As we all know, Paris is the true city of love and it holds a romantic candle over all the lovers and dreamers of the world.
Fine food, wine and flowers are commodities that stroke the embers of French passion. But true love also sparks in gritty garret rooftops and back alleys as witnessed in Damsels of the Night, Citie Ballet’s final production of the season.
Playing this Saturday at the Timms Centre for the Arts, this tale was inspired by Jean Anouilh’s story of cats on Paris rooftops. Prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn first danced Les Demoiselles de la Nuit in its premiere production in 1948.
In true ballet tradition, Les Demoiselles was a tragedy of star-crossed lovers where a Parisian violinist and the white cat he loves plunge to their deaths.
However, Citie artistic director Francoise Chevennement has brought out the mischief in his dancers by adapting and transforming Damsels into a frothy comedy.
Still using the original score by stage and film composer Jean Françaix, Chevennement brought on board ballet mistress Laurence Menotti and librettist Katherine Koller to spin the confection in a completely different direction while still evoking moonlit nights.
In this updated adaptation, Leon (Jason Vaz) is a poverty-stricken clarinettist obsessed with a beautiful White Cat (Danica Smith) he sees from his rooftop. He brings her food and tries to tame the alley cat. And while the White Cat wants to be pampered, she still demands the freedom to roam.
Leon is so enamoured with the White Cat, he fails to notice Mimi (Lauren O’Kell), an equally poor seamstress hopelessly in love with him. She brings Leon food, sews his clothing and tussles with the cat for his affections.
But cue the orchestra. In the background is a villainess. The Queen of Cats creates conflict by luring the White Cat back into the wild ways of the alley.
Despite the fizzy plotline, Damsels is a technically complex dance that demands a strong emotive flair from its principals. For instance, O’Kell as Mimi dances four solos with a combination of pirouettes, jetés, bourées and a lot of quick and fast pointe work.
Classically trained in the Royal Academy dance style, O’Kell, a Grade 12 student at Bellerose High, is more than up to the physical challenges.
“Technically I’ve been able to do the steps, but what’s been difficult is getting the emotional attachment to the ballet and connecting with other members. I have to pretend to love Leon and hate the cat. The acting is definitely a challenge for me,” says O’Kell as the production’s ingénue. She is enrolled in the summer intensive at Boston Ballet and hopes to be accepted into the winter program.
For the St. Albert dancer, Damsels is a bittersweet ballet in part because it is her last one with Citie. Yet the partner work performed with Jason Vaz may be some of the season’s strongest.
“This is our last show together so we’re trying to show off what we’re doing.”
O’Kell also has a duelling scene with Art of Dance teacher, Danica Smith’s White Cat. In a delicious tongue-in-cheek moment, Chevennement has incorporated Duetto buffo di due gatti, a famed ditty borrowed from a Gioachino Rossetti opera.
“They do a mirror dance where they make fun of each other,” explains Chevennement.
He is lush with praise of his principals and adds there were a few events that cut into rehearsal times. A dance of this calibre usually takes about 360 hours to rehearse. Unfortunately with Damsels there was only slightly more than 250 hours of rehearsal time.
Yet Chevennement predicts a rousing performance from the principals. Of O’Kell’s Mimi he says, “She has beautiful technique and since this is her last ballet with us, I wanted to challenge her a bit more.”
As the White Cat, Smith’s character embodies the feline stylization of the cat world.
“Danica is one of the company’s most mature dancers. She is really good with acting. To perform a cat is challenging for a dancer, and you need a good character dancer.”
Chevennement wraps it up by saying the dance is full of serenity and joy, comedy and laughter.
“It’s a love story but it’s a fun ballet. It’s appropriate for kids and when we did a preview for an audience the other night, they were getting all pumped up.”