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Ballet British Columbia
Queen Elizabeth Theatre • Vancouver, Canada • November 18–20, 2010 • Reviewed by Michael Crabb

 

Ballet BC’s season opener of three contemporary works was more than an evening of fine dancing. It was a triumphant declaration by the Vancouver-based troupe that it’s back from the brink and, in its 25th year, looking to a brighter future.

 

In January 2009, the company faced the possibility of bankruptcy, the result of lackluster fundraising and dwindling ticket sales—only partly caused by a grim economy. Ballet BC lost artistic momentum and just managed to struggle through a drastically diminished season. Now, after a transitional year,  artistic director John Alleyne has been succeeded by former company principal Emily Molnar, and the 15-dancer company—most of them returning members—is looking strongly confident.

 

Molnar’s Songs of a Wayfarer, a poetic rather than literal response to Mahler’s eponymous song cycle—supplemented by a selection of his early lieder—opened a program that suggests her goal is to offer work that’s fresh and compelling, yet not so radical as to scare away a broad-based audience. It’s also clear that Molnar appreciates the wisdom in mixed programming of visual, stylistic, and musical variety.

 

Within designer Scott Reid’s almost monochromatic, surreally undefined landscape—a stage-wide sloping ramp with angled steps, leafless trees, and a large suspended picture frame—Molnar deploys her gender-balanced cast of 10 in shifting moods of exultant, expansive movement and softer, more lushly lyrical passages. Long ballet lines (the women are on pointe) are inflected with occasional angular distortions. The lifts within inventive pas de deux—up-endings and shape-twisting entwinings—suggest less bonding than emotional exploration.

 

Coming after Mahler, John King’s live guitar/computer-modulated score for Face to Face is a jolting contrast. So, too, is Kevin O’Day’s visceral, unpredictable choreography.

 

A woman emerges from (and ends the ballet) behind one of several low panels, an uncredited set suggesting a rocky, alien wilderness. Perhaps the woman is revisiting her past, trying unsuccessfully to rewrite its outcome. There are many ways to interpret the various encounters and incidents that occur among the cast of six. The three men at times seem potentially predatory, yet the women are also strong and assertive. What is clear is O’Day’s delight in creating high-octane movement. Bodies lunge into space, work writhingly from the floor, and grapple with almost primal eroticism.

 

Montreal-based José Navas’ full-company premiere, The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes, unleashes Ballet BC in a whirling kaleidoscope. Almost a choreographic perpetuum mobile, it thrives on Passages, the score by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, reflecting its minimalism and dynamic shifts. Precision and clarity are maintained at high speed, yet the work’s abstractness enhances the human immediacy of the dancers. The spirit is celebratory and uplifting—a fitting way to close a program that testifies to Ballet BC’s resurrection.

 

National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Toronto, Canada
November 24–28, 2010
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

 

With this triple bill, NBC plunged headlong into ultra contemporary weirdness in ballet—and came up triumphant. They are the first company outside of The Royal Ballet to dance Wayne McGregor’s astonishing Chroma. In this landmark work, the glare of lights seems to push the dancers into extreme territory, crooking the wrists, splaying the legs, and swaying the spine. One part of the body can be small and cramped, while another part is yanked open. The women can be stretched wide and pressed to the ground—more reptilian than human. In the first duet, Bridgett Zehr is a drastic creature on the edge of control, at times even looking like a cripple. You can’t take your eyes off her. Tanya Howard’s fine articulation is noticeable, and Greta Hodgkinson powers through with serenity.

 

The music by Joby Talbot and Jack White is sometimes pounding and sometimes lilting. There is no affection per se, but there are tender moments, and they are almost shocking within the cold, clinical context. The sense of caring is expressed not in romantic looks or swoons, but in a shared respite from the take-no-prisoners pace.

 

Thank goodness Serenade softened the stage before Crystal Pite’s Emergence, because otherwise there would have been too much pre-human turmoil at one stretch. With the help of NBC’s orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky live, the dancers rendered the Balanchine masterpiece with strength and sweep. Sonia Rodriguez was solid, energetic, and crisp as the Russian Girl. Elena Lobsanova’s beautifully open chest gave the Dark Angel’s arabesque a swelling look. In the final surrender, Xiao Nan Yu, held on high, opened into such a deep arch back that it seemed she might throw herself off balance.

 

In Emergence, dancers emerge from a cave-like barrel upstage. As in the movie Days of Heaven, we see insects crackle and snap and mate close-up, and then from a distance they coagulate into a menacing swarm. In the opening scene, Rodriguez seems glued to the floor, trying to free up her hands by jerking her shoulder—a fly caught in a spider’s web. At times there seems to be a chase between predator and victim. At other times there’s a lovely overlap, for instance, when the guys hunker down with their strong contractions while a few women bourrée through them.

 

In a large group they whisper, making the sound of cicadas on a summer night, only we eventually hear that they are whispering the counts. Everything—the dancing, the hornets’ nest–type set design by Jay Gower Taylor, and Owen Belton’s ominous sound—adds to the feeling of a swarm. Black markings on the men’s upper backs make them look ready to sting. At the end, all 38 dancers are counting and scratching in unison—just before a light from inside the cave blasts at us. And then they are gone.

 

Choreographers like McGregor and Pite are redefining what it means to be organic. The movement may look deliberately odd, but it’s all part of what the contemporary dancer can do, what the curious body wants to do. In both cases, the set and music were organic to the dance, and it all came together into a complete experience. As complete as Serenade, only instead of divine, these ballets are diabolical.

 

Jonah Bokaer and Harrison Atelier
Abrons Arts Center
New York, NY
November 18–21, 2010
Reviewed by Karen Hildebrand

 

You don’t have to be up to speed on the literature of ancient Greece to appreciate Jonah Bokaer’s new 70-minute work, Anchises. Though inspired by a character in Virgil’s The Aeneid, Bokaer’s gentle reflection on aging and familial responsibility stands on its own.

 

In Virgil’s story, Aeneas is allowed to leave town when Troy falls to the Greeks, but he can take only what he is able to carry on his back. He transports his father, Anchises, on his shoulders, along with the family history and traditions that will become the foundation for a new civilization.
Bokaer’s cast of five spans an age range of more than 50 years, bookended by James McGinn, 24, and Valda Setterfield, in her 70s. Meg Harper is in her 60s, Catherine Miller in her 30s, and Bokaer is 29.

 

The dancers perform a series of duets—quiet studies of gesture and weight, first between Bokaer and Setterfield. He reaches out to touch her like a doctor to a patient, and she pointedly removes his hand. She adjusts his collar like a mother, or wife. He kneels before her like a shoe salesman, and she places her foot on his thigh, then pushes him over. He carries her on his shoulders in a literal interpretation of The Aeneid and lays her gently on a slab made from modular cubes that the dancers configure into chairs, walls, beds. They arrange and rearrange the cubes as fluidly as the duets melt into different variations. Gestures repeat and become a song that plays in your head long after the performance ends.
A favorite image is a couple shuffling in a traditional slow-dance embrace when a third person joins them, making a sandwich. Later, the sandwich becomes a double-decker with four people.

 

Anchises is well-composed and restrained. It’s a pleasure to watch the erect Cunningham-esque posture and precise movement (Bokaer, Setterfield, and Harper are all former members of Merce Cunningham’s company), but one yearns for them to let go a little.

 

It’s the set, not the dancers, that ultimately breaks loose. Designers Ariane and Seth Harrison (of the design firm Harrison Atelier, with whom Bokaer shares equal credit as collaborators) have created a sculpture that lurks upstage like a giant iridescent jellyfish (bathed in blue light by Aaron Copp). Midway, it drops eight large white foam cylinders onto the stage to tumble like the fall of Troy. The sound score by Loren Dempster (parts of which were performed live by him and his father, Stuart Dempster) clanks, and the dancers freeze long enough to take in the new information, then scramble to deal with the changes that life, like Bokaer, has rendered, multilayered and insistent.

 

 

Ballet BC’s Donald Sales, Makaila Wallace, and Peter Smida. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC

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