For the first time in decades, Canada's famed National Ballet has begun to tour internationally. Artistic Director, Karen Kain, remembers how exciting it was to tour when she was a Prima Ballerina, and she undestands her dancers' wishes to have their skills brought to the attention of a wider audience. With a dancer's career being of such as short duration, exposure to a larger audience can open doors in a performance vehicle that is rife with limitations. So few urban centers can support large ballet companies, resulting in an audience base being "limited"; chances to show what you can do are similarly constrained. In the year of the National Ballet's 60th anniversary, Karen made the move to show the world just what this company can put on stage.
The first city on the tour was Los Angeles, a city that knows ballet to be sure, but a city that is is often not associated with that art form. The next stop, months later, was WashingtonD.C. -- a city better known for its political arts, despite its rich artistic offerings. In both these cities, the company performed the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada's Alice. Choreographed by the astounding Christopher Wheeldon, and with an original score by Joby Talbot, Alice is a 21st Century ballet, quick-paced and varied in approach. From Washington, the company went directly to Ottawa's National Arts Centre to perform Ratmansky's new Romeo and Juliet. In April the company will hit the road again, this time bringing, Romeo and Juliet (or "R+J", as it is affectionally labelled) to the famed Sadler Wells Theatre in London, England. Exhausting? You bet! Especially when you remember that in addition to this touring the company is maintaining its entire performing season at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.
It is one heck of a lot of frequent flyer miles. And truck miles too -- for the entire production of sets and costumes, props and lighting, has to reach each destination on time, and without a hitch.
Is it stressful? It would have to be to coordinate all those moving parts. There are new roles to learn, old roles to rehearse, and new audiences to delight... plus new stages to work within, each with its idiosyncratic needs.
I went to Washington as one of many board members associated with the company. There was a busload of us. I think it's fair to say you could call us ballet groupies. Many of us had seen Alice before -- some in London two years ago at the Royal Ballet premiere, some at our home theatre, the Four Seasons Centre, and some in Los Angeles late last year. But there were a few Alice "virgins," those seeing it for the first time.
Comparing our responses to that of the audience was almost as interesting as watching the performance. It was evident that those in our group who were seeing it for the first time responded very much as the audience did, finding the Mad Hatter's tapping engaging and the Red Queen's antic movements to be a "show stopper." Meanwhile, those who had seen a number of performances became intrigued by how differently the Washington audience responded. While watching, they were more reserved than the audiences in London and Toronto. They barely interrupted the flow of movement and music to register their response. Did they not like it, or did they not think it was amusing? Or, were they so captivated that they daren't move in their seats, somehow fearing that any movement or noise would break the magic spell? Who could tell? We were strangers in a theatre that had no guideposts to help us gauge the impact.
Standing about, trying to eavesdrop in the intervals was a bit of help, but only the curtain call ended our suspense. So we waited... until the curtain came down on a very "modern" Alice and Jack, with Wonderland now safely back in the imagined past. The roar was thunderous -- and heartfelt. People cheered, calling out loudly. They clapped. They stood up. And then they clapped some more. Yes, they did love our White Rabbit, and they thought the Mad Hatter and Footmen were perfect. As for the Red Queen, she was hilarious. And, like the rest of us, they fell in love with our lovers, Alice and Jack.