As a high-school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Donald Sales went from being a star football player to a standout ballet dancer. The shift came about by fluke, after a female friend needed someone to stand in for her partner at a dance audition. Sales did, and the instructor recognized his potential immediately and encouraged him to pursue the art form. But that fateful turn wasn’t the only thing from the Ballet British Columbia member’s secondary-school days that had a lasting impact. So did a family tragedy. In 1999, Sales’s older brother was killed in a car crash in L.A.
“I was just about to graduate,” says Sales, 30, in an interview at Ballet B.C.’s office, his deep voice softening. “It was terrible. Since then until now, I haven’t really accepted that I’d never hear his voice or see his face again.”
Sales still sorely misses his brother, who was just 28 when he died. What has changed lately, though, is that the dancer-choreographer has found a way to deal with his loss.
What helped him was learning about the work of Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kí¼bler-Ross, who identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sales knows them all well himself, saying he gained a sense of peace only through acquiescence.
As it so often does, grief gave way to creativity, with those five stages loosely forming the basis of Sales’s new choreographic work. Moth will have its world premiere at Ballet B.C.’s upcoming 25th-anniversary celebration, an event that features three other world premieres as well as live accompaniment by the Turning Point Ensemble under the direction of Owen Underhill.
Sales’s new piece marks a departure for the artist, who’s just as serious about making music as he is about making movement. Besides many other tracks, he coproduced “Dangerous”, by Akon and MC Kardinal Offishall, which won a Juno for best single in 2009.
Like his musical sensibilities, Sales’s physical vocabulary is ultrahip, with a witty, edgy, street-savvy style. As he puts it, he’s inspired by the language and gestures of everyday life and isn’t out to create “pretty” positions. But given the theme of loss, Moth will be a more sombre affair than Sales’s past works, like the comical and effervescent Long Story Short.
“It’s heavy stuff,” Sales says. “I wanted each dancer to interpret what they’re struggling with. I wanted genuine emotion, genuine feelings, to spill out on-stage. I really wanted to speak to that; there’s no need to pretend. Choreography is a way for me to spit things out.”
If the direction is new for Sales, it’s certainly in keeping with Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar’s overall vision for the company. Ever since she took on the role in 2009, she’s made it clear that the organization remains committed to the presentation and development of cutting-edge contemporary ballet.
She gets credit for asking Sales back after he left in 2008 under former artistic director John Alleyne’s leadership. The company was on the verge of financial collapse and it was a time of tumult.
“I really needed a break,” Sales says of his decision to leave, noting that Paris, France, is the place he goes to when he’s looking to recharge. “It was pretty stressful around here.”
Molnar didn’t have to think long about approaching Sales once she secured the job.
“I thought he was such a phenomenal talent, a person who was just starting to touch his talent,” Molnar says in an interview in her office. “And he’s gifted as a choreographer”¦.To be a great choreographer, you have to be a great teacher and a great communicator. I saw all those skills in Donald.”
She says he’s reached a new level of maturity as a performer, which she attributes not only to hard work but also to the fact that he has interests outside of dance. And she fully supports him confronting his emotional pain through his choreography.
“Donald is a deep thinker, and he’s taking on heavier subjects here,” she says. “By doing that, he’s pushing himself.”
He’s doing double duty at the anniversary gala, not only choreographing but also performing in two pieces: Les Chercheurs de dieu, by Les Productions Figlio artistic director Serge Bennathan (formerly of Toronto’s Dancemakers), and in In Motion by Ballet B.C. alumnus Wen Wei Wang, who’s made a name for himself with sleek modern dance influenced by his Chinese heritage. Rounding out the evening is Touch by Montreal’s Giaconda Barbuto, who has danced with Nederlands Dans Theater III, among several other companies.
“None of the pieces look like the others,” Molnar says of the all-Canadian program. “Stylistically, there’s such a range. That’s what we’re all about. You’ll see the dancers like you’ve never seen them before.”
Molnar notes that the company’s silver anniversary is especially exciting given its recent woes. But like any arts organization, Ballet B.C. has had other ups and downs over the years. What’s stayed constant, she says, is its standing in the community.
“Ballet B.C. is known across this country, and beyond, as something very unique, something different. Its reputation is so strong as a company that presents new work, that pushes boundaries. We’re very proud of that and of all the individuals that have made the company what it is. This is a celebration of our past and our future. Let’s keep it going for another 25 years—or 100 years.”