One big, thick charcoal carpet is unfurled along the back of the Ballet BC rehearsal studio, with dancers’ feet sinking slightly into it as they move across its soft surface. Another rug sits, rolled up at one side, with another performer emerging from inside it.
It’s immediately obvious that the company is embarking on a new adventure for its season-opening performance. And it becomes clear its members have entered the surreal, comedy-touched, and oh-so-human world of Swedish-born choreographer Johan Inger. His presence also explains the laughter rippling regularly throughout the room as the former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer and onetime Cullberg Ballet artistic director works on the details of his piece B.R.I.S.A.
“He has incredible humour. He’s so light when he walks into the room,” says dancer Brandon Alley of the in-demand choreographer. “His work is so human, and then there are very technical moments in the piece as well. A lot of it is human interactions and about how people grow—that they can connect through simple gestures.”
The North Carolina–born Alley, who’s become a magnetic on-stage presence since joining the troupe in 2015, adds that the cozy new dance surface affects the entire mood of the piece—and of rehearsal: “You can be more reckless and free. It’s like a cushion. There are mornings when the sun’s coming in, and we’re all just lying around, stretching out on the carpet.”
Inger explains in a separate interview at the studio that B.R.I.S.A., which he first created for NDT2 in 2014, came from the idea of change and awakening: “how it can be the smallest things that trigger the bigger changes”. He points to everything from the Arab Spring to the #metoo social-media campaign as examples.
To create the piece, he assigned the dancers different ages and personas, with the “younger” characters more eager to embrace change than the older ones. But slowly, the little community he builds on-stage starts to transform.
“I always try to create journeys for the dancers if I can,” Inger says. “This piece starts really closed, and then I really try to create an extreme curve—a dramatological curve.
“If I can have humour in it then I do that, too; I like when you are moved and when you laugh,” he says with a smile, and dancegoers will immediately recognize that mix from his only previous work for Ballet BC—the farcical yet melancholy audience favourite Walking Mad. “But it’s the hardest thing to do to be funny.”
Inger says that, in his dance, feeling comes first. “In order for me to get a humanity out of the work I cannot only really do steps,” he says. “I like to see people dancing. And I love the beauty between the highly technical thing and something very plain.”
Alley notes a similar theme between Inger’s B.R.I.S.A. and Cayetano Soto’s as-yet-untitled premiere, which shares the program. This, even though the two choreographers are so stylistically different—Inger’s work so earthy and human, Soto’s a whirlwind of partnering and push-pull tension.
“Both pieces deal a little bit with fear. In B.R.I.S.A., people are afraid to open up to other people or joy or sexuality, but there’s this ripple effect and they want to go to the other side and experience this bliss,” Alley explains. Then he turns to Soto’s work, which is based on a serious illness that put the choreographer in hospital: “Cayetano talked about when your inner cries are saying you can’t do something. He was afraid that he was never going to dance again or choreograph again.”
The troupe is taking on these two new works on the heels of a tour to California and New York City, where it performed the equally diverse and challenging Solo Echo by Crystal Pite and Bill by Israel’s Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar.
The season doesn’t open until Thursday (November 2), but it’s already been an incredibly demanding fall for Ballet BC. “Really, I do a lot in both pieces, so I’m exhausted,” Alley admits with a smile. “I’m just trying to find the pleasure and the joy in it.”
From the point of view of Inger, dancers here are handling themselves exquisitely under the pressure that comes from growing. “I see a high level of working and a commitment I think stems from [artistic director] Emily [Molnar], an approach to the work you don’t always see everywhere,” he says before heading into the studio to join the dancers on the carpet. “I find it very stimulating and very inspiring to come here.”
Ballet BC presents Program One at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from Thursday to Saturday (November 2 to 4).