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Arietta

Ballet British Columbia

At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre

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in Vancouver on Thursday

Ballet for our time is a difficult concept. The pointe shoes, pretty manners and soaring ethereality so ingrained in the art form can make it seem as if it's from another planet. Even such innovators as William Forsythe, with his edgy, off-balance approach, don't always get it right.

Enter Crystal Pite. In her latest work, Arietta, the Vancouver artist proves yet again to have her finger on the pulse of the real world, as well as both feet firmly planted in the ballet studio. This commission for Ballet British Columbia presents a multifaceted contemporary reality: There's desperate urgency but also healthy vigour, and individuality is reconciled with comradeship.

Pite also fully exploits the eight dancers' virtuoso precision and control, their high extensions and ability to be fully articulate -- however fast, furious and complex the choreography.

The work is set to the second movement of Beethoven's last piano sonata, No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111, known as Arietta. It's not a complicated ballet. The recorded music plays; a few large flats, painted white or black, shift around upstage; and the dancers dance, costumed in casually elegant pants and tops, with everyone in white socks.

This straightforward approach is not typical of Pite, and may surprise fans familiar with her more cerebral work for Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal or for her own company, Kidd Pivot, which usually features unusual props and some kind of text.

Instead, we get here an abstract dance that begins with a processional entry through the auditorium while a fragment of the sonata's first movement plays. Once onstage, Donald Sales launches into a stumbling, stuttering solo that slowly eases into the exhilarating torrent that is Arietta. The work contains brief moments of unison, Chengxin Wei's tumultuous solos, the four women's bodies chock-a-block with angles and curves, a whisper of West Side Story from the men, hands that hold and support, and active spines that seem to control it all.

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Pite's last piece for Ballet B.C., Moving Day, was created a decade ago, when she was a dancer with the company. It premiered on the eve of her departure to Germany, where she performed for several years with Forsythe's renowned Frankfurt Ballet. Back in Canada since 2001, Pite has established a reputation as a choreographer with a rare ability to be both intelligent and entertaining, and is also known internationally (her second commission for Nederlands Dans Theater premieres in February).

The evening began with Schubert, a cascade of lightly flowing duets and trios from 2000 by Ballet B.C.'s artistic director, John Alleyne.

Rodeo, Agnes de Mille's American cowboy ballet from 1942, provided a pleasant finale. Though its guys-and-gals tomfoolery looked creaky to me, it sent the opening-night audience home chuckling.

Arietta continues in Vancouver through tonight (604-280-3311).

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