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Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Svengali: An Amateur’s Review

Before I start, let’s be clear that I am certainly not a professional art critic and my dance training is so far behind me that I wouldn’t even be able to properly name most of the moves. But since most audience members are likely more like me, rather than art critics, I thought it might be helpful to share my views on this ballet in case you’re contemplating purchasing tickets. 

I love the arts and I’m pretty much up for seeing any kind of performance. But this ballet did interest me in particular because, according to reviews, it was not your standard traditional ballet. So much so, that it was cautioned that this ballet is not intended for young children. Since I have an ongoing connection with Canada’s National Arts Centre, I got in touch and asked about tickets and doing a giveaway on the Coffee with Julie blog.

Last night, Hubby and I picked up our gifted tickets and attending the opening night of Svengali in Ottawa. Normally, I would bring a girlfriend to a ballet because Hubby has a tendency to fall asleep in any warm, dark room. But I thought he might enjoy this one, and it was a good excuse for a date night. I won’t go into the plot of the performance since other reviews (links included throughout this post) already do that, and will instead simply focus on our experience.

A Visual Turn-On

As it turns out, I was right. We both enjoyed the show immensely. To borrow the words of CBC art critic Robert Enright, it was a “visual turn-on.”

Svengali  (Harrison James) enchants Trilby (Amanda Green) in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Svengali.

Svengali exerting his powers, played by Harrison James. Photo credit: Bruce Monk.

The choreography struck me as very unique, and in many instances, so emotionally moving. I lack the words to adequately describe this, without just sounding silly. But as example, in the car on the way home, Hubby pointed out a movement in particular where the dancers were fluttering their hands behind their backs. It sounds simple, right? But the way it was pulled off, combined with the music, was so effective. Here, Alison Mayes, an art critic with the Winnipeg Free Press, describes another series of powerful movements:

In one poignant moment, Trilby (Amanda Green), the female star, has just become the toast of the town, showered with glitter and flowers. As soon as she’s out of the spotlight, she slumps and the bouquet slips to the floor — a snapshot of emptiness that speaks of manipulated stars like Michael Jackson.

These kinds of poignant moments were brought to life through clever choreography throughout the night. I was particularly touched by one scene where men are coming up to Trilby, the central female character, and embracing her while a split second later, pushing her away to the floor like garbage.

Another photo of Svengali and Trilby, played by Amanda Green, an absolutely beautiful dancer. 

As much as Hubby and I were both mesmerized by the choreography, Paula Citron, an art critic with the Globe and Mail, panned it harshly. Her chief complaint seems to be how unrecognizable this rendition of Svengali is to its original tale, published in 1894. Since neither of us had ever read that book, this did not affect us in the least. However, she also notes:

“A major weakness in Godden’s production lies in the fact that Svengali’s hypnotic powers and charisma are practically invisible, rendering James about as threatening as a Boy Scout.”

She’s got a point here. I’m not sure if this is the fault of the choreography or the choice of James to play Svengali — who is a talented dancer but he does not bring an intimating physicality to the role — or both. Citron also feels that the archetypes and symbolism fall “flatter than a pancake.” And she may even have a point here as well.

But, again, this did not interfere with our enjoyment. It was a visual delight, from start to finish, and the plot was more of secondary consideration to us when all was said and done.

Even the costumes were captivating. Act III was an absolute highlight, with its glamorous and sexually alluring skin-coloured costumes.  (I tried to find a photograph for you, but I couldn’t.)

Unnecessary Distractions

As I’ve tried to explain above, any failures in the plot were of no real consequence to our overall enjoyment. But there were a minor few elements that I thought distracting, even bizarre.

  • The opening music was from the birth scene in in the cult film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I actually thought it was the Star Wars music at first. All in all, it seemed like a bizarre choice. Either too obvious or not obvious enough to be a tongue-in-cheek reference. Especially since no other pop culture music references were made in the rest of the performance.
  • In a powerful scene where Svengali is destroying her metaphorical “hearts,” a large garbage can is pulled onto the stage. On it were bright white letters reading “GLASS.” Everything else was a metaphor … the paper hearts, etc, and here they write GLASS? Again, bizarre. Unnecessary and distracting.

And completely out of the control of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but:

  • A woman stood in the aisle next to my seat and alternated between standing up and sitting down on the carpet. I’m assuming she had a bad back, but it was annoying. I noticed an employee crouching down to speak with her, but that didn’t seem to change anything and she stayed put.
  • For the love of gawd, the National Arts Centre needs to do something about the women’s bathrooms. There are simply not enough stalls! There is nothing less elegant than a bunch of elegantly dressed woman waiting in a long line down a hallway to use the facilities. This taxpayer begs you to please funnel any public grant funds to building more women’s washrooms!

Should you rush out and get tickets?

If you have any interest in dance, I would highly recommend it. If you only have a passing interest in dance, but are looking for a nice date — hit Le Cafe and then the show, for a great evening. If you don’t enjoy dance performances at all and have a weak bladder, you might want to just take a pass.

The show is running in Ottawa at the NAC from January 26-28th, so you’ll need to act quick if you’d like to go. I checked ticket availability today and although the orchestra level looks mainly sold-out, there are many other seats still up for grabs. Prices range from $55-85 and you can buy them online by clicking here.


  1. Sarah McCormack says:

    i will second your call for more washrooms at the NAC!! perhaps some kind of on-line petition…you could organize that with all your “free time”,right Julie?

    but seriously, perhaps more people would attend events if they felt the opportunity to relieve themselves at some point in the evening would be a possiblity.  When i attend i always show up early, use the washrooms before the show, and hope i won’t have to go again. It is a real problem there.

    that said, nothing makes me happier than a great musical. Just saw Billy Elliot in London. It was A-MA-ZING. 
     (but even smaller washrooms!) 

    • coffee with Julie says:

      Yes, the washroom thing really does irk me. It seems like a small complaint but it does take away some enjoyment when you can’t enjoy a drink at intermission because you know there is a long line awaiting for you at the loo!

  2. Although this production was panned by the Citizen and the Globe and Mail I thought it was very, very good…your review reflects my impressions…I have been a subscriber to the ballet series at the NAC for the past four years and have seen a lot of ballet and this stood out for it’s unique and fresh approach…the choreography was excellent and the dancing was tight…I walked out of Wonderland last year at intermission so was pleased to see the RWB redeem themselves.

    • coffee with Julie says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts because I read yesterday’s review in the Citizen and was really disappointed. I’m certainly glad to hear I’m not the only one who thoroughly enjoyed the refreshing choreography.

      • I have never had much faith in reviews as they simply reflect an individual’s taste and are subjective and frequently in step with other critics.

        I think it’s exciting to see ballet move in this direction…I loved the classic performances I have seen such as Gisele, Romeo and Juliet, La Bayadere but these have the predictable “lovers torn apart, somebody/everybody’s going to die/do themselves in endings.”

        In contrast, this was edgy and refreshing and from a Canadian company!

        • One other thing…the “Glass” labeled garbage can was a bit of a distraction the first time it was used. The second time, when he had Trilby walk on the glass made sense…

        • coffee with Julie says:

          The art critics seems to be focusing on the plot line, which I suppose you would do if it was your job to assess a piece. But, really, who goes to a dance performance for a great plot? If that was true, I don’t think there would be people returning to the Nutcracker year over year. For dance, I feel it is more of a feast for the senses — the movements, the music, the set. For a theatre piece, I would certainly be focused more on the plot line and character development. But not so much for dance. 

  3. neighbour says:

    I also saw Svengali on opening night and was pleasantly surprised.  My Mom and I have been subscribers to the ballet series at the NAC for over 10 years. The Royal Winnipeg company comes each year and is often a disappointment- Wonderland was disasterous and my Mom and I both disliked Dracula. Although they did do a sweet rendition of Peter Pan a few years ago.  So we entered the theatre last Thursday night with some trepidation- what would the RWB pull off this year???  However, Svengali proved to be entertaining with unique choreography.  Plot aside, it was about the dance- which offered some enjoyable elements.  The only other thing I don’t enjoy about the RWB is how their artistic director has to come out before each performance to prep the audience.  I have never seen another company that does this, but each year RWB has to ‘prepare’ us for the night’s performance like some kind of informerical.  On another note: You were brave Julie, to take your hubby- mine would have enjoyed the provocative moves but otherwise would have fallen asleep!

    • I agree … not sure what is up with the Artistic Director prepping the audience. As a rule, I would think you’d want the show to start with a “bang!” and this really takes away from that idea. Also, unless Hubby gets into a real snoring episode, he may have actually caught a few nods without me knowing – haha!

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