There’s a distinct otherworldly feel to the dance that’s being performed on this day in the Ballet B.C. rehearsal hall. It’s exaggerated by the fact that, outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, a pelting rainstorm has inexplicably given way to sunshine. The dancers are doing a run-through of a new work by an Italian choreographer who’s all but unheard-of here, and the movement is strange and poetic. As the angular sounds of composers like Anton Webern play over the sound system, Makaila Wallace and Livona Ellis enter and exit like caterpillars, scooching backward across the floor with their hinds raised; Connor Gnam cartwheels and stands precariously on his hands; and oddest of all, while the others sport leotards, Jed Duifhuis wears a tux and does a one-man waltz.
Walter Matteini’s piece, called Parole Sospese (Words Suspended), is beautiful yet subtly discombobulating. As Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar describes it earlier in the day, “It’s like looking through a looking glass; you don’t know what’s going on at first. It’s like he builds small worlds inside of other worlds.”
The point is that it’s something new by someone who’s never choreographed in North America before. It’s also a leap of faith for the company—something its members are getting accustomed to. Bringing a rising Euro-dance artist over here to create a new work is a bold move. But it’s a task Molnar is getting comfortable with as this season, her third at the helm of the company, prepares to open.
“I’m learning as a director to allow things to evolve. Sometimes I go, ‘There’s all this new work; what if it doesn’t realize itself?’” she explains, sitting in her office at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “But I’ve learned that if you can get people in a room so they can trust themselves and trust the dancers, then you’re going to get something successful.”
Her approach paid off with some exciting results last season. On one of the best programs, February’s Volo, Molnar combined celebrated talents Finn Jorma Elo and Canadian Shawn Hounsell with France’s relative young newcomer Mehdi Walerski, debuting a surreally playful ballroom blitz. It was unlike anything Ballet B.C. had performed before.
As Molnar has stated from the outset, her vision is to offer audiences a wide variety of contemporary ballet from here and abroad—and to expose them to all kinds of new pieces that expand their definition of the art form.
In the case of Matteini, Molnar had started hearing the Italian choreographer’s name crop up in different dance circles. (One of her own dancers, former Aterballetto artist Dario Dinuzzi, had performed his choreography.) She searched out Matteini’s work and followed her instincts.
“When I hear other people mentioning the same name, I start to look—it’s when I get a lot of the same messages from different places,” Molnar explains. “Then I think, how is that person going to work with the dancers we have, on-stage?
“Walter is one of these people who are just now hitting the international scene,” she adds. “We’re the company that’s opening the door and I’m proud of that.”
From Matteini’s end, the opportunity to collaborate with Ballet B.C. was an equally unknown quantity. He was not at all familiar with the company and had to look it up on the Internet when Molnar called. Still, he doesn’t create much work outside of Italy—where he’s considered one of the country’s top contemporary choreographers—and he welcomed the challenge.
“It’s nice to know new dancers and new ways to think about dance,” he tells the Straight during a break from rehearsal. He’s pleased with the talent and attitude of the troupe: “They trust me in what I ask; they are really open and they don’t have a preconceived idea of what we should do.”
Matteini himself got his start as a dancer, performing with Ballet National de Marseille, Ballets de Monte Carlo, Balletto di Roma, and Reggio Emilia’s Aterballetto. But he was also always interested in choreography. When Matteini created Parole Sospese for Aterballetto five years ago, it was as part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations of Reggio’s Teatro Valli, and he drew on the writing of Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto. But Matteini, who now co-runs an Italian company called Imperfect Dancers, says he’s significantly developed the work here in Vancouver. It’s now more about how words can mean different things to different people, he says. “It’s like if you start a conversation and then suddenly think about something else,” he explains in heavily accented English. “For the dancers it’s easier because it doesn’t ask that everyone know the poetry.”
When it’s observed that the Ballet B.C. dancers are having to move in new ways—especially getting close to the ground in Parole—he smiles and says: “If you want to go up you have to start from down; you have to push down to go up. And if you go down you can just go up.”
There is another factor that will come into play when Matteini’s work debuts here next week: the way it contrasts and complements the other pieces on Molnar’s carefully curated program.
She’s chosen to combine it with former Ballet B.C. dancer Simone Orlando’s Doppeling, a reworking of her fun, platinum-blond-wigged play on classical technique. And the company will also debut a new, electronic-music-pumped piece by Toronto’s Robert Glumbek, who has previously created works for Ballet Mannheim, Toronto Dance Theatre, and ProArteDanza.
Like Matteini, Glumbek should be a revelation to Ballet B.C. audiences, Molnar says: “He’s one of those choreographers in Canada that is maturing and has never had an opportunity to create on a major company in the country before.”
Her belief is that this kind of fresh mix for each performance will keep audiences coming back. “We’re trying to give audiences different voices, and it’s a diversity that people like,” she says.
This is, as she points out, a drastically different route than other major ballet companies are taking in this country. If you’re looking for something like the million-dollar-plus Elton John spectacle, Love Lies Bleeding, that the Alberta Ballet brought here last month—well, that’s just not the way Ballet B.C. rolls.
“We’re not a company where everybody looks the same or that throws a ton of production values into a work, but we’re still connecting with audiences on the expression of the body and the intelligence of the performer,” Molnar explains. “It’s easy to put a lot of money into a production and you miss the performer. It would be wonderful to have $1.5 million to put into a work, but there can be just as much power if you can remove all that.”
Ballet B.C.’s 3 Fold is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday to Saturday (November 17 to 19).