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Appalachian State University’s Performing Arts Series concluded with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s exquisite performance of Moulin Rouge.
With many story ballets, the story acts merely as an excuse for the ballet. Often what is presented is a string of artistic, but somewhat abstract pieces interrupted by cumbersome pantomime plot advancement only when absolutely necessary. Viewers resort to their programs in confused desperation, and find themselves wishing for supertitles more often than not.
Not so with this ballet. Moulin Rouge simultaneously masters the art of both dance and storytelling. The tense love triangle around which the tragedy centers draws the viewers in and refuses to let them go. From Toulouse’s amusing imitation of the can-can while describing the cabaret to Nathalie’s desperate attempts to placate Zidler, every moment of the story was presented with emotion, clarity, and artistry. Most companies can count themselves lucky if they pull off two of the three.
Jorden Morris’ choreography was excellent, with a few moments of literally breathtaking beauty. Rick Skene, the company’s dramaturge, clearly made his influence felt also. Company members presented themselves as actors as well as dancers, and the effect was delightful.
Choreographic highlights began with the very first scene. Each minute interaction seemed so spontaneous while effortlessly building a complex but harmonious picture of Paris. A clear audience favorite was the tailor sequence, in which a pack of seamsters descended upon Matthew and gave him an impressive makeover from poor artist to snazzy bourgeoisie. The Tango Café presented a refreshing change in style and was highly effective. The tender pas de deux at the end of the first act was the high point of the entire ballet. If a first kiss could be seen, it would look like Matthew and Nathalie dancing under the Eiffel Tower.
The cabaret scenes were disappointingly predictable and uninteresting. And unfortunately, while suspension of disbelief is as necessary in ballet as it is in opera, the three-minute farewell danced by a fatally shot and visibly bleeding heroine was a little hard to swallow, especially when accompanied by Ravel’s fairy-like “Le Jardin Feerique.”
Jo-Ann Sundermeier and Harrison James’ chemistry was spot-on for the idealistic but doomed leading couple. Dmitri Dowgoselets’ Toulouse was likable, and Eric Nipp’s interpretation of the impresario Zidler was villainous without being one-sided. Sophia Lee presented an alluring and sneering rival beautifully. Both the costuming and the lighting were colorful without being overstated.
The score was an intriguing hodgepodge of primarily period French works. Naturally, as one would expect, there were no less than three different Offenbach Can-cans. The Massenet and Piazzolla selections were absolutely perfect in context and the Strauss and Shostakovich waltzes added a nice touch. A few of the Debussy and Ravel pieces, however, were so iconic as to be distracting. Both composers have plenty of lovely works that audiences may have not heard, and while “Claire de Lune” is lovely, it is not a choice that demonstrates any measure of originality.
There were very few technical fireworks, other than a few obligatory fouetté and grand battement sets. Technique in general, however, was consistently crisp and clean. Arms and hands clearly received a rarely bestowed amount of attention, and the stylistic details inherent in every position and gesture brought the presentation to a high level.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet has a work on their hands that is both accessible and artistic. Moulin Rouge is a rare delight in the world of ballet: a work that is fresh and innovative without being esoteric. Readers, if you happen to have a chance to see it, go with high expectations of can-can glamour and heartbreak and some downright beautiful dancing too.