Whether holding the spotlight with Brandon Alley in a sensual duet or arching backward like she’d been hit by lightning in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, Emily Chessa stood out on the Ballet BC stage last season. The diminutive talent is a fiery presence in performance, flickering with energy and emotion.
As she heads into her sixth season with the company, Chessa admits she feels like she’s hit a new level.
“I think I’ve found my voice as a human, as an artist, and as a dancer in the company. And it feels good to be at this point,” she says thoughtfully, on a break from rehearsal in the quiet confines of the Ballet BC offices. “It’s nice to be comfortable in my own skin. But there’s still a lot to dig into. At this stage you have to keep exploring and keep wondering and questioning and still be curious.”
Born in Richmond, Chessa began dancing recreationally as a child, taking classes in ballet, jazz, and modern dance, just as she delved into sports at school—“Volleyball and basketball, even though I’m short,” she says with a laugh.
After being wowed by a Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance, the driven Chessa decided she needed to go to its faraway school.
And so, at just 15, she lit out for Manitoba. “I knew it was the right decision, so I felt okay with it. But it’s hard at 15 to move away from your family,” Chessa reflects. “The training was very hard—but I loved it.”
One of Chessa’s strengths seems to be knowing what she wants and what she has to do to get there. And so it was that, as she neared graduation from the esteemed RWB, she started looking for “different ways of moving”. Ballet BC had just come under the leadership of artistic director Emily Molnar, and she started hearing about the bold new repertoire the company was tackling. She read that Arts Umbrella was training dancers in similar work, and moved home to attend its summer intensive. After that she enrolled in the Granville Island–based school for its two-year preprofessional program.
“That was the best decision I’ve made in my whole life,” she says, then adds, gesturing to the building around her: “I wanted to dance here. And here I am six years later.
“I wanted to challenge myself, and this work is so challenging every day,” explains Chessa, who started at Ballet BC as an apprentice. “I found it so invigorating.”
During her last year of Arts Umbrella, she had watched Ballet BC perform Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, a witty but unsettling piece for nine dancers, set to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. “I remember saying, ‘Yeah, that’s why I want to dance there.’ And then I got to do it here,” she says. “I fell in love with that piece. And then, to be able to perform it later, I fell in love with it all over again. The movement was so honest and I wanted to have a piece of that.”
Now Chessa is accessing that honesty one more time, rehearsing another Inger work, B.R.I.S.A., for the Ballet BC season opener on November 2.
Another highlight for her was last spring’s mounting of Naharin’s iconic work, a milestone for the company and a piece that required her to tap a raw, explosive energy like never before.
And then there was the ethereal duet with Alley, in which the pair danced Lesley Telford’s If I Were 2 and had the entire, expansive Queen Elizabeth Theatre stage to themselves. “To be able to do my first duet was a big moment—to hold that space with another person,” she says. “It was a pivotal part of my career. It was a big learning curve as well—learning how to hold that whole big space.”
In other words, it was a challenge—the thing that has always driven her, and that keeps her creating sparks on-stage.More