Arts Umbrella has long been the Vancouver dance community's stealth weapon. Under the legendary leadership of Artistic Director Artemis Gordon, the Granville Island dance school has trained generations of Ballet BC members and now, increasingly, major international companies are travelling to recruit from its graduating ranks. The drawing card is that while Gordon has given her dancers an unparalleled foundation in classical technique, she also encourages individual expressiveness and creativity.
Part of that creativity emerges from the company's incredibly varied repertoire, which includes lots of contemporary work, and which also, to Gordon's great credit, makes a point of showcasing the diverse choreographic talents of local Vancouver artists. Both of these aspects were on display at this weekend's AU Dance Season Finale, held at the Playhouse from Thursday through Saturday. I attended yesterday's matinee performance, and the program featured works choreographed by two former Ballet BCers, as well as one current company member. (Ballet BC AD Emily Molnar was also in the audience, no doubt casting a watchful eye on possible future apprentices.) Alyson Fretz's Cuore, choreographed on the apprentice company, began with a charming extended sequence in which the dancers, seated on the floor and backlit, move their arms above their heads in gracefully silhouetted arcs. Peter Smida's even just hello, also set on the apprentice company and featuring an eclectic musical score (including Jimmy Durante singing Make Someone Happy), was a witty comment on both the dailiness of dance class and the social anxieties of adolescence, with the two male members of the company at one point interfering with their female counterparts' arm and leg extensions at an imaginary barre, and later dragging two other girls from the corps to partner them (willingly or not) stage right. Finally, Simone Orlando's En Avant, which closed the program, provided a fitting bookend to the excerpt from her former Ballet BC boss John Alleyne's Four Seasons that began the afternoon; the requisite leaps, turns, lifts and dextrous footwork appropriately (if somewhat ho-humedly) highlighted the senior company's technical command and musicality.
For me the standout pieces on yesterday's program were by Crystal Pite and Amber Funk Barton. Four women from the senior company (Ria Girard, Misa Lucyshyn, Brooke Williamson and Sabine Raskin) performed an excerpt from Pite's A Picture of You Flying (part of The You Show); in collapsing joint by joint to the floor and then floating back up as if pulled by invisible strings, and in inserting themselves into and serving as ballast for Pite's trademark bodily chains, the dancers proved themselves more than equal to both the work's distinctive choreography and Owen Belton's challenging electronic score. Finally, Barton's Factory was a revelation; set on the women of the apprentice company (though, I have to say, I mistook them for the senior company until I read the program notes), it begins in silence with the dancers preening and posing like bathing suit models or Andy Warhol superstars, albeit ones who look like they've just stepped out of a Francis Bacon painting, with the dancers pulling their arms in at the elbows, bending at the hips and baring their teeth in a fierce grimace. They do all of this before a line of men from the senior company, who sit cross-legged downstage, with their backs to the audience. Then suddenly an African bass drum tucked in the downstage left corner of the stage is struck, and this is the cue for the piece to move (quite literally) into a whole other register, with Barton using the driving beat of the drumming (and, periodically, the men's accompanying clapping) to structure a series of solos and unison sequences that emanate from the dancers' pelvic cores and that build upon the plie as a recurring motif.
One of the more interesting aspects of such year-end showcases is the audience. It's filled with parents and extended family members and friends, who embody a range of ages (and attention spans), and who, refreshingly, don't necessarily respect the usual protocols of spectating decorum. One rambunctious toddler in the row in front of me kept up a running commentary throughout the afternoon, asking her mother why none of the dancers were in tutus, why there was no music, how come it was so dark, why the dancers kept running on and off the stage like that? It was hilarious, but also encouraging: for here was someone who was fully engaged with the art. Which is, after all, what we wish from all performance.