Ballet B.C. dances to hell and back with Bliss

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The premiere of José Navas’s first short piece for Ballet B.C. in the fall of 2010 was as much of a surprise to the choreographer as it was to the audience.

The work, called The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes, was a leap of faith for both Navas and the company. The Montreal-based contemporary dancer and artistic director of Compagnie Flak had just signed on as resident choreographer at Ballet B.C., and he had never created a piece en pointe before. The risk paid off, and the response was immediate. The polished, whirling work, set to a driving score by Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar, left audiences elated.

“I had no idea what the reaction would be. It’s hard to know till you have hundreds of people watching,” Navas says now, sitting in an office at Ballet B.C. before rehearsal and looking younger than his 47 years, in funky red glasses and black sneakers. “The fact that everyone stood up immediately when it ended showed me that something needed to be physically released. Almost everyone said, ‘This is exhausting, but it’s so exciting.’ It was almost like allowing people the chance to be dancers for one night without being on the stage.”

So, now, Navas is on a roll. He’s developed Bliss into a full evening of work, adding two new sections to run before it. He’s just accepted a commission for another ballet piece for a company in Seoul, South Korea, and next season, he’s taking on the monumental task of creating a new full-length version of Giselle—the ultimate en pointe classical work—for Ballet B.C.

“This has been wonderful, because at 47 years old, after 30 years in contemporary dance, I find myself still learning things and still being surprised at how you can work with the human body in different ways,” says the artist, who grew up in Venezuela and trained in New York with icon Merce Cunningham. “This is very exciting because, in the world I come from, the contemporary world, we have tried everything: we have twisted techniques, we have put people upside down, we have made people fly and fall on the ground.”

For Bliss’s extended remix, the evening opens with a section set to three movements of an elegant piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. During a rehearsal in the Dance Centre, it reveals itself as a dazzling array of intersecting, twirling dancers, the women extended high en pointe. Just as he did with the first incarnation of Bliss, Navas is working closely with artistic director Emily Molnar and rehearsal director Sylvain Senez, who he says have been integral to helping him find ways to move dancers in new ways on pointe shoes.

Navas says the strategy is to start the evening off with an ode to classical ballet. But the first segment also reveals his love of speed and his almost architectural approach to choreography—his complex patterning, where duets turn into trios and trios turn into quintets, often with the dancers performing in dizzying canon.

“I’m a structure freak,” admits Navas, smiling. He traces his love of structure in part back to his years with the spacially focused Cunningham and to a formative, eight-year relationship he had with architect-choreographer William Douglas. “The base of a good show is that the structure is solid and that the structure works in silence. With my own company, at the end of finishing a piece, we rehearse the whole show in silence. And it has to work in silence so that when we do it on-stage with music the structure is so solid.

“I think symmetry is something we are drawn to,” adds Navas. “When I’m on tour, I’m lucky enough to walk around cities, and one thing that always strikes me is that we as tourists all love cathedrals. And one aspect of those buildings is that they are symmetrical.”

With Bliss, the symmetry plays out not only in the movement but in the order of its pieces. From the classical beauty of the Mozart work, Navas moves to a much darker and more contemporary world, set to Henryk Górecki’s haunting, subtly dissonant Symphony No. 3. It’s the composer’s elegy for mothers who have lost their children to war—and many see it as a memorial to the Holocaust. It will be followed by the blissful heights of the Glass-Shankar work that Navas premiered in 2010.

“We had to go down to hell to appreciate the ascension to heaven,” explains Navas, adding he is not a religious person but rather finds some spiritual transcendence through dance. “I would like to take the audience on a journey where we go from something very organized and very formal and very beautiful, then to the Górecki—which is very organic, very visceral, very emotional—and then back to bliss. The more I started to construct the show, the more it sort of felt like The Divine Comedy, where you sort of go into a trip to the most angelic, to hell, and back to heaven.”

Navas says that he didn’t realize until recently how hard he was pushing the Ballet B.C. dancers. At the rehearsal hall, in the close confines of the studio, you can see them sweating and panting as they swirl through his first Mozart movement. But the process is clearly a challenge for Navas too.

“This has been a ride because I have very limited time when I come here,” he explains. “Normally, in Montreal, I have a year to research and try things out, but I come here and I have to create!” he says, snapping his fingers. “I’m always very exhausted when I leave Vancouver and I arrive in Montreal.”

As demanding a ride as Bliss has been, though, Navas is fully aware that his next project—putting his contemporary stamp on the iconic Giselle—will be an even more Herculean task.

“With that, I’m just going for it without fear, and that’s the only way I can do it!” he says with a laugh, before heading into the studio to fine-tune Bliss. “This is like a huge challenge—like doing brain surgery.”

Ballet B.C. presents Bliss from Thursday to Saturday (May 10 to 12) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.


Watch a preview of Bliss.

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Kathleen Mattson
How glorious! Had I known about this production I would have planned a trip to BC to see it. Any chance this will tour?
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