It’s that time of year again, back to school, back to work, and back to the Place des Arts, in Montreal, for the new dance season. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens started things off on the right foot with Christian Spuck's Leonce and Léna ( premiered at Alto Ballett Theater - 2008). Based on the 1838 satirical play by German Georg Büchner, the piece is a sure crowd-pleaser that highlights the company’s fun and forward-thinking persona.

Leonce is a bored prince, Léna a bored princess. They are destined to wed in an arranged marriage without ever having met – a situation neither is fond of. So, Leonce and the Court Tudor, as well as Lena and her governess, all decide to run away the day before the dreaded ceremony. As fate would have it, the two pairs cross paths and Leonce and Léna fall very much in love. Returning to Leonce’s kingdom the next day as masked strangers at their own wedding, the King orders that these two be married in place of the supposedly missing couple. Once married, the pair remove their masks only to realize the irony of their situation. Those that ran away from their arranged marriage end up marrying each other freely, out of love. And so it goes that everything in their kingdom carries on just fine.

Hervé Courtain and Alisia Potega  in <i>Leonce and Lena</i> © John Hall
Hervé Courtain and Alisia Potega in Leonce and Lena
© John Hall
 In this nearly two-hours long performance, there is never a dull moment! From the music to the dancing, the designs to the costumes, Leonce and Léna is a great ballet. A single curved wall center stage serves as the backdrop throughout. As we switch from Leonce’s world to Léna’s to their finally combined destiny, the wall spins as spins their mad and futile love story. Christian Spuck has imbued the piece with theatricality, infusing mime and bouffon-like comedy into his choreography and leaving no dancer on stage without a distinct character to play. This attention allows each dancer to act on their individuality, making it a rich and entertaining performance.

In an unthinkable mix, the orchestra of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, led by Florian Ziemen, plays side by side with a boom box radio that Leonce carries around with him wherever he goes… And it makes perfect sense, for Ella Fitzgerald and Johann Strauss are but two of the artists highlighted in this quirky musical arrangement that breaks the usual stream of sound and keeps the audience on their toes. Yet even through all the props, set elements, elaborate costumes and surprising music, the dancing isn’t lost. Ruben Julliard as Valerio, the Court Tudor, dances with just the right amount of upbeat to keep the flow of the piece rolling through the first act, where we’re essentially dealing with two bored principal dancers. Light on his feet and charismatic, Julliard was excellently paired with Hervé Courtain as Leonce for their many duos. They gave each other balance. Christie Partelow, as Léna, made up for what her character lacked in personality, and danced flawlessly. Her arabesques were the highest and cleanest thanI have seen at Les Grands Ballets in some time. She is pretty, precise, and your eye does not want to leave her. A special mention goes to Emma Garau Cima for her hilarious and endearing portrayal of Rosetta. 

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in <i>Leonce and Lena</i> © John Hall
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Leonce and Lena
© John Hall

Leonce and Léna is clearly influenced by Spuck’s work on film and in musical theatre, which sets it apart from what you would usually expect to see at the ballet. Instead of taking away from the dancing, this enhances the entire performance in the same way that 3D glasses bring flat images to life. Though lacking a standout wow-factor as far as the choreography is concerned, the whole performance comes together in a wonderful package that has the audience laughing and enjoying ballet in a innovative way. Or, as Les Grands Ballets would say, in a way that moves the world, differently. All in all, Leonce and Léna is a fantastic performance for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens to start the new season with.

****1