Based on Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, the National Ballet of Canada’s world premiere of Pinocchio is an inventive work that combines ballet and theatre in a vibrant and unique way.
In the ballet’s opening scenes, lonely Geppetto (Piotr Stanczyk), a lumberjack in this Canadian incarnation of the story, fells a tree and finds inside it a wooden boy. The Blue Fairy entrusts the boy to Geppetto’s care, telling Pinocchio (Skylar Campbell) that if he tries to be good, one day he might become a real boy. Naive and easily led down the path of temptation, Pinocchio is distracted from this purpose by a puppet show, a pair of naughty “friends” (the Cat and the Fox), and by the prospect of wealth. Appearances by the Blue Fairy (Elena Lobsanova), who acts as his conscience, set him back on course, but the second act sees him undergoing more trials as he is temporarily transformed into a donkey and later swallowed by a whale before reuniting with Geppetto.
Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio is a production that relies very much on strong acting performances. Fortunately, The National Ballet of Canada is a company I have always felt is particularly strong in that area. As Pinocchio, Skylar Campbell is such a perfect fit that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role. His Pinocchio is curious and impulsive, easily led down the path of temptation, yet he is also sympathetic in his naiveté. Campbell dances the role initially with an awkward colt-ish movement that sets the wooden boy apart from the real schoolchildren and other characters in the ballet, but as he becomes a real boy, Pinocchio moves with grace and fluidity to dance in celebration with his father Geppetto. Campbell’s acting is also excellent. He is eager and boyish in his portrayal of the wooden boy who means well but makes poor decisions, and his reunion with Geppetto is heartfelt and moving. On the other end of the spectrum, a scene where Pinocchio awakes to find the coins he has planted have not in fact grown into a money tree while he slept and have been taken by his treacherous friends, is humorous and displays a quickness of movement as Pinocchio sulks and checks for the buried coins again and again.
The whole company is excellent, but Piotr Stanczyk is a standout as the fatherly Geppetto, whose loneliness and worry is keenly felt as he searches for his son by putting up missing posters on every tree. Although I wish the ballet has spent more time on the father-son bond between Pinocchio and Geppetto, both dancers are gifted enough actors that the connection is felt and their reunion moved me. Another standout is Dylan Tedaldi’s fox. His movements are relaxed and appear effortless as he sinks into the jazz-influenced score.
The costume design is one of the first things I noticed about Pinocchio from its promotional material. All of the characters are vivid and colourful in appearance, from the beautiful dress worn by the Blue Fairy, to the plaid lumberjacks, and various animals. Pinocchio’s curly wig is designed to look like wood shavings and yes, his nose does grow! The sets and design of the ballet are similarly impressive. The ocean depths spring to life as dancers manipulate fish, and beautiful projections add to the ballet’s visual appeal.
The jazz-infused score by Paul Englishby also adds to the ballet, particularly through a spirited woodwind motif used for the character of Pinocchio, and a more delicate theme chosen for the Blue Fairy.
There are a few things about Pinocchio that I thought worked in this context, but I can’t imagine them adding to any other ballet. Chief among these are the use of spoken dialogue to tell the story and the abundance of Canadiana.
Five Blue Fairy Shadows, danced by principal dancers Guillaume Côté, Harrison James, Sonia Rodriguez, Xiao Nan Yu, and Corps de Ballet dancer Antonella Martinelli, give voice to the Blue Fairy’s thoughts through spoken dialogue, a rarity in the ballet world. Classical ballet often tells its story through dance and through codified mime. I’ll admit to being someone who finds the mother pointing to her ring finger to indicate that her son must get married, a technique found in ballets like Swan Lake, old-fashioned and unwelcome, but I also don’t find dialogue a necessity when choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon have so effectively communicated stories like The Winter’s Tale through dance. I thought the spoken dialogue worked in Pinocchio without detracting from the ballet, likely because it is so clearly targeted at children, but it’s not a feature that I can see working for most ballets. Additionally, the rhyming structure of the text gives off somewhat of a ‘Dr. Seuss meets the ballet’ vibe, particularly in the schoolchildren scenes. Not a bad thing in this case, but again not something I can see working well in other contexts.
While some elements of Canadiana, such as the Mountie accompanied by a few bars of “O Canada” and the beaver tourists, walk the line between being fun and over-the-top, I mostly enjoyed the Canadian content, from the sneaky raccoons in the Red Lobster Inn, to the subtler and very beautiful East Coast inspired setting where Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited.
No doubt carefully aimed at the March Break crowd, The National Ballet of Canada’s Pinocchio is a family-friendly theatrical production that both parents and children will enjoy. Judging from reactions on social media, purists who go in expecting a classical ballet may be upset by this hybrid of theatre and dance. While it’s not something that I would see repeatedly, I very much enjoyed Pinocchio. For open-minded viewers, it’s a fun afternoon or evening out, that is well danced and acted by this talented company.
Pinocchio is on stage until March 24, 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Photo of Skylar Campbell and Heather Ogden by Karoline Kuras