Inspired by the fascinating life cycle of moths, Rachel Meyer’s new dance work Transverse Orientation is all about transitions. And that makes it almost impossible not to read her personal story into it.
After training in classical ballet at the University of Utah and dancing for companies like Houston’s Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Meyer cut off her bun in 2011 and became an expressive, crop-haired standout at Ballet BC. But then, last season, she became pregnant. And everything changed.
Suddenly, a devoted dancer who had never wanted to be a choreographer felt the need to create. And she says that has everything to do with having her daughter, Stella.
“I felt like I wanted to make my own decisions and I wanted to be in charge of how I dance and what I dance,” says the artist, standing in the gaping, wood-beamed Railtown industrial warehouse where Transverse Orientation will be staged. “It felt like Stella was pushing me toward choreography and I needed to be heard and express myself in some way. And I loved the idea of dancing with her in my belly.”
In March of last year, a mere month before giving birth, Meyer choreographed and performed in her first creation, Quartet, with Ballet BC alumnae Makaila Wallace and Maya Tenzer. “It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had,” Meyer recalls. “And after that I said, ‘Okay, am I a choreographer?’ ”
The answer, it appears, is a resounding yes. For Transverse Orientation, Meyer is staging an ambitious five-dancer show. (It includes her as a performer, back in unbelievably lithe and muscular shape.) She’s had to convert the warehouse into a performance space.
Lighting designer James Proudfoot has hung industrial-looking bulbs around the beams, and set big spotlights around the giant storehouse, which has been made dance-friendly with Marley flooring. She’s had to bring in a sound system and stadium seating, and she says there’ll be a bar serving cider. She’s also staging the show at midnight—the magical hour of transformation in so much legend and storytelling.
But as much as the themes of transition reflect her own journey, she stresses: “For me, it’s deeply personal—but also not. It’s also about the life cycle of the moth.”
The imagery of moths, and the way they grow from caterpillar to cocoon to flying adult, had been dancing around in her mind, and her dreams, for months. As she researched the insects, she turned to a local moth expert for help.
“One of my favourite things was when he said, ‘I’m so glad you chose moths instead of butterflies, because they’re way more interesting,’ ” she says. “People think of them as dark and creepy. Their bodies are heavier and they can’t see very well—they’re not agile like butterflies. They struggle more, and I’ve played with that.”
The title refers to the way moths orient themselves in the dark, keeping a fixed angle on a distant source of light.
Meyer has found ample inspiration in that idea of following the light. She’s also working multiple other aspects into the show. Violinist Janna Sailor provides live accompaniment, sometimes creating sounds like flickering wings with her instrument, sometimes playing over the score. Sarah Armstrong has designed a range of moth-inspired costumes, a few gauzy white dresses hanging ethereally from the warehouse ceiling.
Fellow Ballet BC alumnus Christoph von Riedemann dances up and down a separate track off to one side of the stage, where there’s calendarlike numbered paper that he repeatedly rips off the wall. Meyer, too, performs a bit apart from her trio of mothlike creatures—Stéphanie Cyr, Ria Girard, and Tenzer. And a huge pile of apples sits at one end of the stage; when dancers tear into it in one scene, not only will you smell the fruits’ crisp fragrance, but the sounds of the performers chewing will be amplified.
“I wanted it to be not just about what you see,” Meyer says. “I want touch, I want smell, I want the whole experience. I want the audience to feel more than just a dance show—like they get to come inside my world for a bit, or like I am taking everyone under my wing for an hour. I hope that has a greater impact than sitting in a theatre.”
Meyer has clearly moved far away from the world of traditional ballet—one where pregnancy has, at least in the past, been seen as the end of a career. But for her, having a child appears to have marked the start of a new future. And a metamorphosis.
But she’s reticent to divulge too much about what Transverse Orientation means. “Maybe it’s about finding your fate and understanding what you’re supposed to do,” she says cryptically, with a smile. “Or maybe it’s about undergoing great transformations and becoming a great new creature. Or maybe it’s about looking at your past and thinking about what you’ve gone through—and where you’re going.”
Transverse Orientation takes place from Thursday to Saturday (July 12 to 14) at 395 Alexander Street; tickets via Eventbrite. Drinks 11 p.m.; performance midnight.