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Juilliard Dance

Published: August 3, 2012
Category: history

Royal Winnipeg Ballet at Jacob's Pillow

By Rachel Straus

Like the history of Jacob’s Pillow, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s evolution reads like a pioneer’s tale. Becket, Massachusetts and Winnipeg, Canada are not obvious places to build internationally hailed dance institutions. Yet in 1939, Gweneth Lloyd and her former pupil Betty Farrally formed the Winnipeg Ballet Club. A few years earlier, Ted Shawn had launched his dance festival. Today Jacob’s Pillow is the longest running dance festival in the United States, while the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which received a royal charter from Elizabeth II in 1953, is the oldest ballet company in Canada. By performing in non-opera house venues, both entities expanded their audiences. By inviting a diverse cadre of choreographers, both institutions embraced a plurality of dance styles. By growing their organizations from within (where students and performers become directors and managers), both have created environments that are en famille.

The connection between the Royal Winnipeg and Jacob’s Pillow began in 1964, when Ted Shawn traveled to Winnipeg in January (average temperature 2°F!). He delighted in the Winnipeg dancers and invited them to his next festival. The RWB brought works by the American Agnes de Mille, the Franco-Russian Marius Petipa, and Canadians Brian Macdonald and Arnold Spohr. In a biography about Spohr, called An Instinct for Success, the former RWB artistic director describes the significance of their 1964 Jacob’s Pillow debut: “Our rises from plateau to plateau had been minor compared to this. It was going to be our big chance, the moment I’d worked so hard for, when I finally could see the light.”

Spohr’s forecast proved correct. Following the company’s Pillow appearance, the ballet troupe toured to New York City and London. Spohr commissioned works from a new crop of choreographers, like Eliot Feld and John Butler, who combined ballet’s technical rigor with modern dance’s expressive intensity. At the 1968 Paris International Dance Festival, RWB won prizes for best company and best female interpretation (Christine Hennessy). Known to be one of the coldest cities in the world, Winnipeg became recognized for its world-class ballet company, which subsequently toured to more than 500 cities and 41 countries.

Just shy of a half century later, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is making its return engagement to the Pillow. Under the long-time direction of former RWB soloist André Lewis, the troupe continues along its distinctive path, commissioning an eclectic array of works and developing outstanding dancers (70 percent of who stem from RWB’s professional training program). At the Pillow, RWB presents three pieces made between 1998 and 2009. The selection of these works recalls Le Figaro’s description of the troupe’s 1968 Paris engagement: “The classically trained company refuses to cling to academicism as scholastic idea. It freely takes liberties with traditional vocabulary, but only after having demonstrated that it is unbeatable in more orthodox technique.”

Peter Quanz’s In Tandem (2009) is a case in point. Classically rigorous, it flickers with images of the dance club. Quanz, who trained in RWB’s professional program, created his breakout work on RWB dancers for the Guggenheim Museum’s Works + Process series. Crafted in a neo-classical vein, Quanz’s work asks his dancers to cut geometric pathways through space. He draws inspiration from Reich’s neo- romantic Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet in which six instrumentalists play against a recording of themselves (or against six other instrumentalists playing the same score). Quanz responds by casting six dancers: their virtuosic turns and balances respond, in tandem, to each other. The tenor of Quanz’s choreography reflects Reich’s driving and then pensive movements. In Reich’s two tango sections, Quanz fashions two duets that evoke the intimacy and cool of tango dancers.

The next homegrown talent on the program is the American Mark Godden. After graduating from RWB’s school, Godden rose to the position of company soloist. In the 1980s he began choreographing. In contrast to Godden’s darkly sexy 1998 hit Dracula, his 2001 Moonlight Sonata Pas Deux explores love contemplatively. “You never end up,” Godden says about the work, “in the place that you think you’re going.” Such is the experience of listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, to which the ballet is set.

The last ballet on the program is Mauricio Wainrot’s Carmina Burana (1998). It is contemporary ballet on a grand scale. Set to Carl Orff’s renowned 1936 cantata, Wainrot first matches the muscularity of Orff’s composition through battalion-like formations in which unison movement forge a vision of the harshly determined world described in Carmina Burana’s medieval text. Orff’s lyrics stem from a collection of poems, dating from the 11th to the 13th centuries. They describe the resurgent powers of spring, the pleasures and perils of desire, and the slings and arrows of fortune. For the latter, Wainrot visualizes fortune’s wheel by choreographing ten men to lift and rotate their female partners in unison. Throughout the hour-long work, RWB’s dancers perform with a visceral tenacity. This tenacity threads through RWB’s 73 years on stage. The Pillow, once again, embraces the troupe’s pluck, artistry, and continuity. History is repeating itself, and that is good.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

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