James Kudelka helps Ballet B.C. rise out of the ashes

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      Driven by Johann Sebastian Bach’s speeding strings, four couples whirl like a cyclone around the room. The men are in slippers, the women en pointe, twirling and leaping in high-speed perfection as they circle. Simone Orlando, Jones Henry, and Shannon Smith slice through them with contemporary, angular movement, barely avoiding collision.

      It’s a gruelling, precarious dance—and that’s appropriate. These days, Ballet B.C. is dancing for its life.

      Iconic Canadian choreographer James Kudelka is here to guide them, as he creates his new work The Goldberg Variations—Side 2: Adam & Eve & Steve, which debuts tonight through Saturday (February 26 to 28) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Judging from today’s run-through at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, it’s a challenging, elaborately patterned achievement, a piece that showcases the troupe’s classical finesse as well as its contemporary edge. It is, in fact, the sort of work the company made its name with, back when times were better.

      When the run-through ends, the dancers collapse on the barres and floor, the women breathlessly unwrapping their pink pointe shoes, the men sopping up their sweat. After the seven-week hiatus of Ballet B.C.’s shutdown due to financial crisis, these performers have been thrown into the fire. And yet you get the distinct feeling they’re rising from the ashes.

      “That piece of work demands a lot of variation of mood and tempo,” admits the soft-spoken Kudelka, sitting in a cafe after rehearsal has ended, referring to the Bach string trio that’s driving the work. “They [the performers] have to keep going and going, and that can be hard for people that haven’t been dancing for a while. But I always think dancers want to be pushed.”

      Kudelka, who helmed the National Ballet of Canada from 1995 to 2005, is not known for creating easy work. But this could be exactly what Ballet B.C. needs right now: a challenge to rally the forces and make the dancers forget about the trauma of nearly losing their jobs. In November, Ballet B.C.’s board laid off all its staff and dancers, sought protection from creditors, and reorganized its finances. On January 10 it hired back its performers to the end of this season; only two days later Kudelka arrived, ready to set his new work on them.

      It can’t have been easy, but Kudelka refused to let himself dwell on the company’s struggles. “It was hard for me to not know whether I was coming, let alone them not knowing whether they were going to be here,” he admits. “I have to not think about that. Whatever is going on here is not going to be solved by one work. So I just focused on the work.”

      At least one prominent member of the company has appreciated that focus at such a tenuous time.

      “It’s a very important piece for the dancers right now. What a piece to come out of that period with,” remarks Simone Orlando, sitting in the Ballet B.C. offices after a later rehearsal. “It’s no secret his choreography is some of the most difficult there is these days—anywhere. I’ve always thought he’s brilliant, and I think the piece and this experience of working with James is teaching us a lot and making us better dancers. He’s giving us a sense of security. We’re very much focused on the task at hand. And I think what is so satisfying about this particular moment is that you feel like you’re part of a masterpiece.”

      Her dark mane pulled into an elegant bun, her lithe legs striking a graceful pose even when she’s relaxing, Orlando is the vision of a composed ballerina. But you sense the emotion that has come with the company’s near-collapse. Orlando, who’s been with Ballet B.C. since 1996, has not had an easy year. At the beginning of 2008, an injury almost ended her career. She says she had already gone through a grieving process by the time of the shutdown.

      “For some of the dancers, because they’re experiencing such fatigue they can’t see what they’re part of is really something spectacular,” says Orlando, referring to Kudelka’s new work. “But for me, because I’ve been here for a long time and I’ve been through a lot of trials and tribulations over the last year, I just think it’s a real moment to remember.”

      For his part, Kudelka is feeling creatively inspired by the Variations, too. For years, he mounted unique versions of major story ballets like Swan Lake and Cinderella for the National, but the kind of innovation and risk involved in this new Ballet B.C. piece seems closer to his heart. He loves how it allows him to simultaneously embrace the best of both worlds—the formal technique of the couples and the freer, expressive movement of the trio of Orlando, Henry, and Smith. It’s a challenge for him too. “It should be as if two dances are trying to occupy the same space but at other times get right on top of each other,” he says.

      As it rebuilds, Ballet B.C. is reassessing its identity. Will its salvation lie in the relative safety of story ballets? Or does it lie in a return to the sort of innovative contemporary ballet it’s tackling with The Goldberg Variations—Side 2?

      “What seems to be imposed on dance right now is that it be a silent movie,” Kudelka worries. “I don’t necessarily think that’s where its power lies. Its power is in a more emotional, enigmatic thing.”

      Perhaps the real test of whether Ballet B.C. is truly back will be tonight, and whether audiences turn out to support it. As for the performers, Orlando feels confident they can hold up their end of the bargain.

      “If there’s one thing about the dancers of this company, I really feel we can rise to the occasion,” she says before heading back into another rigorous session.