Donald Sales stays witty as he launches Project 20

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Donald Sales is every bit a serious dance artist. A former star performer at Ballet B.C., he is now seeing his choreographic career take off: he won the Banff Centre’s 2012-13 Clifford E. Lee Award and is about to debut his new company, Project 20, at Dances for a Small Stage. But if you’ve seen his work, you also know that he often provides wild hits of humour on-stage.

After all, it’s not often you find cowboys staggering down the theatre aisles and riding “horses” across the stage, as there were in his collaboration with Cherice Barton at last year’s Chutzpah Festival, Leaving Grit. Another work, Long Story Short for Ballet B.C., conjured the swirling, cinematic feel of ’50s Paris, with cornball scenes of guys giving their sweethearts necklaces.

The Small Stage event will give us a sneak preview of what’s next in Sales’s career: excerpts—two solos and a duet—from Project 20’s Green, a full-length that will premiere at Chutzpah next year. But it takes a while in our interview at a Davie Street coffee shop to get at the witty twist to the piece. First, Sales talks about the motivation behind his company and the unique way he wants to work with the dancers he has in it.

“There are a lot of dancers who have a voice but have never had the opportunity to use that voice,” he says, admitting that this is a reflection of his own experience. “Some companies I’ve worked with have allowed me to express myself more than others.…It’s what I like to call real-time emotion. I expect to see that on-stage. Let’s emote, let’s connect.”

Sales wants to get the dancers to bring out their experiences in the studio, and he wants to do more collaboration. Even the name of the company, Project 20, reflects his nonhierarchical approach: “I didn’t want to put my name on the company because I thought that was too much. So 20 was the day I was born,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to stand to see Donald and Company, or Mr. Sales and Co., or the Donald Sales Company. That makes me very uncomfortable.”

For Project 20’s first piece, he’s working with dancers Andrea Pena and Rebecca Margolick to explore every association they might have to the colour green—of it representing everything from envy to wealth to relaxation to illness. The movement is his signature mix: as he puts it, “I like going from the soft and subtle and sweet to the aggressive, animalistic, and raw. I like those contradictions.”

And then, pushed to give away Green’s humorous hook, he breaks into a wide smile and relents. “Well, the score is based on Tom and Jerry. That was one of my favourite shows growing up,” he admits. “So I gave [Vancouver composer] Owen Belton some sounds from Tom and Jerry. In Tom and Jerry, there’s always the chase between the two and I thought it would be fun to add that.”

In his dance career, Sales has always operated in the unexpected—perhaps because of his unusual mix of experience. He started out as a football player in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, high school before he found dance and did a short stint, at just 19, at Dance Theatre of Harlem. John Alleyne brought him to Ballet B.C. in 2003. Sales later began choreographing for the company, as well as for Arts Umbrella and others, and has danced for the likes of Aszure Barton and Artists. All the while, his other love, music, was on the go. (He coproduced the Akon/MC Kardinal Offishall hit “Dangerous” in 2009 and had a hand in the just-released k-os/Corey Hart song “Like a Comet (We Rollin’)”, off the BLack on BLonde album.)

“When I left Ballet B.C., it never felt like I was jumping off a cliff; I never put all my eggs in one basket—I knew music would carry me a bit,” he says, then admits: “But there was a moment in the first year, you know, where you’re not rehearsing. You’re sitting at home and you’re gaining weight. That first year was a bit of a shock. But then things naturally fell into place.”

Now Sales finds himself launching the city’s newest dance company, preparing to create a new work at the Banff Festival of the Arts this summer, and more. The intimate Small Stage event, where his work shares a mixed program themed loosely around love, is a chance for us to catch up with what he’s been doing.

“The show is for the buzz to let the community know that I’m not under a rock, I’m working on material,” Sales says. “It will also let dancers experience this new approach to dancing—of having the energy bounce right back at them and not just giving in to the adrenaline as we dancers tend to do. Plus, the audience is quite different at Small Stage. They’ll scream or laugh out loud.” 

Dances for a Small Stage is at the Grandview Legion next Thursday to Saturday (February 14 to 16).

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