Ballet BC concluded its 2016/17 season with a mixed program of three works that I was hoping would challenge and engage me more than they did. For reasons of time and general polemicizing I will concentrate mostly on the first piece in this response.
The evening opened with the world premiere of Israeli-born and Paris-based Emmanuel Gat's LOCK. Like compatriot Ohad Naharin (also on the program), Gat started dancing relatively late (at age 23), but seems to have been similarly (and preternaturally) gifted, soon founding his own company in Tel Aviv before decamping for France and accruing a steady wave of major international commissions. Also like many contemporary Israeli choreographers (including Sharon Eyal and her partner Gai Behar, whose Bill, we learned, will be receiving a Ballet BC remount next season), Gat exercises full creative control over the composition and design of his work, in this case providing the music and lighting for LOCK in addition to the choreography. That said, the piece's first section begins in silence. On a square of white Marley Andrew Bartee, distinguished from the rest of the grey shorts and t-shirts clad company by his green pants and black top, accompanies Kristen Wicklund (I think) in an extended floor sequence. The two dancers crab-crawl backwards and forwards, extend their legs horizontally over each other's supine torsos, and variously step into, over and on each other's limbs as the rest of the performers watch from either side of the stage. Eventually, as the music is haltingly introduced--a screech of horns here, a droning guitar lick there, some intermittent bass--so too do the other dancers make their way onto the Marley, each seeming to improvise a personal repertoire of moves: from the tiny beating of a breast to a whole body sway and shimmy to the floor. It is clear, especially in moments when the dancers come to stillness, pause to look at each other, and then launch into another sequence of gestures and movement phrases, that there is a score that's being followed. However, I confess that it often felt like I was watching a rehearsal warm-up or an improv class, and I longed for a clearer conceptual and kinetic through-line to connect what I was seeing. That came, briefly, after a faux blackout when the dancers formed into two groups and began a counterpoint of unison movement, one group rounder and lope-ier in the swaying of their torsos and weighting of their lower bodies, the other's leg extensions more precise and angular. But this didn't last for long and soon it was back to trying to make sense of the central muddle into which Gat very literally thrusts his dancers. In this respect I hazard to say that my frustrations with LOCK are one of the potential pitfalls of a company like Ballet BC chasing after star international choreographers for new commissions to add to their repertoire. With only a limited time to create the work, and perhaps over-extended in terms of ideas for a new work, the default starting point becomes the dancers and their process--as Gat himself acknowledges in his program note. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, especially if the company is as talented as Ballet BC; however, I question the wisdom of making process the product in the context of a full company piece for a ballet company (even one as adventurously contemporary as this one) without a rigorous embedding within the work of the reasons for this. Otherwise it feels, as has been the case with other recent Ballet BC commissions from jet-setting international choreographers, that I am watching a bunch of talented dancers show me some interesting moves rather than a dance that is interesting because of how those moves cohere in a meaningful way. Here I come back to the figure of Bartee, around whom the other dancers are apparently pivoting, but who never gets his expected solo--except, arguably, in a brief flourish and then hasty retreat at the end.
The second piece on the program was Ballet BC Artistic Director Emily Molnar's newest work, Keep Driving, I'm Dreaming. A commission from the National Arts Centre (where it premiered last month) as part of their ENCOUNT3RS project, which paired three Canadian choreographers with three Canadian composers to create new works set to original music, Molnar's piece features a big, bold and lushly jazzy score by Nicole Lizée. It also has a fantastic, Hollywood-style lighting design by Jock Munro, with six follow spots combining and dividing over the course of the work in a way that suggested the glamorously over-the-top illumination of a 1940s studio soundstage. Into these spots run and slide a succession of eight dancers, the momentary catching of themselves in the floodlights prompting a vision of who or where else they might be through brief bursts of movement. In this, there is a way in which the choreography, together with the music, the lighting design, and the costumes by Kate Burrows, suggests a romantic dreamworld that incorporates both a fantasy future and a nostalgic past, much in the vein of the recent La La Land. I will admit, however, that this trope, along with all the running more generally, started to wear on me. I much preferred when Molnar slowed things down a bit and made the movement more contained and precise, as with a pair of mirrored duets in which, for example, the time lag of non-unison unison succinctly telegraphed the idea of watching your life unfold before you like a movie. Also successful was the closing image of the piece, in which the dancers, staggered horizontally, take turns running toward the lip of the stage and leap into the air--and, it almost seems, out over the first rows of the audience--before retreating back upstage and starting over again. As a representation of the work's dialectical backwards-forwards temporality and the desire to break through the artificial frame separating spectator and performer this closing tableau played out beautifully.
The evening concluded with the company's presentation of Minus 16, a kind of greatest hits of excerpts from some of Batsheva choreographer Naharin's most celebrated works. These include the driving and explosive chair canon set to the traditional Israeli folksong Echad Mi Yodea; the gorgeous duet from Mabul (1992), set to Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus and featuring the male dancer entering bent at the waist, his arms extended in supplication or prayer, gently nudging the female dancer across the stage, until she grabs his hands and places his arms about her waist; and the audience participation favourite in which the dancers invite spectators up onto to the stage to dance with them. It was a lot of fun and I can see why dance companies the world over are anxious to have something by Mr. Gaga in their repertoires. But the fact that I'd seen versions of most of these works in 2009 as part of DanceHouse's presentation of Batsheva in another Naharin touring compilation, Deca Dance, meant that I largely knew what was coming. No complaints on that front, but in terms of the rousing, crowd-pleasing finish that this work--and the evening as a whole--builds to, it does seem like Ballet BC, in this instance, is a little late to the party.