If there's anything better than seeing a world première, it's seeing two in one night. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens brought two international choreographers, Ken Ossola (Switzerland) and Shen Wei (USA) to Montreal to create brand new works for the company, and the resulting double bill is an excellent showcase for Les Grands Ballets' lyricism and skill.

<i>La Lueur de l'Aube</i> © Damian Siqueiros
La Lueur de l'Aube
© Damian Siqueiros

Ken Ossola's piece Dim Light of Dawn (La Lueur de l'Aube) opened the evening's performance. Using a rich tapestry of Rachmaninoff piano pieces to riff off and explore, the dancers present some gorgeous partnering that, to my mind, perfectly echoes Ossola's background at Nederlands Dance Theatre. I certainly see that familiar sense of sweep and extension, of inventive partnering and slight European detachment that has the Jiri Kylian stamp on it. But Dim Light of Dawn, whilst demonstrating its roots in the NDT style, is entirely an Ossola creation.

The music selection sweeps through eight of Rachmaninoff's most emotion-drenched pieces, including Morceaux de Fantasie, Les Larmes and Pâques, with the dancers pairing up and exploring the score with passion and commitment.

I'm not one hundred per cent sure whether it was the company or the choreography, but the men in this piece seemed to fade into the background, providing an elegant and solid base to the partnering but not showing off much virtuosity in their own right. Indeed, it was the ladies who shone consistently throughout Dim Light of Dawn, which I gather was an intentional choreographic decision. Two absolute standouts were Valentine Legat – whose levity, joy and clean technique won over the audience – and Vanesa Garcia-Ribala Montoya who demonstrated strong lines, amazing extensions and a beautiful sense of attack.

Costumes in Dim Light of Dawn were cleanly minimal; leotards that showcased the bodies and choreography, and more importantly provided a visual language for the various sections of the music that also served to tie the pairs of dancers together.

Dim Light of Dawn has a melancholic tinge which I really enjoyed; throughout the piece we see Rachmaninoff's music setting the tone and leading the way. The programme notes include a revealing quote from Rachmaninoff as he confesses his feeling of being left behind as a new generation of music begins to overtake him:

“I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out of the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the music manner of Today, but it will not come to me.”

Rachmaninoff needn't have worried – his music is still alive and well and living on in the choreography of Ossola. I'm willing to bet this piece will enter the repertoire of many international ballet companies' in years to come; it's a strong well-structured rep piece that would sit well on many different companies and is truly truly satisfying to watch.

RE - (II) © Damian Siqueiros
RE - (II)
© Damian Siqueiros
Shen Wei's new creation, RE-(II) is based on my visit to Ankor Wat in Cambodia in 2006,” says Wei. “It reflects my impressions of the temples and the trees, the sounds of the land, the children and the culture of that country. I recorded the sounds and sight of the jungle surrounding Ankor Wat in order for them to be part of this performance. I am also using music by local disabled artists, the Moon Light Band, who play traditional Cambodian music in the jungle near one of the Ankor Wat temples.”

This new work is intended to be a follow-on to his 2006 piece RE-(I), which was based on his travels to Tibet.

RE-(II) is separated into two quite distinct sections, the second of which was more successful than the first. Whilst parts of the scenic design were quite striking – images from Ankor Wat projected on the backdrop, echoed with sympathetic lighting design – unfortunately I couldn't quite get past the costumes in the first section, which were essentially unitards painted to resemble trees, with matching trackpants on top. It felt quite dated, like something from 1993 teleported to 2016, making the piece feel more literal than perhaps it should have been. “This is a piece about nature!” the unitards seemed to say. Yes yes, wonderful. Nature. Unitards. Green. So green.

Thankfully the second half was absolutely stunning, rather proving the ethos that less is more (at least when it comes to dance costuming). The dancers struck contortionist poses, obscuring their heads altogether and presenting a brand new physiology of entwined limbs, exposed chests and angles that defied logic. I'm astonished that the dancers were able to hold such an unnatural pose – head thrust back, hidden entirely from the audience – for 20 minutes (give or take). Kudos! This is a much harder feat than it looks.

Choreographically, RE-(II) had the dancers in and out of the floor frequently, often laying prostrate and inching their way along like tropical vines. The movement quality was sinewy and really quite beautiful, making Shen Wei's newest work a resounding success in the end.