The curtain rises on five servants preparing for a special occasion. Four men are standing and one woman is sitting, her skirt splayed out around her.
They are wiping glasses, bouncing slightly in time to boppy, Rossini-esque music. Up and down they go. The woman looks happy. She finally stands up and you realize she’s been sitting on another man’s face the entire time.
No wonder she’s smiling.
Over the next few minutes, she and her partner proceed to have sex in more positions than you ever thought possible, all in four-four time.
This is ballet?
Sex in all its guises — joyful, illicit and frustrated — bounds to life on the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall stage this weekend in the much anticipated local premiere of James Kudelka’s An Italian Straw Hat, the National Ballet Of Canada’s sex farce that promises belly laughs and virtuosic dancing.
The saucy servants are danced by Piotr Stanczyk and Rebekah Rimsay. As Felix and Virginia, they are just there to have really good sex and really good fun, says Kudelka in an April, 2005 interview (the highly lauded artistic director has since left the National Ballet). “They spend the entire ballet getting off. They just go at it the whole time, being purely sexual with each other. [Stanczyk and Rimsay] have a great sense of humour,” he laughs, “and no shame, it seems.”
Based on the Eugene Labiche play from 1851, An Italian Straw Hat is set in Paris of the belle époque and follows three sets of couples. The wedding day of the elegant Ferdinand and Hélène is upended when Ferdinand’s horse eats a very expensive straw hat. Emil and Anaïs, the hat’s owner, fear their adulterous affair will be exposed if they cannot replace it, so they threaten to occupy Ferdinand’s apartment unless he finds one. As more and more people arrive for the wedding, Ferdinand begins a madcap race around Paris in search of another hat.
Meanwhile, Ferdinand’s valet and Anaïs’s maid have other priorities.
The energetic goings-on take place on a series of elegant sets featuring Parisian boulevards, salons, a fashion show and even the Eiffel Tower.
Expect the requisite elements of farce: slamming doors, wild chases, some good old slapstick and lots of sex. But this is Kudelka doing farce; he’s going to make his dancers work hard. Mugging to the audience and simple pratfalls will not be enough.
“I want the farce to be physical, choreography-driven, not just personality-driven,” Kudelka says. “It’s a challenge to make up the duets so that they are all different from each other. And there is a lot of virtuosity, particularly in the Greta and Ryan/Anaïs and Emil duets. But they’re all hard.”
Soloist Jean-Sébastien Colau was eager to show off his virtuosic dancing, especially since he gets to do it as the Baroness, Anaïs’s eccentric aunt, wearing a sumptuous Loquasto dress. “It’s funny. Because I’m gay, everyone says, ‘Finally, you have your princess dress,'” says the Paris native. “I love doing man roles, the Prince and so on, but it is funny to see the other side.
“I said yes to playing a woman,” says Colau, “because as an artist we can do everything. That’s our job.
“[Kudelka] wants me to be a real woman on stage; I’m not going to be a drag queen. It’s going to be funny because I’m a big, big girl.” Nothing penetrates the Baroness’s haughty, self-assuredness. “All my partners fall on stage, but I don’t see it.
“She’s so rich and important, nobody tells her she’s too huge to be dancing around.”
Costumes can be crucial to understanding a character and Colau takes to his dress — and the camera — like a goose to water. He’s all glamour and savoir-faire during his photo shoot. His father, who’s visiting from Paris, watches proudly from the sidelines. How cute is that?
One of the Baroness’s dance partners is played by veteran character dancer Victoria Bertram, who was originally cast as the Baroness until Kudelka got the idea of playing with gender. Now she has a star turn as three different male characters. “She’s wonderful,” says Colau.
He loves the challenge of switching genders in a dance form where men and women have rigidly separate conventions. Colau has to dance the Baroness cleanly, not like a clown. And dancing on pointe — a rare and tough assignment for male dancers — is key. “It would not be very interesting to play a character like that and walk around in character shoes or high heels. That would be boring,” says Colau, who speaks English with a heavy French accent.
“It’s very exciting to compete with the girls. They’re always like, ‘Oh my God, pointe shoes are so hard. You [boys] can never understand.’ It is hard, but I did six pirouettes on pointe shoes. So you see, I can do it, too. It’s fun.”
Colau came to the National from the Paris Opera almost three years before the May, 2005 Toronto premiere of An Italian Straw Hat. (He has since returned to Paris but is appearing in the Ottawa performances — due to his skill dancing on pointe.)
Colau had seen Kudelka’s Musings at the Paris Opera and became a fan. “I loved it and decided to come here to work with him, to be a part of his work. He’s very talented. Nothing is too big for him. He’s always going for his dream.”
It seems that whether French or North American, there’s nothing like sex to skewer bourgeois pretension and hypocrisy. Kudelka says it’s very satisfying to be creating a sex farce at this point in history. From the Vatican to the White House, he sees a worldwide backlash against the libertine attitudes of the 1960s generation. “We are going backward. The world is recreating what the generation just ahead of me was trying to break down.”
As for the farce going on in Parliament these days, he supports same-sex marriage as a matter of equality but could care less about the institution.
“Why marry if you don’t have to? I always thought we were like Quebec where they didn’t marry.
“I’ve been divorced so many times. Wouldn’t everybody?”
A version of this preview first ran in Toronto Xtra in April, 2005.