Fresh from drinking in the National Ballet of Canada’s recent Balanchine season where works like “Rubies” and “Theme and Variations” stood for deep appreciation of the female form, my mind still echoes with the oft-repeated Balanchine quote “ballet is woman”. What a splashy switch then to soak up Patrick Parson’s premiere for members of his Ballet Creole company, an all-male ballet entitled “Breaking Out”.
In this program at the Premiere Dance Theatre, Parson showed the first two sections of the full work, which he intends to expand to four sections once he has recruited more men to his company. Set to traditional West African drumming and vocal music, “Breaking Out” begins with three successive solos, one each for Dalton Frank, Ian Huggins and Jelani Ade Douglas. Through their movement, the three men express restraint and the freedom implied by the title: slow controlled presses against imagined resistance, expansive jumps with no discernable plié preparation, mid-air suspensions and fully extended arms. After a diagonal unison entrance, they move separately with only one rare moment of supported contact between them. Their faces express internal conflict, occasionally directed outward in a forward confrontational gaze, but their eyes don’t ever fall on each other, leaving no room for a supposition of intended relationship between them.
The men are bare-chested and dressed in Sherry Ann Olivierre’s full orange silk skirts, the shine and fluidity of which contrast prominently with the dancers’ solidly muscled bodies. My eye is drawn to the waistbands of these skirts. Where one would expect a skirt to emerge below an inwardly curved waist, here straight vertical lines of torso lead down to the flared fabric, further emphasizing the dancers’ masculine physiques. Their defined calves and quadriceps beneath these skirts when the men spin out or drop and roll on the ground are another surprise: sharply cut muscles where the eye expects a raised skirt to reveal a more womanly shaped leg. These costumes are a beautiful and clever way to highlight the male form.
What intrigues me even more is the eclectic nature of the Ballet Creole company and of Parson’s work. Two elements of the company mandate, as indicated on its website are, “to preserve and perpetuate traditional and contemporary African culture” and “to establish a dynamic new Canadian artistic tradition based on a fusion of diverse dance and music traditions”. The website also explains the term “Creole” as referring to “the Creole language developed in the African diaspora as a common language for inhabitants coming from so many different linguistic and cultural groups”. I was curious about whether there would be coherence to a dance form that had such wide-ranging origins. Watching, I thought I could identify steps that might come from West African traditional dance, classical ballet, from Katherine Dunham’s technique based on her anthropological studies in Africa and the Caribbean, as well as movements from the modern dance techniques of Martha Graham and Lester Horton, all techniques taught at Parson’s school.
Parson employs continuously varying floor patterns, direction changes and, in “Spirit of Carnaval”, another of his works on the program that includes female dancers, he configures male/female supported lifts and duets. Bursts of high-energy and rousing repetitive rhythmic steps offer strong contrast to the long controlled reaches and balances. After a while I stop trying to recognize familiar steps and begin to enjoy the greater shape of the whole.
The second section of “Breaking Out” has the men dancing to a more lyrical piece of vocal music that includes marimba with the drums. Along with steps from the above noted styles, I recognized one fairly gymnastic step that I have seen appear in much new contemporary choreography. Beginning in a seated position, the dancer plants one hand on the ground behind him and pushes with a foot to propel himself in an arch backward to land on his feet. Personally, I have come to closely associate this step with signature movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s in its virtuosic athleticism. In the context of Ballet Creole’s amalgam of ingredients it seems as innately rooted as in any other.
Parson is successful at creating a coherent form – drawing on a range of influences, from West African forms to Dunham, Graham, Horton and ballet, and deftly intertwining them to support and feature the dynamic of his male cast. The dancers contribute a celebratory energy, matched during “Spirit of Carnaval” by the live Creole Drummatrix ensemble, also led by Parson. The result is a dance performance at the Premiere Dance Theatre where members of the audience exclaim loud vocal wow’s at each new development and where multicultural traditions blend deliciously with profound theatrical expression.