Ballet Victoria’s one-night-only appearance at North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre drew a good crowd for a mixed bill mostly of premieres to music by Bach (the first half) and Pink Floyd (the second). The artistic director of the nine-year-old company, Paul Destrooper, was probably aiming at a something-for-everyone line-up, but less, in this case, would have been better: the choreographic content was thin, and sometimes troubling. Yet the evening did feature a roster of strong performers, including Destrooper himself, plus ten young colleagues (seven Canadians, three Japanese) and one more mature new addition – Sandrine Cassini, who danced in Europe before working in Canada with Ballet British Columbia and Alberta Ballet.
Cassini is also a choreographer for the small Vancouver Island troupe, and she contributed three works to the program. She wasn’t the only dancer-cum-choreographer on the bill: there were also works by Daniela Sodero, who danced with Alberta Ballet in the nineties; Australian dancer Paul Knobloch; photographer and ex-Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer Bruce Monk; and Destrooper himself, an ex-RWB dancer. Victoria’s Constance Cooke was the one established choreographer, albeit in modern dance.
Cooke’s “Bach on Pointe”, to an excerpt from “The Goldberg Variations”, was the only one of the nine pieces that dared a deeper, personal expression. Her choreography for four women – Risa Kobayashi, Christie Wood, Amanda Radetzky and Brichelle Brucker – was energetic and direct, with interesting, closely entangled trios that kept everyone’s feet firmly on the ground, without any lifts. Those feet were in pointe shoes, although I’m not sure why Cooke opted to use them: the dancers often stood on bent legs, even when on pointe, and they wore knee pads that further interrupted the line of their legs. A motif throughout was the use of touch: a hand on another’s forehead, waist or thigh. I liked the way this broke through the formal, brittle exterior of the classical vocabulary as used in the opening piece by Sodero.
Sodero’s “The Playground”, to three movements of Bach’s “Partita No. 3 in E Major”, provided a strangely light gloss of movement to the dark tensions of the score. In this piece for six women and one man, the choreographer responded to the music with a predictable vocabulary of retirés and pirouettes. Knobloch’s “Facets of Light”, to the second movement of Bach’s “Concerto No. 5 in F Minor”, was a tangled duet for Cassini and Destrooper. He was kept busy lifting her and accommodating the extreme extensions of her legs as she stretched and unfolded around him.
The final first act piece – Destrooper’s “Le Banc” to cello suites — premiered with Ballet Kelowna in 2009. It features three male-female couples who take turns having amorous adventures around a bench. The troubling aspect of the evening’s choreography referred to in the opening paragraph of this review is illustrated by one duet that has the woman slide down the man’s body and onto the floor, legs splayed wide in second position, pouting and apparently quite helpless until her partner comes over to assist her up. I know her helplessness is meant to be humorous, but it was this kind of antiquated male-female relationship that marred the evening, which had too many episodes where men lifted, swung and generally enabled the women’s movement without much, if any, reciprocity.
The first half, which was all on pointe, was presented in a cohesive flow with only brief blackouts between pieces. After intermission, the second half moved forward even more seamlessly in the same way. While light, lyrical movement continued to be the default aesthetic, the four short pieces to Pink Floyd also had grounded weight and floorwork, and only some were on pointe.
The Pink Floyd ballets had little relationship to the anger and urgency in some of the psychedelic rock group’s lyrics. Yet there were highlights, such as Adam Wilkinson’s lighting design in Cassini’s “The Wall” – shafts of light on a bare stage that created a well-lit but still atmospheric space. Another highlight was Robb Beresford’s bare-chested, tumbling solo in Monk’s remounted “.mov”. Yet another was Andrea Bayne’s solo in Destrooper and Cassini’s “Dance Trance” to “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”. For much of the evening, the tiny dancer had been tossed so easily about by her much larger male partners that she appeared to be a rag doll and not a real woman. Here, in a short top and low-cut pants, Bayne had a chance to be present on her own terms: her lunges had weight, her skips had personality, her arabesques were strong. The highlight of the final piece, Destrooper’s “Finale” to the “Bond Girl’s rousing electric strings, was Io Morita’s high, seemingly effortless leaps.
Destrooper has assembled a talented group of dancers, but the choreography was in general distressingly retro in terms of content. Even if the company aims to present popular entertainment rather than thought-provoking art, there was still an over-arching message being relayed, whether deliberately or not, about how men and women can be together in relationships. The scenario that closes Destrooper’s “Finale”, for instance, is of a man standing wide-legged behind a woman, who faces him on her knees, one arm stretched upwards. A cello is painted on the back of her leotard, the strings carrying on up the arm, and the man’s arms and hands are placed as if ready to “play” her. It’s a neat but dated image of an active man manipulating a passive, painted woman. And then the stage goes black, and the evening ends. There is apparently nothing more to say, and that’s the part that troubled me: it’s as if the old male-female power politics had returned, no questions asked.