Culture & Conversation

Unlocking Lock

After a four-year wait since Édouard Lock’s last creation, hyped-up Montreal dancegoers streamed into Salle Wilfrid Pelletier on Thursday night for the North American premiere of Lock’s New Work, featuring international ballet star Diana Vishneva.

For well over a decade now, Quebec’s most famous choreographer has been developing an obsessive idiom of high-speed, deconstructed ballet, thrilling some and leaving others cold. New Work finally draws blood from the stone, and is Lock’s most affecting ballet of his post-Louise Lecavalier era.

Drawing musical and thematic inspiration from the operas Dido and Aeneas (Purcell) and Orpheus and Eurydice (Gluck), the 85-minute piece is danced without intermission by 11 members of La La La Human Steps – Lock’s Montreal company that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – and guest artist Diana Vishneva, the Kirov Ballet’s biggest star. Joining them onstage are three musicians – a cellist, violist and saxophonist – performing an original score by long-time Lock collaborator Gavin Bryars.

On the offset there is nothing radically new about New Work. Lock’s dancers are still minimally-lit and dressed in black; women on pointe are maneuvered and spun at dizzying speeds; dancers dart in and out of spotlit partnering; video projections intervene periodically. In the new piece, however, Lock’s language of repetitious, rapid-fire partnering and wild gestural tics achieve an expressive range unseen in previous works like 2002’s Amélia and 2007’s Amjad. New Work finally gives its audience more to look at than sheer virtuosity, velocity and aesthetic chic (a potion that has been proven to numb the brain in 15 minutes).

Flame-haired Talia Evtushenko, partnered by several of the company’s industrious men, is a taut cyclone of flurrying arms, flicking wrists and pricking legs. She seems to rail against her wordlessness, shaking her head no, shooting both open hands beyond her partner’s head time and time again. She travels urgently from one statuesque female cast member to the next, though they seem walled up in their own arm-flapping and face-powdering, hovering stoically on pointe. In another phrase, as Jason Shipley-Holmes clutches Evtushenko’s tiny waist, pressing her forward only to tug her right back, she kicks her legs furiously behind her – Stop, I’m trying to tell you something.

Kirov Ballet star Vishneva does not steal the show but contributes some fine regal presence to her duets – luxuriously-unfolding développés, sharply-placed head positions, a dramatically swooping penché on pointe. Mi Deng is yet another persona in her couplings, seeming baffled as she watches Shipley-Holmes manipulate her dumbed leg like some kind of paddle.

Lock’s New Work makes no attempts at narrative and yet its finest moments produce a dramatic residue that calls elliptically, faintly at the themes of its Greek and Latin source material. And not just the tragic love lost part. Diego Castro and Kai Zhang dance side-by-side engulfed in shadows, a dim spotlight picking up only their maniacally fraying outlines. Our eyes go fuzzy trying to make out the action, and pretty soon we resign to the painterly etchings of light as they flit and evaporate – this is imagery of the mind’s eye, this is the restless realm of memory, dreams.

New Work does have plenty of dull passages and an unnecessarily recurring video projection (the swirling inside of an eyeball?). But for a choreographer who previously seemed limited by new-found aesthetic and technical obsessions, this piece suggests his formalist movement ideas have poetic scope and are, despite appearances, far from monotone. Lock and his excellent company, featuring veterans like Jason Shipley-Holmes and Zofia Tujaka along with a batch of talented newcomers, have by now mechanized the signature partnering technique to a point of staggering speed and precision. In New Work, Lock has begun to revel in more intimate and evocative gestural detail, wider-ranging dynamics (softer lifts, lingering angles) and a heightened sense of musicality.

So yes, Édouard Lock is still doing the ballet-on-fast-forward thing, and his next piece should be even more highly-anticipated than this current one.

New Work premiered in Amsterdam in January. The final performance of its Montreal run is tonight, 8 pm at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, Place des Arts. For those unable to make the performance, there will be an Ottawa run at the National Arts Centre, May 18-19.

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