I tell you this with every confidence that my nose will be the same length when I’m done as it is now. I loved the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Pinocchio last Saturday night — as much as the NBC loved the first of my three tweets from the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. I loved it as much as I hated it.
That’s where we parted ways in the Twittersphere, NBC and I. What I have to say here also runs the risk of the criticism being what you too will remember of my impressions, but bear with me and you’ll see “love-hate” is by no means the equivalent of “hate hate”. That said, I consider myself a discriminating consumer of art, and having had the privilege of taking in a reasonable share of opera and ballet productions at the Four Seasons Centre, also consider myself qualified to harrumph loudly when my artistic and cultural sensibilities have been affronted.
The surprise upon learning there were roles with speaking parts caused one eyebrow to arch, to be sure, unexpected as they are in a visual art space such as ballet. Yet they did not elicit a harrumph, artistic licence being recognized currency here. The ridiculously shallow twaddle representing “Canadian content”, on the other hand, was about as enriching as a Canadian $1 bill and a handful of pennies, and just as useful in moving the production forward. Dollarama fare presented brazenly to audiences that had paid Nordstrom prices.
Haphazardly thrown into the middle (and again toward the end) of an otherwise spectacular re-imagining of the timeless fable, it was out of place as much for the jarring juxtaposition — entering and exiting with all the grace, purpose and duration of a cough during a recording session — as it was for the thematic mismatch.
Who to blame — choreographer Will Tuckett or librettist and dramaturge Alasdair Middleton, Englishmen both — for such a lowbrow conjuring of what this universally celebrated tale might look like viewed through a prism of inane Canadiana? NBC artistic director Karen Kain was supposedly consulted, but the resulting spectacle was more akin to cornball musical theatre fare, à la Ross Petty, than the grace and sophistication one might expect from her majestic influence. This beer-from-a-bottle offering included 23 lumberjacks, a Mountie, two Niagara Falls tourists, two beavers, a moose, four raccoons and a … umm … Nova Scotia lighthouse. (Were the occasion an elegant dinner party instead of ballet, this would be not unlike serving in-tin Vienna sausages on plastic platters, and without a trace of abashment, between courses of baked brie puff pastry and breast of Muscovy duck.)
The lumberjacks, on their own, were a brilliant twist: in the opening scene their industrious numbers filled a forest, where they split a large fallen tree to reveal the wooden boy, Pinocchio, hidden inside. You can be forgiven if you conclude the other elements must have sprung from the fertile imagination of Wikipedia (or equivalent); they were trite and cliché, and contributed nothing at all to the forward motion of the production. (The lighthouse and wharf props, like the lumberjacks, might have been salvageable were you able to untether them from the Tom-foolery of the too-forced “Canadiana” elements.)
The Pinocchio enterprise is not a comedy, in any of its recognized interpretations. (Nor was this one billed as a comedic take.) There is fancy, sure, and amusing reminders of childhood recklessness too, but at its core the production is an emotional trip that navigates with purpose the treacherous world of journeys, encompassing angst and loss right along with discovery and arrival — and ultimately realization. Wonder supersedes all of the constituent emotional events that make up the whole. The silly Canadiana skits, in grotesque contrast, amounted to little more than unsophisticated pandering to supposed Canadian pride. Blasphemous in this refined space.
The asinine Red Lobster Inn barroom scene landed jarringly, for reasons that go beyond the curious naming nod to a recognizable American, not Canadian, commercial enterprise. There was nothing seamless about its arrival, either, and nothing of value materialized that might inform the narrative past the delightful moment of its departure.
Discomfiting “things” did persist, however. For example, how does one square up, in terms of moral messaging as well as plot logic, the schoolboy Pinocchio being present in a drinking scene with men, let alone the consequence of note being limited to his having to foot the bill when the tippling lumberjacks scatter upon arrival of the Mountie? (Granted, narrative fidelity sometimes demands inventiveness in fulfilling storylines, such as Pinocchio requiring occasion to squander all five of his gold coins. But niggling questions-of-logic should not be encouraged to arise, especially where exists suspicion that checking boxes to satisfy an off-page pursuit was the scene’s primary goal.)
Happily, the effects didn’t linger long after our return to the true imaginative world, where haunting forests, appropriately figurative characters and comfortably cultured possibilities provided merciful course correction. Uncouth incursion of the Red Lobster Inn kind would return, however, to mar the remarkable underwater reunion scene between Pinocchio and Geppetto. It would out-gesture gripping performances by Skylar Campbell (Pinocchio) and Piotr Stanczyk (Geppetto), which had succeeded in making an emotional moment truly intense. In fact, the miscast sillies would hang around to eclipse the joyous finale too.
Work with me here: Can’t anyone see past conjuring up the barroom jester persona whenever we require an ambassador to represent Canadian culture? Is there simply no cultural will to move past the Bob and Doug McKenzie caricature? Is the juvenile yuk-and-snort so prevalent on Canadian airwaves and stages because it is, in the end, a true reflection of our appetites? Is it because we believe that’s how others see us, and this belief is married to a compulsion to fulfill their expectation? Are we, as a nation, so impoverished of élan?
After this, I am having second thoughts about turning out for the Canadian Opera Company’s April 20 – May 13 staging of Louis Riel. I have no confidence it won’t be infected with the same malaise; no assurance someone whose musical accomplishment is playing the spoons at house parties won’t be seen traipsing across the stage. If the NBC is capable of reducing classic literature to the common, so as to accommodate a pedestrian (not an elevated) portrayal of “Canadiana”, then why not the COC too? Who to trust anymore?
Very little, I have found in harrumphing my way through cultural letdowns, fallen idols and unfaithful messengers, pronounces “profane” more resoundingly than nonsense being given position in the presence of high art. Perhaps tittering beside an open grave would match its obscenity quotient. I suppose a too-casual preacher/priest in knee-torn jeans — speaking in merry reductionist language about sacred truths as he presides over a solemn altar — could be almost as off-putting. The dude in worn sneakers and unpressed khakis at a black tie event might cause some ladies to lean and speak into the side of their hand, but said gentlepersons would be no more definite in their outrage, and the schmuck in the sneakers no more an inheritor of their scorn.
A conniving cat and a sly fox, snow rabbits, a growing nose for a fibbing Pinocchio (and magic blue birds to peck it back to size) and a graceful intervening Blue Fairy came to the rescue of the erstwhile lost magic, and masterful interpretations of emotional pursuit and desperate action, fluidly executed, restored the ballet to its rightful majestic place. Enchantment reestablished, I had almost forgotten the impudent incursion by time Act 2 began to blossom.
Still ahead for Pinocchio is the sad attempt to save Geppetto, whose boat had overturned in a storm, that leaves the puppet washed up on the shore, guilt ridden and in despair. There is school to avoid, and then a place called Funland to distract (though the price is the transformation of truant school children into donkeys). Also a spectacular escape from a doomed future on the wings of balloons, and finally a tumble into the sea, where fish nibble off his donkey skin — before he is swallowed by a whale.
Through the leaps of faith and fancy, emotion was afforded an opportunity to take root again. Geppetto and Pinocchio’s reunion in the belly of the whale, wondrously portrayed by movement that spoke with the clarity of a rich vocabulary, brought the audience past a set (intentionally) littered with an actual jalopy and other flotsam and jetsam the unfortunate orca had ingested and into an even richer emotional space. (Trust me: the jalopy represented the only irreverent aside this scene could support.) It was a pleasant place, all things considered, the belly of this whale; somewhere to pause for encapsulation of all that had occurred, to anticipate and ponder the takeaway moral.
Then, all of a sudden, another wave of flotsam and jetsam: more forced Canadiana, in full pedestrian redux, comes rushing in. They arrive in an array of characters Pinocchio had met on his journey. Among them are the couple in matching Canada-emblazoned tee-shirts (Niagara Falls tourists, do you suppose?), and a tall guy wearing a ridiculous hat with moose antlers. Somewhere, I believe, there was someone in a part-beaver costume. Even the cat and fox look out of place — and out of character — here.
The mind plummets to earth. The scene dies. Or, worse, fizzles into something else, on that level.
A “let’s cooperate” effort to build a raft out of junk found in the belly of the whale ensues. By this time it’s too late: in the narrative they save themselves, but in the outside world they lose the show. Not even the Blue Fairy, who arrives to cast a spell, can reclaim the magic trampled by the disorderly parade of meritless characters through what had been a magnificent scene.
As I noted on Twitter, it was akin to a silly skit from the slaphappy Rick Mercer Report being dropped into an expression of high art. In an opera, it would have been the equivalent of a frivolous jig jammed between an aria and a somber movement — there for reasons no one could justify.
The folly of the effort to marry two disparate disciplines — working-man comedy and sophisticated dance — or perhaps an abject failure to properly imagine a one-size-fits-all representation of Canadian culture (comedians Ross Petty and Rick Mercer are not it), was evidenced by the torturous ending.
The finale was supposed to soar, in celebration of Pinocchio having achieved self-awareness. Ballet has at its disposal tools with which to describe such a moment that no other art form possesses. But movement, as a delicate expression, has no defenses to ward off a brutish incursion by rowdy merrymakers thinking only of bellying up to the bar. Therefore, this scene was DOA. To add to the confusion, a kind of Wikipedia-level understanding of steps attributable to maritime folk music also found its way into the mix. Obfuscation of the magical moment where Pinocchio had become a real live boy was unavoidable.
And a pox on the National Ballet of Canada’s house.