Ballet B.C. builds a bold new RITE

Vancouver design star Omer Arbel helps conjure a dream world in Ballet B.C.’s epic new response to a legendary dance work

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      As befits a project inspired by The Rite of Spring, a strange and magical thing is happening at a warehouse in Kitsilano’s Armoury District.

      Design star Omer Arbel has a team growing enormous crystalline “trees” in vats of salt water—metal-based structures he’ll turn into an ethereal grove hanging above the Queen Elizabeth stage for Ballet B.C.’s RITE.

      It’s been a crazily busy year for Arbel, best known as the creative director for Bocci’s sculptural lighting. In February, he debuted a massive tangle of bubbly glass orbs suspended above the central staircase of Canada House, in London, England. In March, with Bocci, he installed abstract, treelike steel forms with illuminated “leaves” as a major new public artwork in front of the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel here. He just got back from Milan Design Week, and he’s about to speak and unveil a new series of organically flowy fabric and glass lighting in Miami. And with Bocci, he is in the midst of developing a massive new headquarters, workshop, glass-blowing studio, and exhibition space in a six-storey historic courthouse in Berlin.

      Arbel has designed furniture, chandeliers, copper bowls, houses, artwork, Olympic medals, and interiors (hello, Tacofino Commissary). But this is the first time the internationally celebrated and collected designer has put his mind to a set for dance, or any of the performing arts—joining Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar and Sinoia Caves/Black Mountain synth master Jeremy Schmidt on a new dance work for RITE.

      “We’re always open to broadening the approach of the practice,” the artist says with enthusiasm, sitting with a caffè mocha on a bench near his thrumming workshop on West 1st Avenue. “My background is as an architect and I design objects, and what do those things mean in the context of a reality that only exists for a few hours rather than for a hundred years?

      “This is a wonderful opportunity to create a reality that disappears after a while, almost like a dream. So it’s real while you’re in it and then it ends and you go back to your normal life. But in those few hours you’re transported into a completely different universe where there are different rules.”

      Just over a century after Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky set their own, groundbreaking rules for Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes, Molnar wanted to stage a contemporary response to the work. (Ballet B.C. has also commissioned another from Gustavo Ramirez Sansano.) She met Arbel at a photo shoot just over a year ago, they hit it off, and he began taking in shows and studying the origins of the ballet that caused an uproar when it premiered in Paris in 1913.

      Just as Molnar is known for experimenting with the human body to see what form it can take, Arbel has made his name with his research-based work. He and his team spend every other year playing with materials in his lab, without any final project in mind.

      “We’re making stuff all the time. We do 10 or 12 experiments, and then maybe one or two come to fruition as a practice,” Arbel says. “I crave those instances where there are no constraints, where you can explore in a really open way, and I think the best ideas are born out of that context. It’s like we just work on ideas and then whatever opportunity comes around we find the right idea for that opportunity.”

      The salt-crystal trees ended up being one of those lab experiments that found its use, after a long period of investigating what Arbel could do, safely, on a dance stage. (“I can’t flood the place with thousands of butterflies or drown the dancers in four feet of water,” he says, laughing, “or any of these things I tried to do—all of it was too intense!”)

      Arbel took his inspiration from Nicholas Roerich’s original 1913 set painting, a lush, expressive landscape that featured a large, central tree—which, mysteriously, was painted over on the day before the premiere. Arbel has made his crystalline grove an ode to what he calls Roerich’s “ghost tree”.

      “In this case the challenges were to make the crystals…big enough to project and absorb light at the same time, on the scale of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, where people don’t get to stand right next to them,” Arbel says. And tellingly, as the self-described alchemist describes the process, it sounds as scientific as it is artistic.

      Omer Arbel.
      Gwaenel Lewis

      Across the burrard Street Bridge, in a rehearsal hall at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, the performers who will inhabit Arbel’s unearthly lustrous grove are in the midst of their own mysterious experiments. Connor Gnam convulses in a black foil mask that covers everything but his nose and eyes, while the dancers around him move hypnotically to a recording of Schmidt’s pulsating, space-age synths.

      Spring is a time for renewal, and it’s clear Ballet B.C. is going far beyond ambitious first-time collaborations in this work: it’s moving in striking, hallucinatory new ways in Molnar’s piece. Men carry upended ballerinas with their legs splayed toward the sky; a crowd descends on Gnam, hands extended, as if it’s drawing energy from his strange creature; and dancers move eerily like two-dimensional drawings, arms out, palms forward, and faces expressionless.

      “It’s just coming out of me,” Molnar says after the rehearsal breaks for lunch, her smile acknowledging that this looks quite unlike anything she’s created before. The original Rite of Spring introduced audiences to a brave new ballet vocabulary, and that’s what she’s creating as well. “I’m building a new language, but also drawing on the original—the two-dimensional and the primitive but really modern as well. I wanted to keep the world very stylized. I didn’t want to humanize it.”

      Molnar pays multiple homages to Nijinsky’s Rite and its source material, from Russian folklore to paganism. She has also drawn on everything from Noh theatre to outer space, with dancers in black costumes set against stark white.

      “I play with who’s watching who: are they from an alien world? Are they observing us or are we observing them?” says Molnar, her ideas pouring out at the feverish pace of the final weeks of rehearsals. “It’s also an androgynous world.…It’s about wearing a ‘mask’ without putting a mask on.”

      In all, she and her collaborators have constructed the kind of dreamscape that Arbel imagined. “Omer and I discussed that these characters had to exist in a place that didn’t look like our world. And then, through Omer, I met Jeremy, and I knew if we were going to build this other world we would need this music that was more atmospheric.”

      Whereas Molnar’s work references a lot of Rite’s original movement, Sansano’s plays with Stravinsky’s once-controversial score. “His is stripped-down and it’s sensory and humanistic, with beautiful duets,” Molnar says.

      “They’re two completely different pieces on their own, and I love that we have a team ready to work with that,” she adds. “And I love that we have a company that people like and would love to come work with.”

      For Arbel, too, it’s been an inspiring collaboration, one that has made him want to create more sets for the stage. It’s also been a project that fits perfectly into his boundary-busting trajectory in design.

      “I love opening the doors to lateral areas of investigation,” he says, before heading back to his workshop. “One of my biggest critiques about the local design culture is that it’s so specific and deterministic: architects design buildings, interior designers design interiors, landscape architects design landscapes, industrial designers design components, furniture designers design furniture, and it’s just like a completely—excuse me for saying this—ass-backwards way of working.

      “A great designer can design any of these things. And it’s a much healthier way to think of work as an open-ended exploration.…Why shouldn’t an architect or a designer or an artist do a set or a landscape, presuming that the work is interesting and rigorous and beautiful and intelligent?”

      RITE is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday to Saturday (May 7 to 9).