Dance icon William Forsythe gives Ballet BC new energy before big tour

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      In a sunlit rehearsal hall at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, you can feel that unique mix of electricity and hushed awe that happens when a legend is in the room.

      William Forsythe, one of the world’s most influential figures in dance, has made a special visit here. He’s in town to work with Ballet BC on Enemy in the Figure, which the troupe performed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre last fall and will take to the acclaimed Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) next Thursday to Saturday (June 13 to 15).

      A slim, focused, and upbeat presence, he’s standing close to dancers Scott Fowler and Zenon Zubyk, smiling as they pull off the pummelling intricacies of his choreography—a dizzying sequence of graceful glissés and pas de chats punctuated with wild twists and jumps. It’s ballet utterly and mesmerizingly upended and pulled apart—as revolutionary today as Enemy in the Figure was when he created it in 1989.

      “It’s happenin’!” the American artist enthuses when they stop for air. “That’s when those neurons fire.”

      Fowler and Zubyk can take that as high praise.

      “I actually heard the dancers say today, ‘This is like a dream come true,’ ” Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar tells the Straight later. “It’s this incredible opportunity as a dancer. You have to be very, very versatile in your musicality and phrasing, and it requires an enormous amount of detail and commitment.”

      Molnar knows firsthand what she’s talking about. As a young dancer at the National Ballet of Canada, she was handpicked by Forsythe to dance for his seminal Ballett Frankfurt, where she became a soloist. Along with high-profile Frankfurt alumna Crystal Pite, she’s now part of a local legacy whose choreography is influenced by the Forsythe approach.

      “This has been a beautiful full-circling for me to see someone who came into my life at 16 now come here to work with the company,” says Molnar, who’s taken Ballet BC into bold contemporary territory since stepping in to helm the troupe in 2009. “I can say without a doubt I would not be the person I am today if Bill had not come into my life.

      “To see him get excited and enjoy himself affirmed to me what I’ve been doing,” she says with emotion. “It was an affirmation and a motivation to see we’re at a point where we can have a conversation with him.”

      Patrick Kilbane performs in Ballet BC's production of Enemy in the Figure late last year.
      Michael Slobodian

      Encouraged by BAM, the Ballet BC program there is meant to celebrate Forsythe and his Vancouver lineage. His Enemy in the Figure joins Molnar’s Jimi Hendrix–set To This Day and Pite’s Solo Echo. “Emotive, expansive, and supremely theatrical, these three daring works embody the innovative spirit and tenacious artistry for which Ballet British Columbia has become known,” the influential academy’s marketing bumf raves.

      Born in 1949 in the Big Apple, Forsythe danced with the Joffrey Ballet and was heavily influenced by New York City Ballet legend George Balanchine. He moved to Germany to join Stuttgart Ballet in 1973, but really attracted attention in the 1980s, when he took over Ballett Frankfurt and started deconstructing the classical form, often integrating multimedia, techno music, and spoken word. He is known for creating striking theatrical worlds, as he does with Enemy in the Figure’s thick rippling rope, rolling floodlight, and wavy central wall. One critic infamously called him “the antichrist of ballet”, but as anyone who’s seen Ballet BC perform his work knows, he celebrates its virtuosity and technique even as he subverts it.

      Still, by 2002, the local government was pushing for a more conservative, classical style and had started to withdraw funding from Ballett Frankfurt; amid much outrage, the company gave its last performance in 2004. From there, the artist set up his smaller Forsythe Company in 2005, with bases in Frankfurt and Dresden, touring the arts capitals of Europe and running it for a decade before leaving to join the faculty at the University of Southern California.

      “He creates these universes, these worlds on-stage. And there’s always stuff to learn—you feel like you grow every minute that you enter his worlds,” explains Molnar, who says Forsythe has been reworking Enemy in the Figure here, even adding new elements. “Then just look at what he has done with counterpoint use and space use and time, and the way he engages everything from lighting to set design. He’s still ahead of his time.”

      Ballet BC's Justin Rapaport and Parker Finley in Enemy in the Figure.
      Michael Slobodian

      Forsythe’s visit will energize the troupe, not just through its gig at BAM, but in its big splash from June 19 to 23 at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (with a program featuring Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s Bedroom Folk, Molnar’s To This Day, and Medhi Walerski’s Petite Cérémonie), and then its trip across the Atlantic for shows at the GREC Festival de Barcelona and Stuttgart’s COLOURS International Dance Festival in early July (with an all-female-choreographer program of Bedroom Folk, To This Day, and Solo Echo at both).

      Ballet BC is going places this summer, but its artistic director always feels the importance of paying tribute to where it came from.