Ballet B.C.'s Encore alternates intensity and whimsy

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A Ballet B.C. presentation, as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, January 24. Continues until January 26

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Ballet B.C.’s Encore program has two pieces to feed the brain and one that appeals entirely to the heart.

In a show the troupe will soon take eastward for an Ontario tour, the corps displays all its cutting-edge-contemporary technique, as well as its taste for the witty and whimsical.

William Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman and Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash are a bracing dose of the avant-garde—dizzying in their demands on the dancers and challenging for audiences. These are rich, exceedingly complex pieces of abstract choreography that deconstruct—even upend—classical ballet as they push the performers to their physical limits. They are also exhilarating studies in beautiful, honed bodies in motion.

Forsythe is a giant in contemporary ballet, and his 1992 work demands equal parts virtuosity and sass. In this remount, Ballet B.C. seems to have nailed the combination. At dazzling speed, dancers kick their legs high behind them, twirl, and stretch up onto their toes en-pointe in gruelling combinations set to Thom Willems’s abrasive, carnivalesque electronic score. On opening night, the first part’s quintet underscored not just the mad skills of veterans like Alexis Fletcher, Connor Gnam, and Maggie Forgeron, but their ability to free themselves to the piece’s off-kilter rhythms.

The highlight, though, was watching two other relative veterans, Makaila Wallace and Gilbert Small, pull off the second part’s pummelling pas de deux, set to headier, haunting electronic strains. The pair managed to bring sensuality and joy to the endless extension and release.

Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash is equally demanding, a flurry of twirling bodies and wavering arms and spines making gorgeous apostrophes in the air. Lit with Elo’s signature stark industrial lighting, the piece plays the dance off fellow Finn Jean Silbelius’s moody Violin Concerto in D Minor Op. 47 in unexpected ways. Beginning and ending in effective silence, the busy, ultracontemporary movement often feels like the muscular opposite of the mournful strings: watch Wallace and Fletcher’s powerful pas de deux, as they squat and wrap in on themselves.

With both 1st Flash and Herman, the brain barely grasps one combination that has just occurred when another one whips by.

Medhi Walerski’s Petite Cérémonie, then, comes as our reward after such intensity. With its dream logic, goofy touches, yet clever sophistication, it’s an eccentric crowd-pleaser that brought the audience to its feet for a warm standing O at the end of the evening.

Cérémonie grabs your attention immediately: the stage is opened to its flies, and the dancers file onto it through the audience to form a neat line that shuffles monotonously from foot to foot. Little by little, back screens and curtains descend to box in the corps, who are wearing ballroom-style black dresses and formal suits. And so begins a study in unison movement, with dancers taking turns shouting abbreviated counts (“One!”) to suddenly shift the little exercises.

But then Cérémonie splays out into gloriously unhinged surprises, set to everything from soft opera to loud, chiming electronic music—all of it showcasing the charisma of the individual dancers. Alexander Burton spazzes out toward Alyson Fretz, while Dario Dinuzzi strains to hold Fletcher as she convulses in his arms. Gilbert Small and Thibaut Eiferman perform a duet that ranges wildly from the animatronic to aggression. And Peter Smida shocks a seemingly unassuming Forgeron by sticking his head between her legs and lifting her skyward. It gets weirder: Dinuzzi, once a busker in Italy, performs a little juggling number while talking about the difference between men and women’s brains. And a high point is the surreal scene that finds Smida in a handheld spotlight, performing a silent speech into a microphone, as the female dancers throw long, balletic shadows across the wall behind him.

It’s absurd and fun, rounding out a bold show that promises to make an impression on Ontario dance fans. In fact, they might not quite know what hit them.

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