All the horrible things that happen between men and women begin with love, according to playwright Sharon Pollock.
Which is why, in the searing new ballet about spousal abuse, Ghosts of Violence, “that is where we begin.”
Pollock played dramaturge to Moncton-based Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada’s production, which begins its national tour on Friday.
“We had to personalize these stories into the language of dance,” Pollock says.
“The ballet has a central couple who first experience love, then death.”
For artistic director Igor Dobrovolskiy, the challenge was to rethink traditional ballet storytelling.
“I’ve always worked with concrete plots,” the choreographer says. “In this case we were starting from zero. To find the proper language, I deconstructed classical ballet, and then put the broken pieces back together again like a puzzle.”
Ghosts of Violence grew out of a 2007 short work of the same name. The Fredericton-based Muriel McQueen Fergusson Foundation for Family Violence Research asked ABTC to create a piece appropriate for a fundraiser for their Silent Witness Project.
“When this short piece left the audience in tears,” Dobrovolskiy says, “I knew we had to expand the theme into a full-length, two-act ballet.”
The Silent Witness Project is international in scope. Local chapters create life-size silhouettes – wooden figures of women (and men and children too) – each commemorating a victim of domestic homicide. The silhouettes, which will be exhibited in the lobby at many performances of the ballet, feature personal details about those who have died.
“A cluster of silhouettes on exhibit makes a powerful statement about women who once lived, and who were cut down too early,” says ballet company CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin. “The ballet is a deviation from our usual storytelling repertoire, but women’s groups all understand the power of art to reach out to the community with great impact.”
The piece has captured the interest of agencies and organizations that work with abused women. In fact, there are so many cities that want the ballet that Ghosts of Violence will be crisscrossing the country for three years in order to fit them all in.
The 2011-2012 tour begins in Moncton and includes nine cities from coast to coast to coast, with special performances for high-school students at every stop.
For Pollock’s research on domestic violence, she combed through trial transcripts, sentencing reports and family-impact statements.
The larger context is the continuing incidence of domestic homicide. On average, one to two women are murdered a week by their partners, according to Megan Walker, executive director of the London, Ont., Abused Women’s Centre. The figures cut across all strata of society.
Pollock and Dobrovolskiy included three other couples in the ballet besides the main couple, who portray condensed versions of domestic violence.
“I like the idea of four couples because the narrative focus of a single storyline would be predictable,” Pollock says.
The ballet also includes a video component, by New York designer Adam Larsen, which accents the physical violence happening on stage.
Projections of metaphors such as a man’s hand grinding out a cigarette, or raindrops that become a river of tears, heighten the emotion.
The music, too, is designed to underline the themes. Dobrovolskiy chose Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s dissonant sounds for the scenes involving physical and emotional pain, Shostakovich for ensemble numbers and Rachmaninoff for hope.
“The arts have the ability to make a difference and contribute to social change,” Dobrovolskiy says.
“ Ghosts of Violence gives a voice to women who can no longer speak for themselves.”
The public performances of Ghosts of Violence take place in Moncton, Oct. 7; Whitehorse, Nov. 26; Vancouver, Dec. 1-3; Halifax, Jan. 14; Fredericton, Jan. 19; London, Ont., Feb. 22; Toronto, Feb. 25; Saint John, March 15 and Charlottetown, March 29.
There are many powerful moments in Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada’s Ghosts of Violence. We asked the three people closest to the production to choose the moment of greatest impact for them.
Igor Dobrovolskiy, choreographer
"The conflict between the upper-class couple in the piece is silent, and therefore more terrifying. He kills her softly. It is a quiet death. She never screams."
Sharon Pollock, dramaturge
"A woman is sitting on a chair and the man tilts it back, throwing her off balance. I get chills when I see these little things that Igor has put in as warning signs of impending murder."
Susan Chalmers-Gauvin, CEO
"There is a projection where the central woman sees herself standing outside the window. It is an image of the carefree, vibrant person she once was. She now realizes what the relationship has made her become."