next scene. An animated curtain was rolled up and down, in order to delineate both the dance space and the duration of the mini-performance. An even more impressive marriage of the two media came later, when the attendant encountered Herman by the bridge (a beautiful, shadowy image of which was projected for the dancers to move under and through). When Herman rejected her advances in favor of returning to the club, five identical Hermans came to dance with her, mocking her pain via their multiplication. At first they held her aloft, and then slowly tipped her so that she was held vertically off the ground. Simultaneously, the projection on the front of the scrim shifted to rippling waves, that gradually filled in more opaquely as the dancers backed slowly upstage. The audience's perception also slowly shifted, to the point where it seemed we were no longer looking straight at a proscenium arch, but rather down onto the surface of water under which she was sinking. Eventually she disappeared completely, leaving the scrim full of rippling waves. The effect was haunting, gorgeous, and reminiscent of Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." The audience burst into spontaneous applause.

The absolutely spectacular water scene compensated for other times during which the video animations, such as a silver moon, drifting clouds, or streaming gambling numbers, were not as effective, nor as visually stunning. Quite the opposite, they seemed to exacerbate the melodramatic moments, rather than enhance the plot. At times it also felt a bit anachronistic to have such a thoroughly modern medium projected over period costumes and sets from the 1930s.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal reprises Kim Brandstrup's "Queen of Spades" tomorrow night in Montreal at the Place des Arts; Friday and Saturday in Ottawa at the Centre National des Arts; April 5 & 6 at the Bushnell Auditorium in Hartford, CT; and April 23, 24, 25, and 27 in Mexico. To see somewhat pixelated video extracts of the ballet online, go to http://www.damedepique.org/fr/index.cfm and click on "Extraits de la production."


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