National Ballet’s "MADDADDAM"
It may not entirely reinvent the wheel, but it certainly ruptures conventions
November 23rd, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts | Toronto
WORDS BY ERIN BALDWIN
Siphesihle November and Jason Ferro in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Bruce Zinger. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Distorted computer-generated voiceovers and an orchestral score that frequently collapses into static and reverb. A sparse black stage scattered with dancers under piercing spotlights. Video projections that juxtapose wolves gnawing at a carcass with the familiar, brightly coloured images of commodity culture. Welcome to the apocalyptic world of MADDADDAM, the jarring full-length ballet spectacle inspired by legendary Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, engineered by the visionary choreographer Wayne McGregor, and brought to life by a daring ensemble cast from the National Ballet of Canada (NBoC).
Heather Ogden and Artists of the Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
MADDADDAM, the NBoC’s third co-production with London’s The Royal Ballet, features an all-star lineup: McGregor is a ballet darling known for his innovative shorter works – Chroma and Genus – while his frequent collaborator, the composer Max Richter, is to classical music what McGregor is to dance, acclaimed globally for his eclectic contemporary scores. Mix in source material from Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy, and you’d expect to have a masterpiece. Indeed, partnering with the Royal Ballet to gain access to new work by McGregor — their resident choreographer — and Richter, was a brilliant business move, as was securing the world premiere for Canadian audiences in Toronto.
Christopher Gerty and Tanya Howard in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Bruce Zinger. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
But anyone who has seen a movie cast with Hollywood legends fizzle at the box office knows that nothing is guaranteed. The disparate parts need to be assembled into a cohesive whole and a reputation for greatness doesn't necessarily equate to execution. Fortunately, for both dance enthusiasts and general audiences, everyone more than showed up here, delivering what will undoubtedly emerge as one of NBoC’s landmark productions for years to come.
Artists of the Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.
Split into three distinctive acts, MADDADDAM is an abstract adaptation of Atwood’s novels, less plot-driven and more focused on broadly exploring her central themes of technological innovation gone awry, the relentless and destructive pursuit of power, and ecological catastrophe. Act I begins with a montage video of societal collapse projected onto a semi-transparent screen covering the entirety of the stage: buildings crumble to the ground and anarchists move through a battle zone as an eclectically-dressed assortment of dancers behind move languidly to the rising, elegiac strains of Richter’s score.
Ben Rudisin, Christopher Gerty and Jenna Savella in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
No knowledge of the novels is necessary to grasp that something has gone terribly wrong, and an abrupt halt takes us to the aftermath of catastrophe, marked by Siphesihle November’s Jimmy lying alone, curled up on stage in what is intended to be a forest clearing, marked by an image of treetops on the stage’s backdrop. With his red hat, worn graphic t-shirt and plaid shorts, Jimmy is a centre-point tethering the various threads of the ballet together. And, as always, November’s powerful physicality, marked by fluid extensions and bordering on the edge of control leaps and turns, makes him an arresting force.
The rest of Act I introduces us to the main cast: Koto Ishihara’s delicate and ethereal Oryx who mesmerises Jimmy; Harrison James’s domineering Crake – an engineer who intends to destroy all humans and replace them with a new species – who looms over Oryx and Jimmy’s romance; Heather Ogden’s spirited Toby who, clad in a utilitarian jumpsuit, finds joy dancing in solitude before using a shotgun to kill off a grotesque new animal threat; and Tanya Howard’s Ren, who battles a flamboyant A Clockwork Orange-esque gang of assaulters. A memorable pas de trois with November, Ishihara and James – equal parts sinuous lines and abrupt, disjointed movements – closes out the first act.
Harrison James and Koto Ishihara in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
Act II moves us back in time to a sterile lab-like environment flooded with white light – think Westworld’s artificial intelligence headquarters – pre-apocalypse where Crake aims to engineer his new race. The transparent screen covering the stage is back and now sporadically displays green command prompts with phrases like, “Mode: Survival” and “Player Extinct.” With a minimal set design that features little more than an operating table and metal scaffolding, alongside dancers in sparse white leotards, McGregor’s choreography is front and centre, filled with snaking torsos, brusque extensions, bent-leg pirouettes and frenzied bourrés that build alongside Richter’s booming, bass-heavy electronic composition that shares more with industrial techno and Daft Punk than classical music. If Act I queries how to create a life in the aftermath of destruction, Act II puts on full-blast the hubris that led there in the first place.
Genevieve Penn Nabity and Isaac Wright in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
After the claustrophobic atmosphere of Act II, however, McGregor leaves us with the sense that the future is not entirely foreclosed. Act III is decidedly colourful in contrast to the first two parts – dancers are clothed in bluish leotards and an expansive canopy hanging over the stage is speckled with various lush, tropical colours. Richter returns to an orchestral score characterised by uplifting piano and violin alongside faint strains of choral music, and a golden hue envelops the stage as formations assemble and disassemble. Dancers run on and off stage hunched over before erupting into sweeping port de bras; a mass of bodies come together and move in undulating unison, evoking the sense that humanity might just comprise a singular organism; and various pas de deux emerge – Ogden and Christopher Gerty, along with James and November, now in nude-coloured leotards, are particularly engaging. Yet McGregor resists a grand, triumphant finale and instead concludes with the parting image of a child finding Jimmy’s red hat as everyone else departs, offering up a startling reminder that amidst catastrophe, violence and destruction, it is our children who will ultimately inherit the earth.
Isaac Wright, Genevieve Penn Nabity and Artists of the Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
MADDADDAM is a stunning visual work, but more importantly it brings full-length ballet into the twenty-first century, using a classical art form to interrogate our contemporary moment. McGregor is known for his defamiliarizing style, brimming with distorted lines and interchangeably aggressive and fragile gestures, and his choreography becomes an ideal visual medium for capturing Atwood’s disturbing but prescient thematic concerns. But perhaps it is in conveying this post-apocalyptic world that MADDADDAM finds the freedom to push back against balletic conventions. McGregor provides as much space for male-male pas de deux in his choreography as he does for the traditional male-female partnerships, and the overall production incorporates an unusual barrage of cacophonous sound effects, cinematic footage, and bold lighting to draw spectators into its mesmerising and terrifying world. There’s little doubt it worked – the premiere elicited a loud, fervent standing ovation before the curtain call even began.
Heather Ogden in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
Undoubtedly, much of the contemporary dance showcased here will be familiar to those well-versed in the works of William Forsythe and Crystal Pite, amongst others. But it’s bringing such movement into a full-length ballet alongside brilliant and effective multimedia use that makes MADDADDAM particularly innovative and memorable.
Siphesihle November in Wayne McGregor’s MADDADDAM. Photo by Karolina Kuras. Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada
MADDADDAM may not entirely reinvent the wheel that is ballet, but certainly it ruptures its conventions. And in doing so, it reminds us of its possibilities.
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