Fall arts preview: Livona Ellis loves a good ballet challenge

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      You have to have a certain amount of drive to become a ballet dancer, but look out when Livona Ellis sets her mind to something.

      The young Ballet B.C. star had her breakout year as an apprentice in 2011, when Paris-based choreographer Medhi Walerski singled her out for a solo in his playfully surreal ballroom reverie Petite Cérémonie.

      Still, when it came time for Ellis’s mentor and company artistic director Emily Molnar to decide who to hire as a dancer for the next season, there was an obstacle for Ellis. Though she had been a standout at Arts Umbrella, where Molnar had been one of her teachers, Ellis hadn’t had a lot of formal tutu-and-pointe-shoe training. “Emily had said she loved having me here but she didn’t think with my classical training that I would be strong enough en pointe,” the affable Ellis says candidly, sitting in a studio at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “But I said, ‘I will work my ass off. I’m going to work really hard and get my pointe work up.’ And later she called another meeting with me and said, ‘You have completely changed my mind.’ ”The rest, as they say, is history. Hired for that 2011-12 season, Ellis quickly emerged as a strong, charismatic corps member, as memorable for slithering across the floor like a caterpillar in Walter Matteini’s Parole Sospese as for flirtily cavorting with four men in Johan Inger’s witty Walking Mad (one of her career highlights). In November, you’ll see her floating across the stage in Fernando Magadan’s season-opening premiere—yes, in pointe shoes.

      “Obviously, it’s a challenge and I love that feeling of pushing myself to do something I wouldn’t naturally be able to do—it’s that underdog thing,” she says with her wide, warm smile.

      Pushing herself is nothing new. As a kid growing up in Vancouver, she took up martial arts and gymnastics. But it wasn’t till a friend took Arts Umbrella dance classes, and she joined along with her, that she found her calling. “It’s something about performing on-stage. I had never experienced something like that and I enjoyed the amount of responsibility that was given to us,” says Ellis, who went on to take the professional training program. “They just treated us like adults and it felt so good to be in charge of something.”

      The Arts Umbrella training, with its revolving list of contemporary choreographers, also gave her the versatility demanded by Ballet B.C.’s stylistic contrasts. This summer alone, she’s had to shift from Matteini’s heavy leg work (the Italian artist is creating another piece for the company to premiere in March) to Magadan’s experimentation with en pointe ballet. “I feel very complete at the end of my day,” she says.

      Dance consumes most of Ellis’s life right now, as it has to. But this summer, with a bit of free time on her hands, she decided to learn a new skill—this time, not in a dance studio. “I joined a softball league,” she says with a laugh. “I just wanted to do something normal. But it’s funny how similar it is to dance, with the same kind of group dynamic.” All we can say is: look out, beer leaguers.

      Follow Janet Smith on Twitter at @janetsmitharts.