In the pre-show chat that preceded last night's performance of Ballet BC's season-opening Program 1, choreographer-in-residence Cayetano Soto talked in glowing terms about his admiration for the company, its dancers, Emily Molnar as artistic director, and about how, following the premiere of his acclaimed Twenty Eight Thousand Waves in 2014, he didn't have to think twice about Molnar's invitation to accept his current appointment. Soto, who not only choreographs but also designs the lighting and costumes for his pieces, is unusually adept at creating provocative and sensorially arresting atmospheres in and through his dances. That talent was on abundant display last night, as in an evening devoted to four of his works the mood shifted gradually from darker to lighter.
Beginning After, the first piece on the program and a world premiere, begins with a projected title about the fine line between truth and the illusion of memory. The dancers emerge singly and in pairs from the upstage darkness in shiny black singlets that resemble exoskeletons. There is rarely ever more than two dancers on stage, but such is the shutter-like effect that Soto creates with his lighting (which in addition to the general dim half-light throughout includes brief blackouts and later strobe-like flashes) and the slow fade ins and fade outs that accompany the dancers' entrances and exits that the whole piece has the look and feel of time-lapse photography or stop-motion cinema. Certainly we are meant to question what we are seeing, which extends to the extraordinary partnering that Soto builds to at the conclusion of the piece. I had thought that the lifts in Twenty Eight Thousand Waves were the most complicated I had ever seen, but here Soto takes things to a whole other level, and it is impossible not to marvel at how the dancers--who often put me in mind of baroque versions of pairs figure skaters (the music is by Handel)--combine the speed, fluidity and angularity required to accomplish the partnering for this piece. As my colleague Judith Garay put it at intermission, it's the tangled lines Soto creates in this work that are so captivating.
There followed two short pieces created by Soto in 2007 and 2013 respectively, but here receiving their Canadian premieres. The first, Fugaz, is a meditation on the death of Soto's father, but it unfolds in such a way that it is impossible not to meditate on the gender politics embedded--whether consciously or not--in the piece. Emily Chessa, Racheal Prince, Nicole Ward and Livona Ellis form a feminine quartet whose spatial interactions are interrupted by successive appearances of masculine ghost-like presences, these figures in black emerging from stairs at the lip of the stage and then disappearing into the darkness upstage. However, on one such pass towards the end of the piece, first Christoph von Riedemann and then Peter Smida partners with Chessa and Ellis respectively, the latter pairing turning into a violent scene that almost resembles a rape, and that left me a little confused as to how to read the piece. The gender dynamics that necessarily accrue to traditional dance partnering are less obviously on display in Sortijas, an affecting duet for Scott Fowler and Alexis Fletcher performed to the music of Lhasa de Sela. This is partly because of the nude jersey that Fletcher wears on her torso, that next to Fowler's bare chest and when combined with their matching black pants, has the effect of making her appear androgynous. To be sure, it is the powerful and technically superb Fowler who is still doing the lifting throughout but elsewhere in the piece one has the sense that the two dancers are equal halves of the same striving soul. This is nowhere more apparent than at the end of the piece when, after the music cuts out, the movement continues for a moment longer, the dancers' breathing synchronizing into its own lush and immersive soundscape as the curtain drops (a similar conceit ends Beginning After).
The evening concluded with the second world premiere of the program. Schachmatt, which is German for check-mate, and which Soto has developed and expanded from an earlier piece called Conrazoncorazon. Tapping into the ribald energy of Weimar-era cabaret (think Marlene Dietrich's Blue Angel crossed with Fosse's Kit Kat girls, referenced not least in the short shorts worn by both the male and female dancers), this exuberant ensemble piece showcases lots of quick shuffle toe and ball change unison footwork, swivelling hips, and even jazz hands. But it's by no means a parody and the virtuosity of the dancers is utterly compelling. It was a great way to finish the evening and to punctuate the start of the company's new season.