If you attended a ballet performance that included two Balanchine works, the pas de deux “Belong” from Norbert Vesak’s “What To Do Till The Messiah Comes”, music ranging from Tchaikovsky to Gershwin to Pink Floyd, and the world premiere of a forty-five-minute contemporary ballet with live music on stage, it would probably be a National Ballet of Canada production or the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB).
Now imagine that program is being offered by Ballet Victoria, a lean troupe of only nine artists, if you count artistic director Paul Destrooper, who often does triple duty as a dancer and choreographer. Their newest production, The Secret Garden and Selected Works at the McPherson Playhouse in Victoria scored as another hit with audiences in the Garden City. The two-hour show also featured three guest dancers: Gavin Larsen, Adrian Fry and Brian Simcoe, all from Oregon Ballet Theater.
Destrooper, a former member of the RWB, founded Ballet Victoria in 2002 and has had an ambitious artistic and strategic vision for the company. He proudly notes that in spite of the economic downturn, the company has stayed in the black this season.
Yet in his opening remarks to the audience, he also pointed out that due to recent cuts to arts funding by the BC government, the company now has absolutely no funding from the province. Destrooper says they formerly relied on ticket sales for only seventy percent of their operating funds, but now rely on box office for ninety percent. Yet the company somehow tours regularly and even offers pro bono performances to support fundraisers for worthy charities or other community groups.
In the past, Ballet Victoria has staged many other original works by Destrooper, such as last season’s “Cinderella.” This new show is anchored by another new Destrooper ballet, “The Secret Garden”, which was inspired and influenced by Michael Shamata’s play rather than the original Francis Hodgson book. In this version, the ghost of the family’s mother, performed with great pathos and tenderness by Megan Cox, appears upstage from the other characters, sometimes leaving white roses on chairs or other places in the mansion.
The story is simple, yet Destrooper has elevated it beyond just another family ballet like “Cinderella”. By bringing the grieving father, Mr. Craven (Robb Beresford) into the scenes as a melancholy counterpart to the radiant joy of Mary (Andrea Bayne) — an orphan the family has adopted — we see the shadows of death everywhere amid the troubled lives of the children. Mr. Craven’s only son, Colin (Geoff Malcolm) is a sickly child, relegated to a bed and a wheelchair because he is too weak to walk; yet somehow we know that the family’s grief over the loss of the mother is at the root of his illness.
The forty-five-minute ballet, which appears in the second half of the show, includes live music with pianist Danny Jordan, cellist Alastair Crosby and violinist Pablo Diemecke on stage performing music by Joseph Haydn. The set pieces are minimal. Destrooper manages to incorporate Colin’s wheelchair into the choreography without it seeming awkward or gimmicky, and a wide screen above the stage depicts changes of setting, such as the gothic exterior of the mansion and the lush flowers of the secret garden the children discover. The lighting design by company technician Adam Wilkinson helps isolate the ghostly mother in a space of her own upstage of the other characters.
Bayne lit up the stage as the kindly Mary, who entertains Colin with her dancing and is later given a key to the secret garden by a robin (Natsuki Murase). One of the company’s leading dancers, her effervescent spirit and flowing limbs could be compared with one of Destrooper’s former RWB colleagues, Evelyn Hart. Dancers Christie Wood (the Governess), Amanda Radetzky (the Maid) and Destrooper (as Dickon, the maid’s younger brother) also turned in admirable performances.
However, Beresford and Cox stole the show with their achingly unfulfilled longing for each other. A poignant pas de deux in the middle of the ballet was without a doubt the highlight of the piece. Mr. Craven imagines embracing and dancing with his wife, while her ghost shadows his movements and follows him closely as if they really are together. At times they touch without touching — hands turned outward from each other rather than clasped.
In terms of the set design, Destrooper’s “Garden” suffered a little from the low-budget treatment. Given how important the beauty of nature is to this allegorical tale – starting with a dead, neglected garden that the children gradually transform into a place of supernatural beauty that somehow heals little Colin — setting an actual display of real flowers onstage rather than simply a few plastic bouquets would have added a powerful visual and perhaps even olfactory dimension.
Regardless, “The Secret Garden” was a superlative example of new Canadian narrative ballet choreography that may be of interest to other companies (though California’s Oakland Ballet created a version in 1996 that was generally well received, too.) Not bad for a work that Destrooper was still creating for his dancers just a few weeks before the opening night show.
The first part of the program featured five works that were sizzling examples of the artistic range of Destrooper’s hard-working dancers and his ability to select guest dancers who somehow seemed to blend into the company seamlessly. It started with an excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (Act 1 Waltz, with neo-classical choreography by Destrooper), performed by Radetzky, Wood, Murase and Risa Kobayashi (alternating with Misato Wakamatsu) and ended with choreographer Bruce Monk’s “.mov”, set to three songs by 1970s prog rock band Pink Floyd.
In the “Belong” Pas de Deux from Norbert Vesak’s 1973 work, “What To Do Till The Messiah Comes”, Destrooper and Bayne (in evocative, white full-body leotards by Jane Wood) performed the technically demanding yet lyrical movements, which won the gold medal for RWB’s Evelyn Hart in 1980 for a legendary performance by she and David Peregrine. Bayne threw herself body and soul into the feats of balance, strength and expression that the romantic work demands. Outstretched on her partner’s back, Bayne’s sustained poise and beauty drew a spontaneous “Wow!” from a young patron in the audience.
The two Balanchine works, which the company received permission to perform by the George Balanchine Trust, were “Apollo” and “Who Cares?”, from diametrically opposite ends of the Balanchine spectrum. The mythic pas de deux “Apollo”, where the god of music is visited by Terpsichore, the muse of dance and song, was beautifully executed by guest dancers Fry and Larsen from the Oregon Ballet Theater, to “Apollon Musagète” by Igor Stravinsky. The angular, heroic poses within the choreography created a striking contrast against the liquidity of the music and the classically styled white costumes with only stains of color.
“Who Cares?”, performed in front of a projection of an urban landscape à la New York City, evoked a very American élan in the first song (“Liza”) with Simcoe’s light-footed romantic steps, but the next song (“The Man I Love”) featuring Larsen and Fry was an energetic and satisfying dance.
I was most interested in seeing Monk’s “.mov” (the name refers to a popular video format) and how he had interpreted the dense, surreal and bluesy Pink Floyd favorites: “Sorrow”, “Time” and “Is Anybody Out There?” Performed by the entire company, the dance is structured into four movements that use a synthesis of classical, neoclassical and modern dance vocabulary.
In the last song, the dancers posed on the floor, downstage, and used flashlights to create a spotlight for a pas de deux in the centre of the stage, which created the kind of atmosphere and lighting seen in Alan Parker’s spooky 1982 film “The Wall”. However, the entire piece was abrupt and disjointed, as if it had been excerpted from a full-length work, which in fact it was.
Ballet Victoria’s next shows this season are a reprise of the popular “Cinderella” in December and Destrooper’s remount of his “Carmina Burana” next March.