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theatre review

Rui Huang, a First Soloist with the National Ballet of Canada, performs during a dress rehearsal of The Dreamers Ever Leave You, a boldly innovative ballet choreographed by Robert Binet.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When it comes to ballet, accessibility – in the sense of its mass appeal – has never been a conversation that has interested me.

Admittedly, there's some stubbornness in this. But it seems to me that when someone asks if a particular ballet is accessible or not, they're typically asking how much it resembles a play. Or maybe the circus. There's an assumption that ballet can appeal to a non-expert audience only insofar as it looks like something else – that it can pack in a great story or showcase acrobatic virtuosity or skating bears.

It's thinking like this that makes The Dreamers Ever Leave You, an immersive ballet currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario, such a thrilling and affirming victory for the art form. This is a ballet that has mass appeal and it does so by becoming both an extreme and simplified version of itself. If you've never been to the ballet before, this is the kind of unique, strikingly atmospheric and emotionally charged experience that could hook you for life.

But at the other end of the spectrum, Dreamers is a veritable candy store for ballet fans, who can stand just feet away from their favourite dancers and watch them breathe – not to mention ogle the machinations of technique and complex partner-work.

What distinguishes the ballet is not just its site-specific setting (it runs in the gallery's Signy Eaton Hall, in conjunction with the exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris), but also the way choreographer Robert Binet has written change and fluctuation into every aspect the work.

Movement, lights and music are set, but set loosely, so that each element can respond and react differently with every iteration.

Dreamers is performed by 13 dancers on three flat stages (strips of dance-grade floor) in a 45-minute loop of movement accompanied by composer Lubomyr Melnyk, who plays a grand piano in the corner. Behind Melnyk sits a tech panel, where designer Simon Rossiter and his team control the lights. The audience is free to wander around the room at will, to stand as close to the stages as suits them and to record anything they like on their phones.

What does all this improvisation amount to? It's as if one of Lawren Harris's spare, Arctic landscapes had been turned into a giant diorama that we all get to exist in together. Everything is pale, clear and elemental, affected by dramatic shifts of light that seem to seep into the room from cracks in overhead clouds, or hit us obliquely as if it were a sunrise. Melnyk's cascading piano music (a technique called "continuous piano") has a purity that feels both emotional and restrained. The thoroughgoing minimalism is charged with a powerful feeling of incomprehensible forces, of spiritual beauty and underlying risk.

This sense of spiritualism and urgency drives all of Binet's movement. The dancers perform solos, then in duets and small groups, walking among audience members as they move between stages. Binet's choreography is as interested in small, gestural moments as it is large inventive floor-work (a stunning solo performed by first soloist Skylar Campbell comes to mind). Quiet moments of sculptural stillness are juxtaposed by sweeps of movement and soaring vertical lifts. At times, I was reminded of some of the incantatory gestures of early modern dancers, swan-like hands with Egyptian undertones and some Hellenic-looking poses.

An emotional pas de deux between principal dancers Elena Lobsanova and Harrison James had several jaw-dropping images: a lift that moved horizontally in which Lobsanova criss-crosses her legs behind her and grabs a single foot; another in which her body is curved in a tuck position (like a parabola) as James lowers her to the floor.

One of the delights of the intimate setting is getting to see the dancers up close and getting an almost bird's-eye view of the geometries of partner-work. We're also granted more access to what the dancers are feeling and the nuances in how they interact.

As a whole, the ensemble mesmerized me in terms of their presence, commitment and emotional clarity.

Beyond that, we get to spy on moments that feel private: a staccato look exchanged between Alexandra MacDonald and Brendan Saye; a smile between James and Lobsanova. I only wish there were more of these.

Binet is more than a breath of fresh air in the ballet world; he's like a blast of Novocain. Here's a choreographer with a rich and extensive imagination who wants to do things differently and clearly has the skills to realize his ideas. He's an artist who is asking questions of what ballet should and can do, and you can see these questions in his multivalent and technically intricate work. You can also see that he wants to push himself further, and I suspect we'll be seeing bold innovation in the years ahead.

Whatever your level of familiarity with ballet, Dreamers is a stunning supplement to the Harris exhibition; it's a remarkable and moving experience.