LunarFest: Choreographer Justine Fraser's journey back from grief inspires Coastal City Ballet's Whispers of the Soul

It tells the story of a girl finding her way as she learns to appreciate new people, new lands, and new cultures

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      In advance of the world premiere of Coastal City Ballet’s newest production, Whispers of the Soul, choreographer and former dancer Justine Fraser isn’t shy about spreading the credit around.

      Because of the pandemic, this ballet being released on a video—a first for her—as part of this year’s LunarFest celebrations in Vancouver.

      Over the phone, Fraser tells the Straight she now understands that even the act of filming a theatrical ballet production is an act of choreography.

      She also credits the Coastal City Ballet staff and LunarFest organizers for pulling this off in the midst of a pandemic.

      “The dancers were amazing,” Fraser adds. “We actually ran the full-length ballet three times to get as many different shots as possible. They worked so hard.”

      Whispers of the Soul was inspired by family tragedy. Last May in the midst of the pandemic, her mother died of cancer, and the ballet represents her personal journey moving through grief.

      “The storyline is really about a young girl who feels lost,” Fraser explains. “She knows that she’s surrounded by people who love her but somehow she doesn’t really feel like she knows who she is.”

      This girl, played by Gabriela Mores, falls asleep while reading a book, at which point she’s greeted by butterflies that lead her along a path. She sometimes feels fear, but the butterflies encourage her to continue even though she’s sometimes alone.

      “As the girl meets these different imaginative characters, she learns more about herself through learning about and accepting different lands, different cultures, different people,” Fraser says.

      To her, this represents how it’s still possible to find joy and connections in the wake of personal hardship.

      “It is the most meaningful piece I’ve ever created— the most collaborative piece—which I think makes it extra special,” Fraser says.

      One of her most important mentors when she was a dancer was Vancouver choreographer Wen Wei Wang, the founder of Wen Wei Dance.

      “He had a way of really making me feel seen and collaborated really heavily with the dancers in the room,” she recalls.

      Fraser studied under Alonzo King, founder and artistic director of San Francisco–based Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

      That marked the first time she was able to fuse contempory and classical ballet, which she’s also done in Whispers of the Soul.

      Whispers of the Soul choreographer Justine Fraser thought a lot about her mother as she was developing the storyline for her new ballet.

      Storytelling through dance is tough in a pandemic

      Fraser also mentions that she’s a great admirer of Kidd Pivot founder Crystal Pite because of how the Vancouver choreographer embeds strong storylines into her productions.

      “This is one of the first experiences I’ve had in having to deliver a storyline through movement,” Fraser reveals.

      She confesses that while choreographing Whispers of the Soul, she thought a great deal about Pite’s storytelling, lauding her as a “genius and a master”.

      “I didn’t realize how difficult that can be,” Fraser says. “With COVID, we don’t have the ability to use props or sets.”

      Moreover, the dancers weren’t able to have any physical contact, so there’s no partner work. That means dancers had to focus on their own artistry, including their facial expressions, to convey what was unfolding in the story.

      During rehearsals, eight-foot squares were placed on the floor and no more than 12 dancers could be in the space at one time, each remaining in their own areas. But with editing, she believes that the film will make it seem like there are large group pieces, even though they weren’t choreographed in unison.

      “This experience has been incredibly exciting and moving because I personally witnessed what happens when a group of people really come together to make something happen in a time where it’s difficult,” Fraser says.

      Coastal City Ballet’s world premiere of the Whispers of the Soul video will be presented on Monday (February 22) as part of LunarFest in Vancouver. To sign up to watch the ballet for free, visit the LunarFest website.