French and English are mixing fluidly in the Ballet BC studio as Vancouver choreographer Serge Bennathan throws himself enthusiastically into the mass of moving dancers. “Okay, fort. Voilà… Nice!” the Normandy-born, Paris-trained artist exclaims as he moves amid a dozen panting bodies extending and leaning off axis, reeling and plunging to the ground. “Be careful you don’t make it a phrase; it’s moment by moment by moment. Move! Move! Et move!”
By now, Ballet BC speaks his language. Bennathan has choreographed for the company since way back in 1989, before he left town in 1990 for a 16-year stint directing Toronto’s Dancemakers. And, yes, before some of the dancers in the studio today were even born. Since then, even as he’s launched his own smaller-scale company here, Les Productions Figlio, he’s been back a couple of times, seeing the troupe in various stages as it has evolved, in the most recent decade under artistic director and former Ballet BC dancer Emily Molnar.
“It’s quite fantastic to have such a relationship with a company,” he marvels, sitting on a break in a nearby empty studio in the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “This company has always had beautiful artists,” he adds, pointing to names like Crystal Pite, “but right now, I have to say the company is quite spectacular. I like their diversity, but that they make sense together. That’s something I cherish.
“What I like in general is where the dancers are able to remain with their uniqueness,” elaborates Bennathan, “but there is an inner awareness that makes them make sense together. Sometimes a company will have beautiful dancers, but they don’t have this thing. So I feel blessed. And it’s not all the time that you are given 12 dancers to work with. It is a beautiful gift.”
Bennathan’s latest work will premiere as part of the company’s new show Program 3, playing a poetic contrast to the work of Israeli heavyweights Ohad Naharin (in a remount of his famous Minus 16) and Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, whose club-beat-driven Bedroom Folk is making its North American premiere.
For the veteran Bennathan, his work is flowing quicker and easier than ever; he admits he’s hit some kind of creative “bliss” here.
An avid painter and poet himself, Bennathan reveals that he spent the last nine months preparing for his latest stint at Ballet BC by reading poetry—especially that of Chinese-French writer and academic François Cheng. He realized the theme emerging in so much of what he studied was resilience.
His mind full of inspiration, he then laid down the books to come into rehearsals.
“I read all this and then I go into the studio and the choreography comes fast,” he explains. “That’s because all that I read is in my flesh and my muscles. So in the studio, I don’t have to spend three hours finding the movement. It’s there.” For the most part, the books that inspire him stay on his shelf at home. “I don’t want the dancers to know the poem or where I got it,” he says. “The purpose is so everybody finds their own poetry in the movement.”
In his own Productions Figlio pieces, and his most recent work at Ballet BC in 2011, Bennathan has found himself more and more interested in exploring what he calls the “energy that makes you move”.
In the rehearsal studio for this as-yet-unnamed premiere, he pushes the dancers to let go and tap some inner force—to move, as he says, “moment by moment”.
Dancers are reaching, lunging toward the ground, and bending down on their kneepads. In a room this small, it’s clear to see these toned athletes are working extremely hard.
“It’s very tiring when you have to get out of a situation and push into the next,” admits Bennathan, who is setting the piece to an electroacoustic score by long-time collaborator Bertrand Chénier. “It means constant presence—not anticipating the phrase that is coming. That’s why you have to be a guide for the dancers, that’s why you have to be resilient. And where do you as an artist find that resilience?”
His latest approach, something he’s dubbed a “rougher artistry”, comes into relief in the studio during a moment when the dancers crowd together and flail their hands wildly above their heads. He’s pushing them to make it more instinctive, more “avide”—which roughly translates as “greedy”, “eager”, and “grasping”.
“It might sound terrible to say, as a choreographer, but I don’t need them to have all the arms in the same place,” he confides later. “But I do need them to have the essence of the energy of the movement, and then it will make sense.” From the looks of things so far, they understand exactly what he means.
Ballet BC presents Program 3 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday to Saturday (May 9 to 11).