Anti-grav @ šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn

Human-powered flight, 3 ways: Borderline, Backbone and Ballet BC 

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Dutch composer Thom Willems, who created the score, came to Vancouver expressly for the opening night. His association with Forsythe goes back nearly 40 years, but he’s heartened to note that, both choreographically and musically, their collaborative works age well – “better than I have,” he laughs.

Back in the eighties, he relates, the synthesizer interface bore scant resemblance to any ordinary concert instrument. There was a basic keyboard, sure, but essentially it was a formidable array of dials, jacks and circuit boards. Willems used them to create driving, resonant, percussive soundscapes that clang and seethe like the underground plumbing of any modern megalopolis.

He and Forsythe would broadly agree on length and mood, he relates, but then he was free to write what he pleased. Such is Forsythe's characteristic modus operandi, Willems adds. The star choreographer is more of an installation artist than a ballet master in the classic sense.

In Enemy in the Figure, for instance, he personally designed the set, costumes and lighting, but then gave his dancers full play for improvisation. That’s how he keeps each new staging fresh. Ballet B.C.’s 11 dancers made full use of this latitude, filling the stage with vaulting arabesques and looming shadows.

It was a spectacle of constant flux. Dancers circled around a broad wooden screen, wheeling a giant spotlight to illuminate the panel, alternately, in full frontal blaze or deep side-lit shadow or stark silhouette.

Others fluttered like moths right into the light, casting dizzy shadows across the undulant screen. Fringed costumes lent an extra frisson. So did a sinusoidal rope that a pair of dancers flexed in varied tempos across the stage for a balletic variant of Double Dutch.

After such an edgy tour de force from 30 years ago, the evening’s sole brand new world premiere work – To This Day, by Ballet B.C. artistic director Emily Molnar – seemed almost canonically old school.

Except for the music, compiled from the posthumously released Blues album by Vancouver’s own Jimi Hendrix. The late, great guitarist, while hardly a stranger to the ballet stage, is not exactly mainstream fare for the toe-shoe set.

Ballet B.C. channels Jimi Experience. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Yet his work is curiously suited to classic dance treatment. Each of the three Hendrix pieces in the score builds up from ruminative guitar squibs – ideal for solo turns and pas de deux – to frenzied electronic frazz that seems to beg for an orgiastic ensemble.  

Molnar deploys her 15 dancers accordingly, with a nod to the late 1960’s milieu when the songs were recorded. In a GlobeDancer interview excerpted in the P1 program, she hearkens back to Hendrix's heyday, in the era of moon landings, freedom riders and Woodstock – evocative, she says, of  “concepts like the ephemeral, the human machine, corruption and shadow.”

The human machine was on exuberant display in the sheer athleticism of the P1 cast. As for corruption and ephemera, I found my thoughts veering towards such all-too-contemporary cataclysms as as flash floods and forest fires during the climactic ensemble scenes. Shadow and glare abounded in James Proudfoot’s moody lighting, while Kate Burrows’ costumes evoked the 60’s with tatterdemalion chic in Rasta colours.

Contrast that with the black-and-white punctilio of Linda Chow’s costumes for the evening’s concluding piece, Mehdi Walerski’s Petite Cérémonie: waistcoat-and-tux for the seven male dancers, spaghetti-strap evening gowns for the eight women.

Equally genteel was the recorded score, drawn from Mozart, Bellini and Vivaldi, not to mention Rogers and Hart as performed by Benny Goodman. And Walerski’s own minimalist set design – just a tidy array of white cubes – only served to reinforce the air of orderly calm.

But it’s all an ironic set up. In this work, commissioned by Ballet B.C. in 2011, the Netherlands based choreographer deploys all this raffinement just to puncture the titular little ceremonies that so thinly veil our lusts, animosities and mutual incomprehension.

So a partygoer’s cocktail chatter veers into a misogynistic rant (duly recorded by a fawning acolyte trailing behind him with a boom mike). An insipid fox trot morphs into a savage Apache dance. And a lightsome round of musical chairs turns into a demolition derby of colliding white cubes.

As the violence builds, the music crescendos into the violin frenzy of Winter from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher’s spotlights turn greyish-blue and the ballerinas cast waving, witchy shadows on the backdrop scrim.

And then the lights revert to white, the dancers settle back into their prim personae and pile up the cubes into a wedding-cake ziggurat where each one finds a perch to calmly await our standing ovation.

And the ballet audience – many in tux-and-waistcoat or cocktail dresses – files out onto the concrete apron of šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn to join the little ceremony of the cab rank scrum.

 

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