Category Archives: Theatre

Svengali by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (review)

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


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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Dance Victoria presents the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Svengali

Because I spent a lot of time studying Victorian literature and Victorian illustrated fiction, the name “Svengali” brings up very fond memories of my first glimpse of interest in text-image relationships. I read Trilby in my last year at Concordia in a fin-de-siècle course that began at 8h30 at night (which meant it finished at 10h45). But the course was so awesome (and so was the teacher, Jason Camlot) that it was worth the extra coffee.

Trilby poses for the three Englishmen.

The novel, written AND illustrated by George du Maurier, starts with a trio of British men (Taffee, Sandy and Little Billee) living in Paris as artists. One day, they attend a show featuring a rising diva, La Svengali (whose real name is Trilby). Little Billee falls in love with her, but him and the band discover that she is being controlled by an Eastern European hypnotist, Svengali. In reality, Trilby is tone-deaf and a terrible singer; she is only successful because of Svengali’s mesmerism. Adventures ensue, until Trilby is released from Svengali’s spell and is free to marry Little Billee.

Du Maurier’s Trilby is the quintessential example of a Victorian best-seller. It started what was called “Trilby-mania”. Victorians bought Trilby soap and Trilby mugs and Trilby shawls. Promotional merchandise? The Victorians had theirs too.

The stereotype of the mesmerizing hypnotist has its origins in the character of Svengali. This novel has lived through a few revivals, either on print, on stage or on film. But the RWB’s Svengali, based on a movie version of the novel, is probably its first choreographic adaptation (and please feel free to correct me on that).

Svengali has been touring Canada for a while, and is visiting Victoria from April 26th to 28th at the Royal Theatre. If you’ve read my review of the National Ballet of Canada on Hummingbird604, you’ll already know that I know nothing about dance, except for a few years spent doing beginner’s ballet classes, both jazz and classical, and some gymnastics.

In any case, my experience with the NBC really turned me on to dance. I’m thus really interested in the way Mark Godden adapted such an iconic Victorian illustrated novel into a choreographed story. From the DanceVictoria website:

Mark Godden’s choreographic genius brings us an explosive new look at the original master of mind control. RWB’s newest creation takes its inspiration from a film treatment born of the fevered imagination of international film sensation Guy Maddin. Yearning for public recognition, Svengali escapes the repression of his mother’s ballet studio to a decadent world reminiscent of mid-century Weimar, where he finds the beautiful and malleable young dancer, Trilby. Under Svengali’s entrancing influence, Trilby is transformed into the darling of the ballet world, but her star ultimately rises beyond Svengali’s powerful emotional grasp. This complex psychological drama will unfold with riveting choreography by the creative powerhouse behind RWB’s Dracula.

I’m still debating whether I will attend the show or not, but in any case, I really hope you will give it a look if it’s the kind of thing that interests you. Victoria is lucky enough to attract some of the best Canadian and international touring shows, and I wouldn’t miss the chance to see this unique production.

What: Svengali by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, presented by Dance Victoria
When: April 26th to 28th
Where: Royal Theatre
More info and tickets on the RTMS website


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Maria Stuarda, Pacific Opera Victoria at the Royal Theatre

Elizabeth I, the Darnley portrait

I don’t know much about opera. To me, it’s very connected to classical music, of which I also know nothing about. I try to approach new things with an open mind; there must be a reason why people keep going to the opera despite it not being a very contemporary art form.

In my head, opera is a weaker storytelling form than, let’s say, theatre. I find that it’s more about showcasing the human voice as an instrument and using story as a vehicle for music rather than the story itself.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda is not necessarily the strongest story I’ve been in contact with. The love triangle between Mary, Leicester and Elizabeth is tenuous at best (and not even historically accurate). Elizabeth’s conflict is predictable and not especially gripping.

None of this is the fault of Pacific Opera Victoria, though. According to the program, this opera was chosen in part because of the current interest in the Tudor dynasty. It’s a fairly obscure piece that is not presented very often. Let’s simply say that it’s no Carmen.

Mary Stuart, anonymous artist after François Clouet

Mary Stuart, anonymous artist after François Clouet

Despite the faults of the story, I quite enjoyed the musical aspect of it. While Maria Stuarda doesn’t contain very memorable arias, it does have two powerful women signing insults at each other. Mary’s “impure daughter of Anne Boleyn” was a definite burn!

Tracy Dahl and Sally Dibblee showed considerable skill (as far as I can evaluate them) and really shone for me. Both were able to sing so softly as to be barely heard, and then raise the volume to sign louder than the orchestra. Edgar Ernesto Ramirez as Robert Leicester seemed a bit weak compared to the two sopranos, but then, what earl can compare to two queens? However, I really enjoyed Andrew Lowe as the Lord Chancellor.

The set and the costumes were sombre and understated, except for the last of Elizabeth’s dresses, meant to echo one of her most famous portrait. The opera begins in a museum with a portrait of Elizabeth being taken down. The audience is a visitor to the museum witnessing the revival of the queen. It’s quite appropriate, actually, as this opera can be considered a “museum piece” that is being revived on the stage. The lighting work was especially effective in conveying a sense of realism to the whole opera.

I felt that the visual elements of the opera de-emphasized the spectacle element to let the two sopranos’ voices really shine. The lack of visual distraction really let me focus on the vocal and musical performance.

I must admit I don’t need much to be entertained, but if you like stellar vocal work and historical cat fights, you should catch one of the last two representations of Maria Stuarda at the Royal Theatre on Friday, April 20th and Sunday, April 22nd. You can get tickets here.

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Mary and Elizabeth go to the opera

It’s your typical royalty story: two reigning monarchs, both vying for the same throne, use all the power at their disposal to get (or keep) the crown they believe is their due.

That this is a story is not surprising; that this is a historical one isn’t either; what may be surprising is that this story is about two women in power in 16th century England.

Maria Malibran

Maria Malibran, the first performer of the role of Mary Stuart in Donizetti's opera

The Royal McPherson Theatre in Victoria is currently presenting Maria Stuarda, a Donizetti opera featuring two of the most powerful women in history. The story is a long and complex one, as they all are; in short, Elizabeth kept Mary Stuart in captivity for almost 19 years before she finally had her executed for her involvment in a plot to assassinate her. Mary had been holding her claim to the throne since Elizabeth’s accession; too dangerous to let loose but to highly ranked to kill, Elizabeth had to keep her alive but stripped of her power.

In reality, the two women never met. Donizetti took rather large liberties with history and pitted them against each other in what is described as the best catfight in the history of opera.

I went to my first opera last year in Edmonton, thanks to a colleague who had worked for the Edmonton opera for years and had access to cheap tickets for the dress rehearsal. I saw Trouble in the Seraglio and Tosca. When I heard about this opera on the radio, I thought “nice! I should go see that”.

It sounds like it’s going to be a great show, with world-class singers and direction. I will definitely write a review after I see the show next Wednesday.

In the meantime, here’s the relevant info:

What: Maria Stuarda
Where: Royal McPherson Theatre, Victoria
When: April 14, 18 and 22nd
More info: Pacific Opera Victoria

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The Wizard of Oz by Carousel Theatre (review)

Christmas is the perfect time to revisit childhood memories. For someone who lives far from home, like me, these occasions come few and far in between, but I cherish every time I have an occasion to hear, or taste, or feel a little bit of home.

Being invited to the performance of The Wizard of Oz by Carousel Theatre was one such occasion. As a child, I was obsessed with the movie: I wore a Glinda costume for Halloween quite a few times and I just watched it over and over again. It’s probably one of my favourite childhood stories.

Carousel Theatre put together a wonderful production of Oz that’s faithful to the movie but also holds its own with contemporary tidbits (The Lion King anyone?) inserted in the dialogue. Carousel’s Oz was a pleasure from beginning to end, for adults as well as for kids.

Photo by Tim Matheson. Used with permission.

The story is the classic story everyone knows, minus a few scenes to make it manageable on stage. Scenes like the Munchkins and the flying wicked witch on the broomstick were ingeniously managed. The set was minimal but perfectly evocative of every space in the story, using excellent lighting and video projection. The costumes were well done, colorful and also very ingenious given the small means of a youth theatre company.

The actors were also all talented singers and dancers; Robyn Wallis was a wonderfully innocent, friendly and wise Dorothy. You couldn’t but feel for her and Toto throughout her adventure. Darren Burkett, Josue Laboucane and Mike Stack as Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tinman respectively were right on their characters. The four of them had that rare kind of chemistry that you only see in the best plays and movies.

Photo by Tim Matheson. Used with permission.

But the best part about this version of Oz? The children laughing and ooohing and aaaahing at the show. I go to too many adult plays where people are trying to be as quiet as possible. It was simply wonderful and moving to hear all the children react to the events of the play as children do–honestly and from the heart. I myself felt like falling back into childhood, grinning, laughing and even crying sometimes (yes, I’m a mush, I know).

The show is basically sold out for the next few weeks (spaces are still available in late December), so call ahead or make an online reservation. You don’t have to be with kids (or have any) to enjoy this amazing show–you just have to be a kid at heart.

Disclaimer (sorry for lateness, been a long week!): I was offered a complimentary pair of tickets by Carousel Theatre for their first “blogger night”. Jessie van Rijn (the general manager for Carousel) made it clear that no post, review or even tweet were expected from the bloggers. The choice to write and the opinions are my own.

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After Jerusalem by Solo Collective Theatre (review)

When I was working on Hummingbird604, I did a lot of theatre reviews. A lot. I must have mentioned it in my last play review, but I’ve seen more theatre since August than I have in my entire life. And I have a graduate degree in literature. Go figure.

Even though this wonderful time is over (and other wonderful times are ahead I’m sure), I still have a few friends in the theatre world and one of them, Lauren, invited me to the premiere of After Jerusalem on December 1st.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Carol, a middle-aged high school teacher from Regina, decides to take a trip to Jerusalem for Christmas. While waiting in line to enter the Church of the Nativity, she meets Vladimir, an Israeli soldier screening tourists for metals.

AJ coffee shop

Photo by Itai Erdal. Used with permission.

What begins here is an honest, understated (in Lauren’s words) and infinitely human love story. Carol (wonderfully touching Deborah Williams) and Vladimir (charismatic and honest Andrew McNee) are awkward, lie, have ulterior motives and finally open up to each other. They are every first date, every holiday romance. They are, in their own way, beautiful.

Aaron Bushkowsky weaves a neat plot that will make you laugh most of the time, and maybe cry at the end, but will have you think throughout. How do you find love in a war-torn country? How do you retain your morality in the constant threat of terrorist attacks? How can imagination save us from cynicism and loneliness? These are all questions that are addressed in the play.

The stage is as simple as you can imagine: a raised platform, a few bands of white fabric in the background, and simple, minimalist props. It gives all the space for the story to unfold without hindrance, but it also exposes the characters from all sides (quite literally). Costumes are also minimal, but everything is meant to put the spotlight on the characters and not the setting (even though the setting takes its rightful place at the end of the play).

AJ Vlad with gun coffee shop

Photo by Itai Erdal. Used with permission.

In a mesh of movie references (a favourite scene from Indiana Jones, anyone?), the play presents a typically atypical love story between an older woman and a young, strapping soldier who wants to make it in the movie world. But the result is far from grotesque: it is simple, beautiful and exceedingly moving. You could see these two make a couple, in real life, despite all the difficulties and the problems between countries, cultures and ages.

The open-ended finale leaves you, like the end of Inception, to make your own choice as to whether they belong together or not. Vladimir and Carol don’t escape from tragedy, but maybe they can survive it.

After Jerusalem is on until December 11th at Performance Works on Granville Island. Tickets are available at the door or on VancouverTix.

Disclaimer: I attended the play on a complimentary ticket graciously offered by my friend Lauren. Nobody asked me to write a review, but I feel I have to share this wonderful play with you.


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