Monday, November 16, 2009

Diving Deep

The Surfacing event that took place at The Dance Centre this past weekend proves that there is life yet in and at Ballet BC. I couldn’t get to the Ignite gala at the end of September that was meant to announce the resuscitation of the company under Interim Artistic Director Emily Molnar, so I was keen to attend a performance of Surfacing, if only to check the pulse of an artistic organization this city and province can’t afford to let die.

The first-ever commissioned choreographic series by Ballet BC, the conceit for the Surfacing program proves that Molnar is not interested in reinventing the wheel, and that she is not afraid of taking risks. Pairing Ballet BC dancers with members of the Arts Umbrella Graduate Program in Dance, Molnar assigned a differently mixed group to four respective—and respected—local choreographers: Joe Laughlin, Simone Orlando, Donald Sales, and Rob Kitsos. She also assigned the music for each piece, and imposed a 20-minute time limit on the finished product. Finally, the choreographers had less than a month to conceive and choreograph their works, and only two weeks to rehearse them. Despite—or maybe because of—these constraints, the pieces that resulted were uniformly excellent, although the combination of musical and choreographic styles (not to mention my own tastes) meant that some stood out for me more than others.

Joe Laughlin led off the program with “On Wings,” set to a Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 1. Perhaps because of the musical choice, this piece felt the most traditionally balletic, with the women en pointe for much of it and the men in the first sections mostly doing lifts. The piece did gain complexity as it proceeded, as did the partnering, and no doubt the two young men seconded from Arts Umbrella (one impossibly tall) gained immense experience and confidence as a result of the process.

Simone Orlando, who is currently Artist in Residence with Ballet BC, was next up with "Doppeling." Bach’s Concerto in D Minor provided the score to what I read as a witty post-Freudian take on the Olympia story from Hoffman’s Tales. Half a dozen female dancers, dressed in matching beige lyotards, and sporting similar bewigged bobs scamper, jump, prance, and pose mechanically to Bach’s allegro tempo. They are soon joined by four men, also in lyotards and wigs, also doing their best pixie wind-up impressions to the music. The two groups remain for the most part segregated along gender lines until the lead female doll encounters her blond male counterpart. There follows a moving pas de deux that would seem to bring the piece to a natural conclusion, except that—my only criticism—Orlando adds a coda that returns both dancers to the uniformity of their respective groups.

Donald Sales, working with Yann Tiersen’s combination of tango, accordion music and French chanson, created "Long Story Short," an alternately moving and joyful celebration of the rituals of social and romantic courtship. The piece opens with two tableaux: downstage left a couple reclines dreamily on the floor; upstage right there is a tense domestic stand-off at a table that seems to lead to a break-up (not least, it’s suggested through an effective bit of trompe l’oeil, because of another woman). Thereafter Sales alternates animated group scenes that involve the incorporation of everyday bodily movements (scratched heads, tugged ears, smelled armpits, picked noses) into exuberant expressions of pure dance with quieter movement sequences focused on three individuals who for different reasons (self-absorption, painful shyness, willful isolation) forsake both the group and the longed-for connection with another.

Finally, my colleague Rob Kitsos brought down the house with "Regression Line," a Jets and Sharks-style contest of movement set to a propulsive rock score by Dub Trio. A dance rumble that repeatedly brings the dancers to the threshold of (presumably violent) contact, only to back away and start the marshalling of short, sharp movements all over again, the piece is remarkable for its aggressive yet incredibly disciplined energy. The gang groupings and their respective star-crossed leaders, as I conceived of them, circled each other warily, often precariously, and yet at the same time knew when to keep their distance, with Rob effectively juxtaposing vertical and horizontal lines of movement throughout.

Rob’s piece, moving 15 plus dancers across an intimate stage space at full velocity, also reminded me of why I so love attending performances of The Dance Centre. It’s up close and personal, to use an old cliché. When the different groups of dancers marched purposefully downstage at different points in the piece, it did feel like they were going to continue on into the audience, and from where I was in the third row one could see every flexed muscle, every tensed tendon, every bead of sweat on their bodies.

Ignite, I recall, was staged at the Playhouse, which I’ve also come to appreciate more and more as a space to watch dance thanks to the DanceHouse series. It makes me hope that, as the company rebuilds and redevelops, it will think twice about making its home in the newly reopened Queen Elizabeth Theatre. I know changes in the design and acoustics mean that this venue is not the cavernous echo-chamber it once was; I also know that filling a theatre that size means that much more ticket revenue. However, I never thought the Queen E was the best fit for Ballet BC, and that the impulse for some of former Artistic Director John Alleyne’s more ambitious—if not always completely successful, not to mention financially remunerative—story ballets was just as much a function of the performance space as it was the imagined tastes of the company’s main audience base. If Molnar is indeed trying to attract a new kind of audience for a company that will distinguish itself less by a repertoire of Sleeping Beauties and Nutcrackers than by daring new works of the sort on display in Surfacing, then she would do well to think about the spatial fit of the performance venue as well (one wonders, in this regard, if the about-to-open SFU Woodward’s might fill a much-need size gap here).

One final note. From what I understand new Ballet BC Executive Director Jay Rankin is very good at his job, and is working tirelessly to put the company back on a sound financial footing. However, judging from what he had to say in advance of yesterday’s performance, he’s not the best public speaker. Which is unfortunate if you’re trying to draw attention to arts cuts and urge people to donate to endowment funds, etc. Molnar, on the other hand, is warmth and articulateness personified. My advice: let her do the talking from now on.


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