Les Grands Ballets has a new Artistic Director – Ivan Cavallari – and 13 new dancers, mostly cherry-picked from some of Europe’s best ballet companies. For his first shot out of the gates, Cavallari has presented a programme with a strong focus on spirituality and the divine; a double bill featuring choreographer Edward Clug’s Stabat Mater and Uwe Scholz’s 7th Symphony. If Cavallari is starting as he means to continue, Montreal audiences are in for a thorough journey through European contemporary ballet movements; which is not so far from the trajectory the previous Artistic Director Gradimir Pankov established during his tenure.

Dancers of Les Grands Ballets in Clug's <i>Stabat Matter</i> © Sasha Onyshchenko
Dancers of Les Grands Ballets in Clug's Stabat Matter
© Sasha Onyshchenko

Stabat Mater means “the sorrowful mother is standing” in Latin, and the work captures the anguish of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion of her son. It takes inspiration from the 13th century Catholic poem of the same name, which has been iterated upon countless times by choreographers (including Peter Martins, Mark Morris, Jiri Kylian and Inbal Oshman) and composers (Liszt, Schubert, Verdi and Vivaldi to name a few).

Clug's take, presented here, is set to music by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. If you believe the legends, Pergolesi composed his Stabat Mater on his deathbed; a preemptive requiem of sorts. Simply written for two voices, basso continuo and strings, Stabat Mater’s 12 movements alternate between solos and duos. Performed live, as was the case in the performance by Les Grands Ballets, the effect is harmonious and moving. The mezzo soprano, Maude Brunet, lent a particular depth of feeling to the work.

The choreography of Clug’s Stabat Mater walks a careful line between expressivity and stark restraint. There is a controlled aggression from the men and a bird-like priggishness from the women that comes through well. We see some strong sculptural shapes and truly arresting imagery that shows us the unmasked tragedy of both birth and death. The divine is still inescapably human, even here in the realm of art.

The costumes and staging are minimalistic; nude dresses for the women and black shirts and trousers for the men. The scenic elements are simply two gigantic white oblong boxes that suggest, by turns, a church pew, a catwalk – and finally a crucifix.

The effect of live music, dancing and set pieces is quite staggering when assembled; Stabat Mater is a true achievement on every front and the imagery will stay with you long after it’s over.

Dancers of Les Grands Ballets in Scholz's <i>7th Symphony</i> © Sasha Onyshchenko
Dancers of Les Grands Ballets in Scholz's 7th Symphony
© Sasha Onyshchenko

After the intermission, the curtain opens on the evening’s second work; 7th Symphony by Uwe Scholz.

7th Symphony demands a lot of the dancers. They need to bring both utmost precision and the kind of intellectual musicality that allows them to simultaneously approach the music in phrases and keep perfect unison with the rest of the company. This piece, like so much of Scholz’s work, rests on the creation of tightly structured patterns to pull together the overall effect.

Performed on pointe, 7th Symphony oozes a kind of athletic triumphancy. Highly structured and tightly strung, there is not a vulnerable bone in its body.

However, despite refreshed costumes and staging, this 1991 work feels a little dated and repetitive, and the partnering has the unfortunate tendancy to turn women into mechanical wind-up dolls. We see evidence of this in the first two minutes, when the men spend the entire opening lugging the scissor-legged women from stage right to left,  then left to right.

Despite my own personal bias against 7th Symphony’s choreography, the dancers did a truly excellent job with this work. They brought a kind of cleanly-prised energy to 7th Symphony that truly gave it a second life, a boost that was acknowledged by the standing ovation from the audience.