Ballet BC shape-shifts through an evening that alternates between challenging, dreamy, and all-out witty

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      A Ballet BC presentation. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, May 11. Continues until May 13

      A true test of an audience’s support is interaction, and judging by the number of people who threw themselves into Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 on opening night of Program 3, Ballet BC is doing just fine, thank you very much.

      If you’re familiar with the Israeli dance maverick’s witty, fourth-wall-busting creation, you know about the treat that Ballet BC had in store for audience members in the last piece of its mixed program. For those who aren’t, suffice it to say that by the end of it all, the entire crowd was on its feet, whooping wildly and clapping to the beat. And a handful of those in attendance were on-stage doing something much more than just showing their appreciation.

      Those who saw Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company perform at DanceHouse in 2009 witnessed the thrilling opening excerpt of Minus 16: a half-circle of 16 seated, black-suited and -hatted dancers who create a sort of repeated human wave, arching violently backward as if lightning bolts were hitting them, one by one, to the music’s pounding folk rhythms. But with typical Naharin black humour, the last one falls flat, dead, on the floor with each round. In another subversive little twist, Ballet BC dancer Gilbert Small starts messing with the idea of unison and conformity too, jumping to stand upright on his chair.

      Naharin, whose 1999 work still manages to surprise, has more tricks up his sleeve, too. Scott Fowler performs a wonky soft-shoe to zoot-suit jazz during intermission. Emily Chessa and Brandon Alley pull off a sensual duet full of strange, unearthly lifts to Antonio Vivaldi’s baroque strains. To the considerable delight of the assembled, footwear, hats, and clothes eventually come off, thrown in giant arcs to rain down at centre stage. And then the dancers have to push right out of their comfort zones, into cheesy mambos and Dean Martin territory, fearlessly venturing out into the crowd to find partners. By the end you had nonprofessional dancers, old and young, cheerfully givin’er alongside the pros—a work of magic.

      That this highly honed crew could pull off both Naharin’s gutteral, exploding-from-the-core movement and the ballroom work, plus take such comedic glee in the audience interaction, speaks to the troupe’s incredible range. The payoff, also due to its fans’ enthusiasm to commit, was huge.

      Minus 16 lets off a bit of steam after an evening dense with complex choreography and music.

      Ballet BC dancers in Emily Molnar's Keep Driving, I'm Dreaming.
      Michael Slobodian


      Emily Molnar’s new Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming is a swirling, mind-bending delirium set to Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s layered, cinematic score.
      True to its title, it follows the logic of a dream, the dancers leaning perilously off-centre, running backward, and partnering like they’re just flashes of memory. The performers are as liquid as the concepts of time and space here, Chessa and Alley again the fluid standouts amid the ever-shifting tableaux. You do really get the sense of the weird perspective Molnar is after: that we are somehow watching ourselves the way we would in a dream.

      Driving it all is the eerie, elaborate soundscape, with sumptuous strings and jazzy lilts that evoke a hundred old movie thrillers. It must have been even more mind-blowing to see it performed with the National Arts Centre Orchestra accompanying the dancers live, as happened in the piece’s debut last month at the NAC.

      It was a lot to take in, and so was Emanuel Gat’s new LOCK—but where Keep Driving speaks to the heart, this one challenges the brain. At times, taking in the 16-dancer effect is like trying to comprehend the particle theory of matter, watching all those flickering limbs moving in different ways, and perceiving the forces that seem to pass through the sculptural mass.

      This is a pure experiment in incredibly complex, nonunison movement, heightened by Gat’s own industrial-tinged, atonal score and shadowy lighting. Everyone is dressed in grey-black, except for Andrew Bartee in bright-green jeans, appearing to trigger intricate chain reactions. The dancers have an odd, zombielike remove, often partnering without touching each other at all, instead rigidly maintaining eye contact and moving in their own distinct ways. People tippie-toe across the stage, raise their legs in frozen, bent arabesques, and get pulled backward as if by a strange magnetic force.

      It’s existential and intense to the point of being exhausting. Still, you can’t help but marvel at the precision, commitment, and versatility of the dancers.

      There’s the overriding sense as Ballet BC ends another season that it possesses an almost superhuman ability to shape-shift—from jittery particles in space to phantoms from fever dreams to purveyors of Dean Martin lounge cheese. Not bad for a single evening.

      Ballet BC in Emanuel Gat's new LOCK.
      Michael Slobodian