Ballet BC's Program 1 journeys through life and death to moving effect

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      A Ballet BC production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, November 5. Continues until November 7

      Ballet BC may be turning 30 this fall, but its corps looks young, athletic, and energized in its season opener.

      The company hired a host of expressive dancers last year, adding two fresh talents—Brandon Alley and Brett Perry—this season. And the program opener, Cayetano Soto’s haunting-yet-hyperspeed Twenty Eight Thousand Waves, showed the strong new troupe off to a tee—fitting, because the piece is so much about rebirth.

      The atmospheric, physically pummelling work by the new resident choreographer is even better honed now than when it debuted to excitement in April 2014. James Proudfoot’s surreal racks of rising and lowering lights set the tone for the urgent, flickering rush of offbeat partnering and breathtaking lifts. The women seem weightless as they’re hoisted in the dim light, their legs scissoring upward, crisscrossing in the air and wrapping around their partners’ necks; dancer Rachael Prince sliced the air with her bending limbs like some kind of supercharged arachnid, Perry lifting her high.

      Soto’s partnering is unparalleled—but this time out, the dancers really owned the power of the piece, with performers like Christoph von Riedemann, Scott Fowler, Livona Ellis, Rachel Meyer, and Alexis Fletcher projecting a fierce inner strength. Driven urgently by hypnotic chorales and angular strings, this was awe-inducingly difficult dance pulled off with fearlessness and precision.

      It was a risk opening the program with such a supercharged work. (Artistic director Emily Molnar announced Ballet BC had shuffled the program at the last moment, meaning Waves would no longer close the evening.) Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis’s premiere, Awe, might have fared better as the opener—a meditative buildup. As it was, it was a mesmerizing showcase for the 50-member men’s choir Chor Leoni, which sang a range of sacred and secular music from behind a black scrim—but which could not help dominating the performance even in its most nuanced moments. Celis created an earnest reflection of the music, with the dancers, bathed in dim, golden light and dressed in workers’ clothes, reaching, supporting each other, and struggling in deeply humanistic tableaux.

      The choreography was at its strongest when it became more impressionistic toward the end, and the harmonies of Ēriks Ešenvalds’s transcendent arrangement of Leonard Cohen texts unfolded. Dancers appeared and disappeared, crossing the stage in repeated patterns, their bodies crouching in and then exploding out, arms stretched forth. Couples would come together and then separate in fleeting moments. It was like a fever dream, or perhaps akin to life flashing before your eyes in your final moments.

      Solo Echo wrapped the evening in an ethereal mood with a work by local dance star Crystal Pite—one created not for her own troupe, Kidd Pivot, but for a top European contemporary company. She crafted the work for Nederlands Dans Theater during a winter there, and it takes place under gently falling snow—a highly metaphorical snow, as it turns out, if you read the achingly moving poem on mortality by Mark Strand, “Lines for Winter”, that inspired it. The brilliance here is Pite’s concept of seven bodies moving as a single being, finding moments where they stand in a line, arms bent to attach to the next person, coiling like a caterpillar.

      Set to Johannes Brahms’s sobbing cello and piano pieces, it’s subtle and poetic, showing a deeply musical side to the choreographer—a flip side to the theatrical, edgy, cheeky one we’ve gotten to know in works like Dark Matters and The You Show. The final moment—which I’ll give away only as a stunning image of how alone we must all be in “that final flowing of cold through your limbs”, as Strand puts it—is so poignant it left the audience on opening night in silence for several moments before breaking into applause.

      Life, struggle, death—hey, it’s all in an evening’s work for a company whose emotional range seems to match its youthful vigour these days.