Out of the blue - Fjord Review

October 31, 2014

This article is no longer available online, but the full article is found below with a link to the photo that originally accompanied it. 


“I had to take a step back.” Harrison James, corps de ballet dancer at the National Ballet of Canada did a double take at landing the lead role of des Grieux in the upcoming performance of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon.” Mr. James, originally from Paraparaumu, New Zealand, has only danced with the company for a year, and the role came truly “out of the blue.” He joins an alternating cast of principal dancer Guillaume Côté and guest artist Marcelo Gomes in the role.

This isn’t the first time he has been called to dance principal roles, and the romantic lead, nonetheless. Prior to joining the National Ballet, Mr. James danced Albrecht in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s “Giselle.” He has also performed the title role in “Svengali” and the White Rabbit in “Wonderland.” With this knowledge, and the dulcet antipodal tones coming down the phone line, you think, he’s just got to be charming.

The role of des Grieux, however, requires more than charm. MacMillan’s “Manon” is an earthy, realist tale of the downfall of the title character, driven by avarice and lust. The characters may behave at times in a superficial manner, but they are anything but lightweight. Mr. James expresses a love of the minutia in ballet, which, with today’s emphasis on athleticism, is pleasingly against the grain, and perhaps hints at his qualification for the part.
At the heart of the ballet is the tragic love story of Manon and des Grieux, played out in exquisite, heartrending pas de deux. The role of Manon is one principal dancer Jillian Vanstone had hoped to play since seeing the National Ballet perform it many years ago. It marks a departure from the “sweet and innocent” roles Torontonians may know her for; namely Alice in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and the title role in James Kudelka’s “Cinderella.” “Manon is more sensual, darker, and it’s a challenge”—and one she relishes, she said in a recent telephone interview. 

For Ms. Vanstone, the 1974 MacMillan classic capitalises on her sparkling technique, as well as asking her to “dig deeper, and be more realistic.” And the importance of partnership in “Manon”? “Huge,” she says. In Mr. James she finds a “strong, intuitive, and trustworthy” partner. “We took to each other right away.”

The admiration is mutual. “When I first came to the National Ballet, [Jillian’s] amazing technique was obvious. But then I saw her dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, and she just became this magical performer.” With natural ability and intelligence in spades, this partnership may be one to watch.

In recent rehearsals, the emphasis has been on the art of balletic realism. “It’s less presentational; we play to the audience less,” Ms. Vanstone says, speaking of the imaginary fourth wall between the dancers and the audience. Yet, striking the balance between under and over playing it requires finesse, and fine-tuning. “It’s been a team effort,” she says.

Mr. James, too, puts his trust in the people at the front of the room. Sir Anthony Dowell, former artistic director of the Royal Ballet and the creator of the role of des Grieux, originally came to the National Ballet to set the piece. Working with Dowell was for Mr. James “a dream come true. He has such a positive energy.”

Having trained at San Francisco Ballet School’s Trainee Program in California and the New Zealand School of Dance, Mr. James danced with both the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Béjart Ballet Lausanne prior to joining the National Ballet. “I arrived as they were going into ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and I auditioned on stage at the Four Seasons.” “So you’ve been on stage since day one?” I suggest. He laughs, “I suppose so.”

See accompanying photo HERE