Ballet BC's second performance offering during this, its 30th anniversary season, was an all Medhi Walerski program. It begins with a reworking of Prelude, which the choreographer first created for the company in February 2014, and which I wrote about here. For this version, Walerski has expanded the piece to accommodate nine additional dancers from Arts Umbrella on top of Ballet BC's full complement of 16 company members and three apprentices. It's a wonderfully crowded stage and Walerski exploits the bodily massings effectively by moving between straight lines and simple unison and chaotic swirlings of individual dancers' limbs and torsos that get distributed across the stage. At the heart of the work, however, remains a romantic pas de deux; the always elegant Rachel Meyer reprises her role and this time is partnered by Scott Fowler, who seems to grow in strength as a dancer each season. The duet unfolds in stages, a story of longing and loss as it intersects with the passage of time--something that is reinforced by the repeated pendulum-like swinging of the arms of the dancers in the corps, as well as by their encircling of the lovers in a crouched and swaying clockwise two-step. Maybe it was just a result of the extra dancers, but I was indeed struck this time by how much this piece draws from conventions of classic nineteenth-century story ballet, from the deconstructed port de bras that I read into the recurring gestural motif of the corps dancers delicately balancing one extended wrist upon the other in front of their chests to Fowler's thrashings on the floor following Meyer's slow backwards exit upstage evoking so many lovestruck male dancers driven mad by the premature deaths or general unattainability of their sylph-like objects of desire.
That Prelude and the second piece on the program, the world premiere of the new commission Natus, are meant to be read as linked somehow (at least in this staging) can be seen from the fact that the company took no bows at the end of the former. Moreover, following intermission audience members return to their seats to encounter the image of a man (Fowler, presumably) suspended above the stage, his dimly lit floating body resembling an oversized fetus. At this point the house lights are still up but a hush has slowly fallen over the audience and out of this transitional space there emerges a voice asking if we have our tickets. The voice is attached to Peter Smida, who enters from the back of the orchestra seats and wends his way to the stage, switching back and forth between genial conversation with the audience and the anxious recitation of items on a list. Having reached the front row, he selects an older female patron to accompany him in a brief waltz, before becoming distracted once again with his list; the items on it seem to be for a party, but despite the subsequent appearance of a cake it's not entirely clear that the party is celebratory. Verbal, visual, and musical references to a funeral also abound--which may be Smida's own, as at the end of his opening monologue he throws himself into the orchestra pit.
With Petite Cérémonie (a Ballet BC audience favourite, though I'll frankly be glad not to see it programmed again for a good long while) Walerski established that he is fond of mixing dance and physical comedy, movement and talking. And yet while I am normally a fan of text in dance, and while I have always responded to Smida as a charismatic performer, here I found the extended chatter to be gimmicky and I wanted it to stop. Especially at the end, when Smida enters wearing a jacket that seems to be covered with flower petals and starts a final long list about what he loves that builds into a screaming riot of free association, I found the device incredibly distracting and would simply have preferred to concentrate wholly on the final long sequence of explosive unison, which is performed to traditional Japanese drumming. Walerski is clearly an adept choreographer of hypnotic group patterning (an earlier sequence featured alternating gendered lines of running dancers, with one group having to duck under the arms of the other, which each time had me anticipating someone being cuffed in the head). He also knows how to balance the maximalist spectacle with the spare and simple; as in Prelude there is an effecting duet, danced by Smida and Livona Ellis, which is all the more compelling for the toning down of Smida's previous glossolalia. It is thus perplexing to me why Walerski feels the need to embellish his work unnecessarily with theatrical tricks which, in this case, seem to be about ingratiating himself to the audience (though, judging by the enthusiastic response, it seemed to work).
In her curtain speech Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar announced the line-up for the 2016-17 season. It starts in November with new work by the company's next choreographer-in-residence, Cayetano Soto. In the spring of 2017 there is an all-Canadian (and, more specifically, all Vancouver) program featuring works by Wen Wei Wang, Lesley Telford, Crystal Pite, and Company 605--my mind is already racing about how the latter's Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin will set their style on Ballet BC's dancers. Finally, the season concludes with a mixed program that, among other things, will showcase something from Batsheva's Ohad Naharin.