A Ballet British Columbia production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday. November 18. Continues to November 20
Expectations were unbelievably high last night as Ballet British Columbia opened its first full season in two years under new leadership. Its return felt triumphant and met with cheers from an appreciative crowd—albeit with the upper reaches of the theatre closed off. If this show was any indication, full houses will come.
The Songs of a Wayfarer and Other Works program gave people a lot of what they have been waiting for: glisteningly sophisticated, technically demanding contemporary ballet, often with the beauty of pointe shoes. Also welcome were the large corps patterning and atmospheric scenery that help fill the Queen E’s vast stage and auditorium.
The mood of the night was captured perfectly in its climactic finale, a world premiere by José Navas, the company’s exciting new choreographer in residence. Set to the ever-driving rhythms of Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s Passages, The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes was a whirling, ever-shifting sea of pirouettes. Trios became sextets, and those became 15-member tableaux, with the flowing effect of tops spinning randomly, or leaves swirling up in an autumn wind. The rhythms were demanding, and the piece sped up with the force of a true raga. The corps, dressed in sky blue then jewel-toned briefs and bodysuits against a flamelike projected background, mostly met Navas’s unforgiving precision. You could feel that no one was dogging it, and yet it looked effortless. Uplifting and gorgeous.
Artistic director Emily Molnar’s Songs of a Wayfarer, which premiered at the Alberta Ballet last March, was a moody piece set against a monochromatic purply-grey landscape to Gustav Mahler’s mournful song cycle of the same name, plus some brighter songs. That dreamy operatic music mixed with surreal sets to create the atmosphere, with slanted steps jutting diagonally across the back of the stage, rows of skeletal trees, and a mysterious gilded frame hanging in midair.
It was a flowing, poetic work that played cleverly on classical vocabulary, with some stunning, unusual lifts: at one point Gilbert Small carried Alexis Fletcher upside down on his back as she bent her leg upward into a sculptural L. The standout here was the sublime pas de deux between company star Makaila Wallace and ultra-expressive newcomer, Italian import Dario Dinuzzi. When he’d hoist her high in the air, she’d run her legs outward, in slow motion, as he’d gradually lower her to the ground; or he’d lift her up to the back of his neck where she’d curl around it like a cashmere scarf. The final moment was one of several lasting images from the piece, as Wallace flailed in the foreground and Dinuzzi walked trancelike across that slanted step into the ether.
Sandwiched between these two elegant works was Kevin O’Day’s Face to Face, and it was hard to know what to make of it in that context. The Ballet Mannheim director has crafted a physically pummelling, boundary-bashing work, with the six dancers flailing and exploding to the live sounds of Jeff Younger’s screeching electric guitar (in a composition by longtime O’Day collaborator John King). Performers in sockettes squatted, flexed their feet, lunged, and slid along the floor in a series of encounters and separations. Face to Face showed off the range of the dancers and pushed the ballet form, but it came off sort of like that proverbial bull in the china shop amid such neoclassically polished pieces. Still, to its credit, it signalled that Ballet B.C. is not afraid to stir things up.
Overall, what Molnar and crew pulled off here was an evening that felt like a happening—that succeeded in meeting expectations and serving up some surprises. It was a show that said, to paraphrase the very unballetic George Costanza, “We’re back, baby, we’re back!”