Ballet British Columbia was once a serious little company that prided itself on its spare black-on-black repertoire, but these days it aims to create a friendlier sense of theatrical occasion. Their season is held at the cavernous Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which takes some filling — the stage is large and so is the auditorium — and offering more than dancers in black on a dark stage certainly makes it easier to generate media attention and grab the public’s interest.
Collaborations that open up the insular ballet world to the wider community are always a good strategy for building occasion. This is what artistic director John Alleyne has done in his latest work, “The Four Seasons”, set to Vivaldi’s vibrant suite of violin concertos, a score that has attracted numerous choreographers in recent years (beginning with James Kudelka’s fabulously musical version in 1997 for The National Ballet of Canada). For his “Four Seasons”, Alleyne is joined by two visual artists, with one actually on stage. He’s also included a dozen student dancers from Arts Umbrella, and there’s live music from the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. Finally, Alleyene commissioned local composer Michael Bushnell to create a Vivaldi-inspired prelude and postlude.
During Bushnell’s opening and closing sections, Jones Henry and Makaila Wallace move in a gentle pas de deux below a strange wooden contraption that hangs from the flies stage left — a kind of box with a thin moving piece that jitters back and forth. As those who have read their program notes know, this “art installation piece created by Alan Storey will track the movements of the lead female dancer in real-time [,] ‘drawing’ her dance on a canvas suspended above the stage.”
What happens is this: through a device attached to Wallace, a camera picks up her movement, then feeds the information to a computer, which causes the moving piece — a large pen — to map her path around the stage. This is revealed at the end of the ballet, during the postlude, when Storey’s contraption descends and opens up to reveal a jumble of black lines on a white canvas. As a fan of Storey’s public art — the Pendulum installation in the HSBC Building on Georgia Street or the musical barrels in False Creek — I enjoyed his contribution, despite feeling it wasn’t integral to Alleyne’s choreographic work.
In the central section of the ballet, I also enjoyed having Tiko Kerr (who has worked with Alleyne twice before) on stage painting on a piece of Plexiglas: he watches the dancers, listens to the music and creates an increasingly chaotic and brightly coloured abstract painting. Focusing on Kerr in his upstage corner was, however, a distraction — there was enough to do keeping track of the six female and seven male dancers’ constantly changing configurations and movements.
The men were particularly engaging. They stride purposefully on and off stage, strutting around like a gang of toughs from “West Side Story”, crouching and often sitting or laying on the ground. The Gnam brothers — Connor and James, who can be difficult to tell apart in the quickly moving instant of dance — power lightly through their whirl of movement, while Donald Sales brings impressive gravitas to his still moments. Chengxin Wei’s solo, a masterly balance of weight and suspension during Winter, is a gem. With a fascinating blend of anguish and anger, Wei hits his chest, looks up to the heavens, falls down, gasps painfully aloud, and suddenly leaps with beautiful balletic precision. The solo concludes with Wei standing centre stage, his arm raised in the air, fingers clenched as if about to throw a pair of dice — but instead, he walks slowly off.
The women’s movement is more delicate and less dramatic. Often, Wallace’s almost cries out for a literal interpretation, like when she cups an open hand under her mouth or when she bends low and shifts her weight from side to side, as if evading an enemy’s punch. The women’s costumes, too, are less dramatic — Kim Nielsen puts them in A-line mid-calf dresses that mask their bodies, and tidy buns add a polished ballerina look. The men’s outfits are better for revealing line and body: they wear tight brown suits or, removing their jackets, sleeveless blouses with ruffles down the front. Wallace alternates between both, looking more dynamic in her blouse and tight pants (worn during the prelude and postlude) than in the dress.
A lyrical section comes from the Arts Umbrella dancers, costumed in pretty peach dresses. For them, Alleyne has choreographed neat lines and soft poses with a deft hand. Surprisingly, this section is set during Autumn and not Spring or Summer, conventionally the seasons of youth.
Alleyne has become known for his ambitious narrative ballets, beginning with “The Faerie Queen” in 2000, and followed by works like “Scheherazade”, “Orpheus” and, most recently in 2006, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, but this time he forgoes story for an abstract meditation on the passing of time. If individual parts are not quite reigned in to serve one overall vision, “The Four Seasons” was still a very enjoyable evening out, with choreography that repaid the second visit I was able to make on closing night.
The orchestra also accompanied the Canadian premiere of Mark Morris’ 2001 “A Garden”. Again, I thought the choreography particularly interesting for the men. The delicate gestures and light suspension required played against expectations of masculinity — Shannon Smith’s gentle arms and hands, and leaps, were a revelation. “A Garden” is a welcome addition to Ballet BC’s repertoire and the first time in decades that Vancouver has seen a Morris piece.
The evening opened with Dominique Dumais’ “a/way inside” (1999), set to a Glenn Gould recording of Bach. The work was chosen for the program by dancer Edmond Kilpatrick, who is leaving the company after nine seasons. Kilpatrick last performed this duet in 2005 with Acacia Schachte, a favourite partner; this time, he danced with one of the newer members, Alexis Fletcher. The duo embodied the yes/no dynamic of Dumais’ movement with equal grace and commitment, and it made for a fine farewell. Kilpatrick will continue to work as a freelance artist — and surely Ballet BC will want him back for roles requiring a mature presence.
All in all — what with Kilpatrick’s farewell to mark and Alleyne’s new ballet to premiere — this evening at the theatre proved to be one with a greatly enjoyable sense of occasion.