Meredith Kalaman and Daniel Marshalsay: Dancers push beyond ballet

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Meredith Kalaman

When the Straight interviewed young dancer and choreographer Meredith Kalaman in late August, she was preparing to leave for China with the Goh Ballet. She was about to see one of her pieces, Composition in Rouge, created for 17 dancers, premiered during a whirlwind tour of Beijing, Shanghai, and several places in between.

She couldn’t have expected how big the opportunity would be. Emailing us from the road last week, between trips to the Great Wall and silk-making factories, she wrote: “The theatres here are absolutely exquisite; they feel like opera houses, grand and luxurious!…It is breathtaking to see Composition in Rouge on such grand stages.”

By any measure, it has been a remarkable summer for the tall, effervescent blond artist. In June, the Goh ballet debuted two of her works, including Rouge, at its end-of-year, pretour showcase, at the Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts. In July, she caused a buzz with her pummelling solo performance of Through the Waters, by Compagnie Vision Selective’s Noam Gagnon, at Dancing on the Edge. Almost simultaneously, she appeared in Karen Jamieson’s Collision, an ambitious site-specific work at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. And now this: the showing of her work in China.

There is more to come: next spring, she’s going to debut two new works, one a duet she’s creating with Hayden Fong, and a solo with Sophie Yendole (the Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg collaborator behind hits like bANGER).

Not bad for a kid from Langley who started ballet classes only because her big sister was taking them (“I cried until I got to do it”), and continued on a path toward a dance career that threatened to end abruptly when, at 16, she broke her leg badly in a car accident. The limb slowly healed, and the incident taught her, she says, how important dance was to her. She went on to get accepted in the Ballet B.C. Mentor Program from 2003 to 2005, under artistic director John Alleyne, and had the chance to work with such big names as James Kudelka. That sparked a craving for more contemporary creations, and she went on to perform with choreographers like Day Helesic and Josh Beamish, and debuted her own hilarious Wayne-and-Garth-like headbanger bit, Keith and Ed, at Dances for a Small Stage.

What’s even more interesting, though, is what she did with the ICBC settlement that came from that car accident. Late last year she decided to put it toward commissioning Gagnon to create Waters for her—a piece the Dance Centre is set to present again in spring 2012. “I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the money,” Kalaman says, speaking to the Straight at a Kits coffee joint.

The process with Gagnon, much like the trip to China, was life-changing. Kalaman has been on a mission to prove she’s more than just a “pretty, elegant” ballet dancer. Gagnon pushed her to reach down deep inside herself. The result was a startling, electrifying piece that flickered between throbbing sensuality and hair-flailing violence. “He asked me, ‘How do you feel when you perform?’ And I realized I didn’t know how I felt in the moment,” she says animatedly. “It was the first time performing a dance piece where the world felt transformed—when I had no concept of time and space.”

As for Rouge, it shows another completely different voice. Watching a DVD of the flurry of shifting pas de deux and sensually wrapping and unwrapping bodies, the upbeat artist smiles and says that “All the piqués are there. I still take my ballet classes at Harbour Dance.” But as graceful as it is, it also has bold contemporary touches: a female dancer at one points moves across the stage with her red skirts hiked right over her head. “I wanted to focus on the dancer’s legs,” says Kalaman, who also teaches at the Goh. “It was silk so she could see through.”

The thing about Kalaman is she’s constantly pushing to do something different. And that comes into play with the duet she’ll work on for spring: “I really wanted to do a duet with a man,” she says, and then adds with a laugh: “Being taller, I’m not picked for duets that much!”

Daniel Marshalsay

There’s no delicate way to put it: Daniel Marshalsay has had enough of strictly classical ballet. He’s done with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and after four rigorous years at the traditional Ballet Arizona, he’s openly thrilled to join Ballet British Columbia and dig into its edgy, contemporary choreography.

It’s just that it might hurt for a while.

“I was really sore the first few days, because I haven’t been using those muscles,” admits the fresh-faced Calgary-born dancer, who’s only been in Vancouver a few weeks and is already neck-deep in rehearsals for choreographer Simone Orlando’s Doppeling, a fun upending of classical ballet that’s part of a mixed program from November 17 to 19 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

It’s not that he regrets his years south of the border. When he headed there from the more adventurous Alberta Ballet four years ago, he knew exactly what he was getting into.

“When I went to Arizona I hadn’t done fully classical work,” he explains, taking a break in the Ballet B.C. boardroom at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “I figured I’m young; I might as well get the classical ballet while I still can . It was a good experience, but it wore off, it fizzled—not that I conquered classical ballet, because you can’t. It’s unending. But classical ballet is so confined and has that exactness—exact positions, exact steps.”

Marshalsay made a name there, achieving coveted principal roles like Blue Bird in Sleeping Beauty. “Ballet Arizona is a good company. They have very strong dancers and to be one of them felt good,” Marshalsay explains. “I liked the fact that I was getting good recognition and being pushed physically, but I wasn’t being pushed artistically.”

His epiphany came suddenly, during rehearsals for a mixed program that featured a rare contemporary work by cutting-edge Hubbard Street Dance choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. “That refuelled that passion for me, and that’s when I got in touch with Emily [Molnar],” he says, referring to Ballet B.C.’s forward-thinking new artistic director, who’s said it’s her mission to recruit performers with honed classical technique that can be applied to contemporary work.

To come here with a month’s notice this summer, Marshalsay has had to make some big sacrifices. He’s had to leave his wife, a former Ballet Arizona dancer, at home in Phoenix with his two-year-old daughter until the New Year. At the moment, he’s staying at old dancing pal Josh Beamish’s pad until he can find a home for his family.

Then again, Marshalsay is used to facing a challenge—and that goes right back to his time as a young dancer. He didn’t get into ballet until he was 13 and attended free classes on weekends. He progressed so quickly (he credits this to his later-than-usual start: “Sometimes you can’t apply ballet technique until you’re older and understand how the body works”) that he was immediately thrown into classes full of young ballerinas.

“I was in a class of 20 to 30 eight-year-olds—all girls and me! The next year I moved up to my sister’s class, and she’s three years younger than me,” he recounts. “There was all kinds of snickering all the time. I’d be on one barre and all 22 girls would be at the other. It’s a bit discouraging because you’re already out of place—guys do different kinds of training.”

He persevered, and Marshalsay’s soft-spoken commitment has helped drive him through the rigours of classical ballet—just as they’re sustaining him physically through Ballet B.C.’s long, preseason days in the studio.

“It’s pretty intense. Here everybody’s working all the time and that’s great to see. Nobody’s griping about it—they all want to learn,” he says, turning upbeat, before heading back to rehearsal. “Already I’ve started getting it back.”

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Eva Kwong
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