Alexander Burton takes the barre in Ballet B.C.’s Walking Mad and Other Works

At 20, Alexander Burton is dancing in Ballet B.C.’s Walking Mad and Other Works and grand jété-ing into a brave new world
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Often the stories of male ballet dancers go something like this: they remember being the only boy at the barre, towering over a sea of little girls in pink leotards; later, during their teen years, they were bullied or teased for their pursuit, only finding themselves when they graduated and went on to dedicated ballet institutions.

Maybe times are changing for the better, or maybe 20-year-old Alexander Burton has had as much good luck as he has talent, but his foray into the ballet world has been almost entirely pain-free.

Last year, his first at Ballet British Columbia, he was, as a 19-year-old apprentice, the youngest member of the company. That didn’t keep the lithe, sleekly cropped-haired artist from making his mark on-stage, to the point that he’s become a prominent member of the troupe, dancing in all three of the pieces on the Walking Mad and Other Works program at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre this week.

The main reason why Burton’s experience in dance was different was that in 2002—when he was 11 and his sport of choice was swimming—he took part in the first class of then–Ballet B.C. member Edmond Kilpatrick’s new course for boys at the Dance Centre. The first program of its kind in the city, it was a mix of ballet, martial arts, and movement that sought to make the art form “cool” for guys. (At the time, Kilpatrick told the Straight: “I do a lot of teaching around town, and when I go into these schools, boys don’t have any change rooms and the walls are pink and they’re just outnumbered.”)

“I had a couple guy friends who were doing Edmond Kilpatrick’s class with me. It was fun and it was all about getting guys to move and dance, but I stuck with it after they left,” says Burton, his voice echoing through an empty studio as his troupe takes a rehearsal break. “There was a natural connection.”

It was a huge jumping-off point for Burton, who threw himself into ballet classes at Arts Umbrella after Kilpatrick’s class. By the time he entered high school, he was in a special program, spending half the day at Arts Umbrella and then bussing to do his regular courses at Magee Secondary School. The swimming? “It went by the wayside,” he says with a smile. “Dance took a lot of time.”

Burton adds: “At high school, being a guy in dance, I was never really bullied about it. Maybe it was odd or people didn’t understand it. I think it’s changed in my generation.”

Around that time, he made what would turn out to be a crucial connection. Emily Molnar, the current artistic director of Ballet B.C., was then overseeing his evening program at Arts Umbrella. Under her eye, he and the other young dancers got to work with big-name, progressive choreographers like Crystal Pite, Aszure Barton, and James Kudelka.

“The students, they get an idea of what in reality it’s going to be like,” says Burton, who in the upcoming Ballet B.C. program will have to switch moods between Johan Inger’s pummelling ode to insanity, Walking Mad; Aszure Barton’s lively and detailed Vitulare; and Molnar’s own, haunting between disappearing and becoming. “There’s no suddenly going straight into being asked all these deep questions and changing your body to work in ways you’ve never thought of before.”

Burton’s big break came two seasons ago, when he was just 18. Now Ballet B.C.’s artistic director, Molnar needed an extra male to perform on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage in Crystal Pite’s Short Works: 24. She approached him for the part. The rest is history: after that, he and fellow Arts Umbrella student Livona Ellis were taken on as apprentices and later offered positions at the company.

“I feel quite lucky because there isn’t a lot of dance like this in the city or in Western Canada. So I’m very excited and happy—and challenged,” says Burton, adding that Ballet B.C.’s contemporary repertoire speaks to him, perhaps more than classical: “It’s ballet of today—it’s new and touches real feelings. And that includes men doing things that men do, not portraying the prince doing tricks.”

Burton’s ability to shape-shift and adapt to contemporary choreographers, a skill he honed at Arts Umbrella, will serve him well for the latest Ballet B.C. program. Over the course of the evening, he’ll have to switch between three incredibly different works. “They complement each other, but it is hard to jump between them in a 20-minute intermission,” he allows.

Inger, an icon from arguably the world’s leading contemporary ballet company, Nederlands Dans Theater, is mounting his Walking Mad—a piece that finds the performers literally bouncing off the walls of the set. “It’s quite heavy, emotionally and physically; it’s really intense,” Burton says. “I’ve never worked with a set this complicated or active. It moves: it can close you in or it opens or it comes down.”

As for Barton’s Vitulare, he says, “It’s really fun and set to Balkan music, and it’s very architectural, with all these little details that have to match up.”

Molnar’s premiere, by contrast, is the only piece en pointe, with music by Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir. “It’s all about beginnings and endings,” Burton says. “There are these blackouts, where you’ll come into a scene that’s already happening, or it will black out as something is going on.”

Burton is taking all of these challenges head-on. He notes when he first joined the company, he would get nervous before the curtain opened on the big Queen E. stage. That’s abated a lot. He’s clearly had to grow up fast. “You’re on your own, and there’s a maturity I’ve had to gain,” he says, sounding older than his years. “There’s always more digging and exploration, emotionally and physically, that goes on. And that’s going to be the object of my life and career right now”

Speaking to Burton, the overwhelming sense is that the world is an open book for him. There is something exciting about talking to, and watching, an artist at the very start of a promising career. If his life were a grand jeté, he’s just at the launching point—and he’s very aware that there are many, many more heights to reach.

“I have my support network here, and the work is exciting here, and I’m learning things every day,” he reveals. “But because I grew up in Vancouver, I still want to see what other exciting opportunities are out there. It’s the beginning, and it’s a very exciting and lucky start that I’ve had. I never had that [sense of] hanging on the edge because I didn’t have a job or work,” he says. Still, ever-conscientious, he quickly adds: “But in no way is that a cushion. You always have to be pushing yourself and growing.”

Walking Mad and Other Works is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday to Saturday (March 8 to 10).

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