The first time I saw Citie Ballet perform was longer ago than I would like to admit. It was certainly well before current Artistic Director Jorden Morris, a transplant from Winnipeg, took the reins in 2015. At that long-ago performance, I found myself occasionally anxious about the dancers’ ability to safely execute the choreography, but that is not the Citie Ballet I experienced this time around — not by a long shot.
Encounters, the company’s season opener, is a double bill featuring world premieres: Jacinto by Morris and Herd by Toronto guest choreographer Alysa Pires. When I arrived, the lobby was buzzing and the house looked seventy-five per cent full — impressive for a small, local dance company.
The show opens with Morris’s neoclassical piece set to music by Peter Gabriel, Rob Simonsen and James Horner, with the dancers wearing Balanchine-esque costumes — that is to say minimal with no frills. The use of space in this work is not particularly compelling, but the movement itself is innovative and dynamic. It is difficult choreography, with several quick changes of weight and balances with the upper body off-centre, but the dancers rise to the challenge and it is executed with confidence. It is apparent from the outset that this show is extremely well-rehearsed; the unison is tight and the facings of the body very clear. The dancers truly appear as an ensemble, and the group unison sections are some of the strongest in the piece.
The company also has a newfound sense of professionalism; it was only recently that the company went fully professional and this shift is apparent. The one moment when this faltered was during a duet between Kelsey Hanna and Shaun Gheyssen. A few lifts and grips were missed, as can happen, and although I appreciate the need to laugh these things off, their nervous smiles belied their newness as performers.
A standout moment in Jacinto is the duet between Jinah Kim and Morgan Thiessen. It is crisp, clean and confident, both dancers possessing a solid technique and an infectious energy onstage. One thing that still exists in this newly refreshed company, however, is the gap between the level of technique possessed by the female and male dancers, perhaps an indication of the difficulty in recruiting dancers for a small-scale ballet company in Edmonton. That said, Morris has created a work that showcases the strengths of the dancers and the company’s precise ensemble work.
The second work on the bill, Herd by Alysa Pires, is explained in the program note as an examination of “the social dynamics that influence behaviours in groups, the pressures of conformity and the pull of conscience.” The image of one against many is recurring and achieved through dramatic lighting by Blaine Rittinger, which is highly integrated throughout the piece. Several arresting moments stand out, such as when the dancers appear isolated in stark, square, downstage pools of light, tipping off balance to be caught just in time by their fellow herd members.
The vocabulary is contemporary but performed with that bound, elastic quality that ballet dancers can bring to this type of work. It is reminiscent of the quality seen in Crystal Pite’s work, and there are several movement ideas that could be directly borrowed (for example, the group lifting one dancer and manipulating her to stand, walk, gesture; or when three dancers hold one another’s elbows, creating a snaking, rippling movement with their forearms). These movement references admittedly took me out of the work briefly, but because the dancers execute the style so well, it was only a momentary distraction.
Again I am impressed by the company’s precision. Pires is a master of knowing how to draw the eye to a specific point on the stage. This is achieved through simplicity of gesture and the exactness of body angles, which all the dancers deliver. I am struck by their versatility and apparent willingness to dive headlong into a very different form.
In Herd, I am reminded of the virtuosity of good, solid unison, of the satisfaction of witnessing ten bodies and minds who all understand the movement in the same way. Perhaps even more than Morris’s work, this piece showcased a strong sense of ensemble; no one was left behind, which seemed fitting for the work and for the company as a whole at this point.
As the lights went down, the applause was enthusiastic. Many audience members were on their feet and there were three curtain calls. We could all feel that Citie Ballet is a company coming into its own, and that is an exciting moment.