Svengali by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (review)

As promised, here is Julian Gunn’s review of Svengali. Enjoy!

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Go to see Svengali, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s new production, currently at the Royal Theatre. It’s a perfect work of art.

…not really. It’s kind of all over the place. Go anyway. I’ll explain why.

I was drawn to Svengali by its connection to Victorian literature – Svengali is a character from the George du Maurier novel Trilby, the literary blockbuster of 1894 – and by the association of Guy Maddin, the Canadian post-modern filmmaker who provided the concept for the ballet. I even started reading Trilby in preparation.

This was unnecessary, since apart from the names of its leads (Trilby and Svengali) and the central concept of hypnotism, the two stories are completely different. The ballet’s setting is a fantasized Weimar Germany abstracted into fairy-tale elements. There is a Wicked Queen: Svengali’s controlling Mother. Trilby herself, as the subject of Svengali’s hypnosis, becomes a Snow White figure.

In Act One, I knew that the ballet was a fairy tale because everyone kept biting from a giant apple held by Mother. Later, as I was watching the final pas de deux, I caught myself thinking: this is so beautiful. And it would be even more beautiful without the giant plastic heart.

You see the problem. Is Svengali an artistic success? Well, as Tom Paine had it, “one step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” Svengali takes many such steps. The music, for example, is a patchwork of styles and eras, sometimes arresting, sometimes ill-fitting or clichéd. The ballet opens with Svengali in solo, discovering his powers. This is performed to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. You may know it as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yet this awkward beginning is followed by a delightful number in which the corps, as Mother’s Acolytes, perform playfully with a barre—acting as each other’s reflections, then breaking up the barre and dancing with individual segments. Another scene involves both an eerie shift between fantasy and reality, elegantly performed, and the capital-S Symbolic Act of repeatedly dropping a heart into a trash bin.

And this is the problem with Svengali, only it’s not really the ballet’s problem—it’s ours. The arts are threatened in Canada. Everyone knows this. We’re a country with a small head count. We need both popular support and federal funding to enable a serious pursuit of the arts. Ballet is threatened by the loss of both.

Dance struggles because its storytelling isn’t verbal, or even visual: it’s physical. Dance communicates emotively, evocatively, somatically. The dancer’s body tells and is the story. Gesture becomes character, and also action, and even setting. In Svengali, characters show us the restrictions of their world with their bodies. They make convulsive attempts to flee and are dragged back. We watch, our mirror neurons fire, and we, too, flee, or march, or falter, or fly. We feel that weightless moment at the top of a jeté and our stomachs drop. We dance too.

All this, though, requires attention and the willingness to engage. You have to sit still and you have to really look. How can a dance company capture our gaze—our fickle, flickering, screen-habituated gaze?

So ballet companies are doing everything they can to get our attention and keep it. Alberta Ballet’s new work, Love Lies Bleeding, takes this strategy to an extreme, coupling virtuosic dancing (and it is splendid) with Vegas-style visuals (and they are absurd). They also take the risk of staging, in Alberta, a gay ballet based on the life of Elton John. For that alone I would adore them. The flaw in Love Lies Bleeding is the flaw in Svengali: second-guessing dance’s own mode of storytelling. If you can’t trust your audience to pay attention, you have to use whatever you can to hold them. Sometimes this means resorting to mawkishness and heavy-handed symbolism.

Yet for those who haven’t seen very much dance, and are intimidated by what they perceive as a coldly classical art, this might well be the perfect hybrid of entertainment and artistry. Svengali has something to say about the eroticism of power and the danger of moral rigidity. It is critical of male sexuality and female complicity in treating women like mindless dolls – the hypnotism of ideology. If this is a little muddled, well, is the final message of Swan Lake all that clear? I would have liked stronger signs of autonomy from Trilby, but I didn’t write the ballet.

If we want choreographers, designers, and dancers to keep trying and failing and finally succeeding in creating transformative works of art, we have to support them even when the results are only partly successful. We have to be active participants, not passive consumers. Dance needs to transform itself for a new audience, but we are still discovering what this means.

So go see Svengali. Think about it. Puzzle over it. Decide what you liked and what you didn’t, and what you want from the next work of dance you see. If it acts as a gateway to more engagement with the arts, then Svengali is a success.

***

Disclaimer: Julian saw Svengali out of his own pocket. I keep control of all the content on my blog. You can follow Julian on Twitter at @radiantfracture.

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