Shaping Sound: A Masterpiece of the Ages

by Nicholas Siennicki

Shaping Sound, written by and starring Travis Wall, is the best performance by Alberta Ballet that I have seen in my four years as a seasonal attendee. As a relatively rough critique of Alberta Ballet in the past, this performance was such a breath of fresh air, such a resounding success, that I can’t help but recommend that everyone who reads this article does their personal best to somehow experience it.  Go tonight, or drive to Calgary and see it. Road trip it. Trust me – It’s worth the effort.

Why? Because Shaping Sound has everything you could ever want from the Alberta Ballet. Primarily, it has a surreal theme that borrows heavily from Moulin Rouge and Black Swan, with a dark commentary on interpersonal conflict which gives a hefty weight to each motion and infuses the dances with so much meaning that investing oneself in the characters becomes effortless.  This conflict also allows characters to be brusque and sharp with movements, permitting dancers to “get away” with imperfections which only add to the emotional tension as characters pull and push each other, falling to the stage with clattering crashes, or as they simply slam into the stage with open palms and scream.

Photography by Mat Hayward

See, this emotional contextualization elegantly fixes my major gripe with the Alberta Ballet: the fact that the choreography does not often fit the energy and ability of the dancers. Performances can come across as stilted, droll and uninspired if dancers can’t quite hit the surreal ability that basically nobody in the world can save a few Russian phenoms. But Shaping Sound uses these crashing dramatic movements, flowing and liquid motions, and a huge amount of visual splendor to capture the eyes and hearts of the audience. The choreography is busy, in a good way, and masterful. The dances all vary in type and kind to keep interest going- from a tribal dance with sticks that allowed characters to enact barre gymnastics to a dance where illuminated papers danced on a black background to make shapes. These were all wonderfully creative and told a great story.

On the note of a black background—the best part of the show, for me, was the technical use of music and lighting. Obviously a show ostensibly concentrated on music is going to excel in this regard, but the songs in Shaping Sound are also meticulously chosen to reflect non-verbal aspects of the performance, lending a stronger understanding of what is happening without distracting from the immersion. Strong use of timed sound helps everything feel cohesive, liquid, and constant. Here we see the strongest link to Moulin Rouge, and the effect of surreal emotional over-exuberance is mirrored to great effect. The lighting itself is a standout. By allowing the stage to be very dark, colored spotlights lend an emotional insight and allow the setting to be played with. Blue lights hit warm memories, green lights sinister ones, and light bulbs are used to lend small insight or to set up a dance of minimally lit sombreness. Light plays a major role in the story and the use of it in the performance is absolutely perfect, an absolute masterclass in the importance of not only adding elements but improving a performance by taking some away.

Photography by Kaitlin Chow

Of course, good as this ballet was, it was not flawless. There are many characters, and given the constant movement of characters, sets, lights and everything, it was quite hard to keep track of all of them. There was a cute introduction to all these characters but it was somewhat a wasted opportunity because there were simply too many faces. The effort given to differentiate all the characters and allow them to have complex personalities was appreciated, but could have been executed differently. Consequently, some of the dances that did not involve the lead and his alter ego (reflection) felt less significant and were generally a little less investing. And given the creativity of the show, it was a shame when at times they simply ripped off Black Swan wholesale.

However, these complaints are minor, and it’s evident that great care was taken in this performance. Great use of symbolism added a touch of depth and helped give the confusion from getting out of control. Three male characters all had a similar outfit, but each had one less garment than the other (bare chest, undershirt, dress shirt). The level of undress of these characters represented their propensity to give into their bestial nature, and the more conservative characters were closer to societal norms and less unhinged – aka more clothed. Lights on a desk went out over the course of the show to show the dwindling life of the protagonist. These small touches went a long way in helping a ballet aficionado and a new ballet enthusiast talk about the show long after the curtain had fallen.

Photography by Lisa Koh

Finally, for my most superlative compliment, I must comment on the protagonist and his alter ego. Both of these dances were almost indescribably beautiful, acrobatic, and emotionally charged. For many, I’m sure, the most spectacular moments of the show will be the standouts— from the use of rope and ribbons, to tap, to gymnastics, there were amazing set pieces— but for me, the devastating emotional impact and the sheer brilliance of the scenes where the ego interacts with the alter ego will be scored into my mind for years to come. The show’s best moment, for me, is when the protagonist’s sister is trying to reach out to him but the alter ego is pushing her away. A simple three person dance of push and pull riveted me (and the audience), leading to a seemingly never-ending applause from the audience.

Simply put, Shaping Sound is a masterful show, and I could not be happier that Alberta Ballet has embraced choreography that fits the style, personality, and talent of her dancers, who all deserve top accolades for their dedicated work.

As mentioned earlier, the last Edmonton show is tonight. Don’t miss it! tickets for Edmonton and for Calgary (Jan 19-20) can be found here.

Photography courtesy of Alberta Ballet. Banner photography by Kaitlin Chow.

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