For challenging 25th anniversary show, Ballet B.C. is at the top of its game

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      With the Turning Point Ensemble. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, April 14. Continues April 15 and 16

      Four brand-new dance works, two composition premieres, and 15 crack dancers: Ballet B.C. celebrated its 25th anniversary in a hugely ambitious evening with a live new-music orchestra and edgy choreography that often filled the Queen E. stage with flickering forms.

      The music by the Turning Point Ensemble was challenging, the dance intricate and exhausting, executed with the precision of a troupe that is—after a tumultuous quarter century—at the top of its game. The clear message from the program, with its works by local choreographers Serge Bennathan, Wen Wei Wang, and Donald Sales as well as by Montreal’s Gioconda Barbuto, is that rather than dwell on the past, Ballet B.C. is determined to push headlong into the future. Bravo to that. About the only quibble after the two-intermission, two-and-a-half-hour program was this: can you have too much of a good thing?

      Ballet B.C. has blown away audiences this season with programs that are accessible in the best kind of way. The choreography, largely by hot Euro talents, has been cutting-edge and virtuosic, but with pieces that mix up the tone and add ample doses of humour—think of Mehdi Walerski’s off-kilter ballroom blitz Petite Cérémonie in the previous Volo show. What may make the anniversary program seem more daunting is the fact that the mood is heavier, underscored by the often atonal, haunting music. As for the choreographers, they’re pouring rafts of ideas into each work, layering movement and using every limb and torso available to them. But persevere, and you’ll hear and see the kind of bold work that makes you proud to live here.

      The show opens beautifully, with Wang’s abstract, en-pointe ode to Owen Underhill's music, In Motion. It finds the orchestra spread across the back of the stage behind a transparent screen—with some of the musicians even stepping forward, by the dancers, for certain interludes. The performers skitter and patter in gorgeously muted lavender-greys. Highlights include an elaborate game of sculptural freezes featuring the whole corps, and a stunning duet between Gilbert Small and Dario Dinuzzi—whose electric personalities draw eyes the whole evening—as they hoist and roll over each other.

      The two most striking works of the night are Bennathan’s inspired Les Chercheurs de dieu and Sales’s emotionally wracked Moth. Chercheurs shows the former Dancemakers artistic director back in top form—a piece of yearning and searching that often finds the dancers pulling together, lifting their arms, and grasping with their fingers at the sky, looking like a sort of group human torch. Throughout, limbs reach and digits feel the air; at times dancers close their eyes and feel their way around; at others they stare the audience down, led by the fiery gaze of the riveting Sales. Under Bennathan’s sure direction, the movement is free, loose, and, best of all, unexpected—a perfect match for the skittering wood percussion and ecstatic horn blasts of composer Michael Oesterle’s riotous new commission, Counting Games for Julia Robinson (performed by the ensemble that stays in the pit for the rest of the night).

      Moth is more about building atmosphere, with the curtain rising on a dim stage scattered with candles and lit from above by first one and then multiple flickering light bulbs. Sales’s expression of his journey through grief over his brother’s death is full of shadowy forms and angular, tormented motion set to sad strings and piano, and clanging metal percussion. Delphine Leroux has an aching solo where she clasps her chest, yanks up her shirt, and contorts into silent screams. And while Maggie Forgeron works mysterious sign language at stage right, Makaila Wallace and Peter Smida twist and flail in a haunting duet. Emotional and cathartic.

      By the time Barbuto’s show-closing Touch rolled around, the audience may have been starting to tire. As lovely and kinetically alive as her swirling, flowing forms in red costumes were to watch, all the exiting and entering figures were starting to feel unfocused—or was it just hard to focus? There was some spoken text that simply got lost because it couldn’t be heard. Anthony Genge’s music and the dance was beautiful, just not as striking or surprising as what had come before.

      It was all a lot to absorb, but as the ultimately warm-verging-on-feverish applause from the audience showed, people are hungry for a challenge. And they’re happy that Ballet B.C., at 25, is serving up an excess of good things rather than too few.