For her second offering of Ballet BC's 2016/17 season, Emily Molnar has programmed a celebration of Canada's 150+ history (as she astutely re-temporalized this year's national anniversary in her curtain speech, though without an accompanying territorial acknowledgement). Even more specifically this weekend's performances are a showcase of local Vancouver choreographic talent, featuring three world premieres and the return of an audience favourite by superstar Crystal Pite.
In advance of last night's show I was most eager to see the commission by Company 605's Lisa Gelley and Josh Martin. How would their urban hip-hop aesthetic and signature transversal movement flows translate onto a ballet company, with its emphasis on verticality and readable lines? The answer, I have to say, is not so easily. Anthem begins with the Ballet BC ensemble standing upstage in a circular clump; the music (initially by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld) begins and a couple of dancers sway their torsos, sending a similar ripple throughout the rest of the group. This relay effect continues for some time, changing direction and building in choreographic complexity, but also with individual dancers every now and then taking themselves out of the transfer of a particular movement tide to stand and watch. This was my first inkling that all was not right with these new inhabitants of 605-land. A requisite feature of b-boying is members of a posse regularly ceding the floor to their confrères to perform a showcase sequence of moves; while this also allows the folks on the so-called sidelines to catch their breath, they are still kinetically engaged to what's happening around them and in Gelley and Martin's work for their own company there is never a sense that individual dancers, even when momentarily still, aren't connected to the larger movement energy of the group. Maybe it had something to do with how long this opening upstage tableau went on, or maybe it was just my desire for this largely upright crew to drop to the floor, but whenever a Ballet BC dancer paused and took themselves out of the flow of movement it felt like they didn't know what to do with themselves, that they needed a moment to re-sync their bodies with the rhythm of the rest of the group. Of course how one identifies or aligns oneself with a group or cause is implicit in the title Anthem, and Gelley and Martin were certainly playing with this idea when, eventually dispersing the dancers across the stage, they started working with unison. However, as with the music selections that followed these sequences never built to the expected choreographic crescendo. I also found I was missing two features of 605 dancing that I always look forward to: the way in which a volley of movement begun in one body is finished in another; and the sculptural clumps they so often form in their pieces, the liquid limbs of the dancers conjoining as if in a ridiculously complex game of Twister. Paradoxically it was the distance between the dancers that I most registered in Anthem.
Wen Wei Wang's Swan was next on the program. A short and sharp six-part deconstruction of Swan Lake, complete with Sammy Chien's brilliant and loudly industrial distortion of Tchaikovsky's score, the piece was in many ways deliberately derivative: I detected references to Matthew Bourne and Black Swan in the two same-sex partnering sequences, and even to Marie Chouinard in the brilliantly gymnastic solo by Andrew Bartee (who was also excellent on point) on the parallel barres (!) in the concluding sequence. But that didn't make the work any less fun to watch, and the partnering--between Bartee and Christoph von Riedemann, Alexis Fletcher and Peter Smida, Kristen Wicklund and Gilbert Small, and Wicklund and Fletcher--was sublimely accomplished.
Following a pause we were treated to a new pas de deux choreographed by Lesley Telford and danced to a spoken word composition by Barbara Adler. If I were 2 is inspired by the Narcissus myth, which put me in mind of Norman McLaren's brilliant NFB dance film from the 1980s. But Telford and Adler are much more free in their adaptation of the myth, with Adler managing to embed a Debordian critique of the "society of the spectacle" into her text--our hero and heroine first catch a glimpse of each other via their reflections in a storefront window, their faces framed by the deer antlers on the display mannequins--and Telford playing with some of the gendered dynamics of traditional ballet partnering. Thus, while near the top of the piece there is an absolutely stunning lift of the petite Emily Chessa by Brandon Alley, most of the rest of the duet sees the two trading positions of leading and following, including during a very effective play-rewind-repeat sequence in which first one dancer steps forward and points stage right and then the other replaces him or her, each look for a returned gaze simultaneously "a slip of the hook" in Adler's rhythmic phrasing. This is not the first time Telford and Alder have collaborated together and happily it will not be the last (they have another collaboration coming up at The Dance Centre at the end of April); the way they combine text and movement is utterly symbiotic, to the point where once again it is impossible to determine who is leading and who is following. This was made all the more apparent last night by the fact that in addition to a looped recording of Adler's voice, the dancers were also responding to her live recitation of the text from the orchestra pit--and she, likewise, to their movements.
Pite is another Vancouver-based choreographer not afraid of incorporating text into her dance compositions. And yet while Solo Echo takes inspiration from Mark Strand's poem Lines for Winter (which are excerpted in the program), the piece is actually danced to two haunting cello sonatas by Brahms. In the first movement, the seven dancers slide across the stage and orbit around each other like individual points in a rotating constellation, or isolated and pulsating pixels in a momentarily stilled and blown-up photograph. Indeed, the way that Pite has her dancers run on stage successively and then freeze mid-stride in an overlapping horizontal tableau puts one in mind of stop-motion animation, or the panels of a film storyboard (a technique she has explored elsewhere in works like Plot Point and Grace Engine). Here, in the first half of the work, the danced version of montage is used to explore how a force (including a sonic force like an echo) can reverberate from body to body, binding them into a shared resonant field (as with the gorgeous assisted walk that ends this section, with one of the women dancers launching herself from the wings into a supine position on the floor and stretching her arms above her head to capture her male partner's ankles just as he starts to put one leg in front of the other). This single force field then becomes the focus of the second half of the work as Pite exploits the connected bodily massings and domino-like chains that have become her signature in large group works. In so doing, she shows in an expressly kinetic way how the echo, as a sound launched from a singular source out into a larger environment, necessarily comes back as something more expansive, more resonant--something that, though transformed via its diffusion, nevertheless attaches us through careful listening to one another, and to our environment.
Thus for me it is this concluding work by Pite that arguably--and un-anthemically--fulfills the promise of the evening's opening.