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The National Ballet of Canada Breaks With Convention

The hardest part about creating art is knowing when to break with convention. When I read experienced writers’ and editors’ blogs, they invariably talk about writers who sacrifice good writing in order to be clever. I sometimes roll my eyes when I think a story, article, picture, painting, whatever has nothing more to it than just provocation. Maybe it’s just me, but spare me the emotional shock and give me something substantial.

Last week, I saw the National Ballet of Canada’s world premier of Pinocchio. Choreographed by British choreographer and dancer Will Tuckett, it broke with two conventions: the story of Pinocchio and ballets. Let me explain.

In the program, Tuckett says, “Disney’s take on the story is a kind of a cute moral journey and the book is not that.” He says audiences would know right away that the ballet was not a remake of Disney’s classic movie.

Tuckett preferred to stay closer to the book, but also not too close. For example, “In the book, Jiminy Cricket is killed very unceremoniously by Pinocchio in the same chapter that he is introduced. So [Librettist and Dramaturge] Alasdair [Middleton] and I decided just to avoid crickets.”

So where do you go if you’re parting from the original story and Disney’s well-known version? Well, in Canada, you head up North. Because the production was made for Canada, it included lumberjacks, beavers, a moose, a Mountie, and even Niagara Falls tourists. Pinocchio actually emerges from a felled pine in the great white North. It may sound hokey to you if you’re just reading this, but it was fun to watch, and the audience laughed throughout the show.

The ballet itself was fresh: not a tutu in sight, but that’s not new. Phenomenal special effects and CGI gave it the aura of magic needed for such a magical story, but that’s also not new. What the creative team added that isn’t normally associated with ballets is spoken text.

That’s right – there was talking, and not by some bored kid next to me. (Actually, the ones I saw were enthralled the whole time.)

But here’s the thing: the National didn’t produce a play. This was still a ballet, they just broke with the convention that ballets don’t include spoken words.

In a pre-ballet talk, Principal Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer said, “This is a Canadian production, for today.” He joked about “the old days” when parents (like his) dragged their children to the ballet and to classical concerts until the children learned to like it. Children were expected to attend, but if they asked a question, they were told to shush. We all chuckled along with him, but I think many of us understood what he was talking about.

(For the record, my parents didn’t drag me to anything. I went willingly, but I also fell asleep a few times. I still feel guilty that Frank Mills may have seen a sleeping pre-teen in the front row.)

In Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy’s Shadows spoke. This small chorus of five dancers expressed – in words – what the Blue Fairy was thinking, saying, and teaching. It gave the performance extra layers that movement and music couldn’t, but the movement and music still carried the show.

Fischer shared with us another interesting tidbit about this break in convention: The National’s dancers are just that – dancers – and not trained actors. Fischer said the five dancers were chosen before the decision to add speech was made, and it turned out that only one of the five was a native English speaker. He told us they were nervous about how their accents would come across.

But, he said, that made the show more Canadian: “We value the people more than we value the package in Canada.”

Seeing Pinocchio reminded me that the classics are important: these dancers have trained in a centuries-old art form that still has the power to silently carry a story. Yet one small shift – adding the language of speech – contributed another layer of meaning to the fantastical story of a wooden puppet who desires to become human.

Breaking convention doesn’t always work, of course, but if you know where you’re coming from and where you want to go, and convention seems like a quiet road through a ghost town, the detour might just be worth it.

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