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The triple bill features pieces by frequent Ballet BC choreographers Medhi Walerski, Crystal Pite and Emily Molnar.Michael Slobodian

  • Ballet BC
  • Venue: Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto
  • Presented by: Ballet BC and TOLive
  • Choreography by: Emily Molnar, Crystal Pite, Medhi Walerski

Ballet BC occupies a special place in the country’s dance landscape – you might think of it as Canada’s most European quasi-ballet company. Its 18 dancers combine a strong foundation in classical technique with the ability to launch themselves into demanding and dissident aesthetics. Influences come via a few brainy physical thinkers in the dance world: William Forsythe’s kinetic interrogations at Ballett Frankfurt and Israeli Ohad Naharin’s insistence that motivation come from within. In structure and spirit, it might most resemble Nederlands Dans Theater, with whom it shares various repertoire and choreographers.

What has consistently impressed me about Ballet BC is the sense that individual artistry is the entry point to any choreographic endeavour. The dancers make the work feel personal; it’s a slippery phenomenon to put your finger on, but intensely satisfying to perceive.

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A decade into Molnar's tenure, the company is at a kind of artistic crossroads, Martha Schabas writes.Michael Slobodian

And it’s an important year for the company – Emily Molnar’s 10th anniversary as artistic director. What she’s accomplished over the past decade was exceedingly clear in Toronto last month at the Bluma Appel Theatre, where Ballet BC finished a Canada-wide tour. When Molnar took the reins in 2009, she inherited an organization on the brink of bankruptcy. Rather than falling back on commercially safe programming, she went the other route, building a visionary, non-hierarchical ensemble determined to prioritize art above all else.

It worked: Molnar has achieved acclaim at home and international recognition.

But I wonder if, a decade into her tenure, the company is at a kind of artistic crossroads. I inferred as much watching one of their triple bills, with pieces by frequent Ballet BC choreographers Medhi Walerski, Crystal Pite and Molnar herself. All of the company’s reliable strengths were on display – excellent, detailed dancing and palpable engagement with the material. But, with the exception of Pite’s tender and sorrowful 2012 Solo Echo, the evening felt conceptually undercooked. The dancers looked technically accomplished but, perhaps, a little too comfortable.

I sensed this the most in Molnar’s To This Day, the second piece on the program and the company’s newest work (it premiered in November, 2018). Set largely to music by Jimi Hendrix, the cast of 15 make sliding entrances in brightly coloured, workaday clothes, easing themselves into various solos and duets. The slinking, grooving dynamism of Molnar’s choreography is often compelling, particularly when its hip-oriented playfulness seems like the physical rendition of Hendrix’s guitar riffs. And there’s great energy and muscularity in several male duets, juxtaposed with gripping female solos by Parker Finley and Racheal Prince.

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Petite Cérémonie. The 2011 piece is set to a range of classical music and showtunes, featuring 15 dancers dressed in black evening attire.Michael Slobodian

Yet there’s a showy, performative feeling to the work that isn’t entirely satisfying. When the ensemble congregates to perform a sloping walk in unison and then snaps to attention, fists at their collar, the effect is perplexing. The sequence suggests context we haven’t been privy to; the style doesn’t fit. Similarly, the device of having one male dancer move spasmodically, perhaps as an enthusiastic groupie, feels insufficiently explained within the structure of the piece. What emerges is a work of dance whose parts are much bigger than its whole. There are moments of rich and imaginative choreography, but little in the way of an emotional arc or interrogated idea. The dancers are tasked with no more than simply showcasing their skill – for an audience, the experience is unfulfilling.

I had more profound problems with Walerski’s Petite Cérémonie, a 2011 piece set to a range of classical music and showtunes, featuring 15 dancers dressed in black evening attire. There are strong moments, such as a dramatic and imagistic beginning: The dancers form a line across the stage, tapping a sickled foot on the floor with an ironic sense of precision. Walerski also creates fraught, intimate tensions in his pas de deux, which suggest both sex and strife. But the puerile spoken text about the enduring differences between men and women might only satisfy the Jordan Petersons in the audience, and certain campy theatrical effects – such as breaking the fourth wall to laugh directly at the audience – feel blatantly derivative of Alexander Ekman’s Cacti, made the year before.

Molnar’s To This Day brought to mind a few of Naharin’s ensemble pieces, perhaps simply through the visual association of the dancers’ bright, hip, outdoor clothes. Naharin’s work finds its soulfulness in the absolute authenticity he demands onstage – the dancers are really themselves, have real-time relationships, appear to undergo real events. Molnar’s piece suggested this sort of form without the same depth of content. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if her dancers were asked to do and reveal more, if they’d been given a clearer emotional journey or tasked with stronger physical objectives. The company is too talented to rest on past laurels; they need bigger challenges via more ambitious content.

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Michael Slobodian

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