I am a self-confessed ballet nerd and have immersed myself in all kinds of dance since I was in the single digits (I think I was 4). Born in Toronto, I have travelled the world since I was a teenager looking for situations that cause me to feel that initial blood rush I first felt when I realized how my body was aching to respond to the music I was hearing.
I decided to train to be a classical dancer and I have now become unusually appreciative of the infinite discipline and aesthetic principles of the ballet world I live in.
Ballet always feels to me like a daunting, near-impossible challenge and a guilty pleasure at the same time. No matter how loudly or passionately the audience responds, I never quite feel I'm as good as I want to be (I'm not sure any ballet dancer does), but then the rhythm of ballet's daily rigours makes me feel alive, so I just refuse to stop.
Great ballet is hard to produce because there are elements that should be mathematically perfect. Maybe modern-day Leonardo da Vincis can decipher and philosophize about the natural laws that make it so appealing to the eye but, as a dancer, it takes time, effort and will to try to crack the codes. The lines, the symmetry, the awareness that everything is served to the audience as part of an extravagant arrangement of other-worldliness can make it feel magical. My friends joke that it's like seeing Olympians sweat for their personal best combined with the posh presentation that a Michelin-starred restaurant would bestow upon its clientele. When you see Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you see a seamless kaleidoscope of steps; when you see Rudolf Nureyev's The Sleeping Beauty, it's about the bold 24-carat-effect.
But this fantasy realm is not at the core of why I dance, and never will be. When I recently chose to come back to Canada after more than a decade of performing in Europe (experiencing some of the professional highs, and a few personal lows, that accompany being a danseur on – and at – some of "life's big stages"), Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, told me I'd be in the cast in Chroma, opening in Toronto this week.
Researching Chroma after seeing it in London a couple of years ago, I was reminded of why I really dance. … Why anyone can, would, should and probably is dancing as I write this. What I felt when I heard the score by Joby Talbot, which is bona-fide rock music played by a classical orchestra at a fearless volume and tempo, was the compulsion to move … because it feels good and necessary.
The choreographer of Chroma, Wayne McGregor, has a modern-dance background (and holds an honorary doctor of science degree) but created this piece for classical ballet dancers. When I had the pleasure of working with Wayne in Europe as part of three of his creations over the last 10 years, I felt like sparks were flying through me in a way that proved first-hand how brilliant some choreographers can be. There are only a handful I have met who actually create a new physical language that we can speak. Learning the steps, a kind of cross-fire occurs in a way that challenges my physical and cerebral flexibility … and being flexible is a big thing for ballet dancers. Being flexible can let me rethink my boundaries. I feel like I am required to have the focus and physical prowess of a yoga master but with the intention to rebel against it through the wild and reckless musical score. There is no way to dance to that music and be overly cautious about the outcome of a movement. "It's not a machine that is doing it, it's a live human body," McGregor says. In this case the human bodies are my new (and extraordinarily talented) colleagues at the National Ballet here in Toronto.
In fact, though McGregor's choreography is made up of physical problem-solving tasks on a group of dancers, he is known for his fascination with bodies "misbehaving." I smiled when I heard him say that in his TED Talks because that is exactly how it feels to dance his work. I am making my body trespass all over what my mind thought I knew about it. McGregor speaks often of "fractured movements" and for Chroma, he sets their sequences in a white, minimal environment designed by architect John Pawson. This highlights the "trespassing" even further to me and serves to theatrically deliver quite a few interesting paradoxes for the spectator to find and discuss.
For me, there is much to be felt in works like these that can rebelliously deconstruct our classical principles, but ironically use classical skills and technique to do so.
Evan McKie is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. He appears in Chroma, which runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre from March 4 to 8 (ballet.ca).