Makaila Wallace is celebrating 10 years at Ballet B.C. this season, and it’s arguably been one of the most tumultuous and artistically varied decades in its history. And yet, as others have left, she has faithfully stuck it out and become a star. Whether kicking her cowboy boots high in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo or scooching across the floor like a caterpillar in Walter Matteini’s Parole Sospese, the elegant powerhouse with the perfect bone structure stands out on-stage.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes, dance- and directionwise, over the years,” the articulate, California-born dancer says with her wide white smile, sitting in a Ballet B.C. office on a break from rehearsal. “But a number of things have kept me here.”
One of the main draws has been the integrity of the troupe. “This place has always been about doing good work: I’ve never done a piece here where you kind of slough off to the side,” she says. “And as of late, it’s the kind of work we’re able to do. The people who have come here have been such an inspiration.”
Ballet B.C.’s upcoming program, Encore, copresented with the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, brings back some of the strongest, edgiest pieces the troupe has done in recent years—including William Forsythe’s en pointe Herman Schmerman, Medhi Walerski’s surreal ballroom blitz Petite Cérémonie, and Jorma Elo’s electric 1st Flash.
It’s work so cutting-edge, it’s hard to believe that Wallace came here from the classical realms of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, where she trained, and the Royal Swedish Ballet. Wallace reveals she still has a taste for tutu style: “Now if I hear Swan Lake or Nutcracker, there’s absolutely a part of my heart that goes ‘ahhh’. I don’t think I need it anymore, but I don’t think it will ever leave me.”
Just over a decade ago, when she auditioned for Ballet B.C., she knew little about the company but was instantly drawn by the power and commitment of a magnetic young dancer she saw perform there: Emily Molnar, who would one day become her artistic director. “I saw her in rehearsal and I was completely blown away. I thought, ‘Who is this person?’ She was such a force,” Wallace says.
Then–artistic director John Alleyne evidently saw the exquisite technique and strength Wallace could bring to Ballet B.C. at the time. And she credits him with introducing her to a whole new world of movement. Wallace remembers clearly an early session in the studio when he wanted her to forcefully push a male dancer down on the floor. “I wanted to do it this way,” she says, laughing, demonstrating a graceful nudge, with her toes classically turned out. “I had no experience of floor work and how to dance ‘turned in’. I couldn’t access my most natural pedestrian movement.”
Over the years, Wallace learned to tap a less classical style and gained prominent roles in Alleyne’s contemporary story ballets, like A Streetcar Named Desire. But Alleyne left amid a financial crisis that almost brought down Ballet B.C. in late 2008.
Wallace, though, danced through the troupe’s rebirth under Molnar. It’s brought bold new work from some of the hottest choreographic names in Europe and North America. Wallace hesitates to pick a favourite, but she admits one of her best-loved pieces is Herman Schmerman, Forsythe’s quirky dissection of classical ballet. In Encore, you’ll see Wallace taking on its shifting rhythms in a gruelling duet with Gilbert Small. “I love Herman,” she raves before heading back into the studio. “It’s weird and hard to describe: I had moments in rehearsal where for the first time I experienced these complete deep moments of dancing with no fear. And that was huge for me. It was just complete freedom.…And staminawise it is just so hard. There’s something terrifying and awesome about entering something like that, when you have no idea how it’s going to happen.”
It’s a piece that pushes Wallace to the max—but luckily for Vancouver, this is one dancer who loves to be pushed.
Encore is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday to Saturday (January 24 to 26).