A new full-length story ballet commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is taking shape on stage this week as the RWB prepares to enter its 70th anniversary season.

Moulin Rouge — The Ballet, choreographed by former RWB dancer Jorden Morris, is to debut Oct. 17 in Minneapolis and get its Canadian premiere Oct. 21 in Winnipeg.


Vanessa Lawson and Gael Lambiotte as the young lovers in Moulin Rouge: The Ballet at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. (David Cooper/Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

The story, set in the celebrated Paris cabaret in the 1890s, lends itself to vibrant colour and high-energy dance, said Morris, who was commissioned by RWB artistic director André Lewis to create a new ballet for the 2009-10 season.

"The look, it's really going to evoke Paris at that time in the 1890s, the fashion and the colours and the energy of that time. It's a very spirited work and the dancers are bringing that amazing energy and the creative juices that were flowing at that time when Chagal was painting and Chopin and Debussy and Ravel were writing that kind of music,"  Morris told CBC News.

Morris has combined French music of the late 1800s, including Chopin and Debussy, into what he calls the backbone of the ballet. To capture the dances of the famed Moulin Rouge, he turned to Piazzola and Quarteto Gelato for the tango and Offenbach and Strauss for the Can Can, the showgirl dance.

 But his dancers — all 26 members of the company are involved — are ballerinas, not showgirls.

"I tried to develop a form of the Can Can that ballerinas could do on pointe," he said.

There'll be big group dances, kick lines and pinwheels, but that's just part of the story.

There's also a tender romance, between the young painter Matthew and the dancer Natalie, who has just been hired by the Moulin Rouge. A pas de deux between them takes place early in the action.

"Act 1 finishes with the two lovers in front of the Eiffel Tower on this huge 24-foot bridge and it's a really beautiful romantic moment," Morris said.

The complication for the young lovers is the contract that Natalie has signed as a showgirl, and that the owner of the club, Zidler, has fallen in love with her himself.


Eric Nipp as Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, who has also fallen for Natalie in Moulin Rouge - The Ballet. (David Cooper/Royal Winnipeg Ballet)

Throughout it all is the figure of the painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a stunted man who moves awkwardly because of his disabilities, but who challenges Matthew in his abilities as a painter.

"There is one point as well where Toulouse meets Matthew and starts looking at his sketch pad and then tearing sketches out, going 'this is horrible, this is horrible' and  Matthew goes 'well who are you?' and he points to a poster and they actually have a paintoff," Morris said.

The set designer has built two easels on casters where the men work, each dancing in his own particular style and both producing works of art as they dance.

Morris said he studied biographies of Toulouse-Lautrec, one of France's greatest post-Impressionist painters and a man known to haunt the bohemian section of Paris that is home to the Moulin Rouge.

"Most of the time, what you're seeing through his delivery of dance is what's going on in his mind as he's painting," Morris said. "There are times when he's very tragic and there are also times when he's slightly comedic."

As he researched period life, Morris also read history and watched films about that period, including works by John Huston and Jean Renoir, as well as Baz Luhrmann's film.

"What I found interesting was to show what these dancers were before they got to the Moulin Rouge and how these dancers actually got into the Moulin Rouge and the change of their lives that occurred when they went … to being a showgirl," he said.

Morris, who previously choreographed Peter Pan for RWB, said it took him two years to put together the right music for the production. He choreographs mostly in his head, putting his thoughts down in sketches.

Then he worked with dramaturge Rick Skene to help the dancers bring the character out in their performance. Morris said he conceives of each character as having several different defining characteristics and what finally emerges depends in part on the inclinations of the dancer.

At this point in creation of the ballet, the sets are ready and the costumes almost finished and the RWB is in full rehearsal mode, Morris said.

Moulin Rouge has its world premiere in Minneapolis on Oct. 17, then will run at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Oct. 21-25.

It will also tour in 2009-10, with stops in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.