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Topic of domestic violence makes for a powerful, poignant ballet

Ghosts of Violence Louis-Philippe Dionne Operations and Community Relations Manager/Responsable des opérations et des relations communautaires Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada/Ballet-théâtre atlantique du Canada

A sombre lobby display. Red wooden silhouettes of women with plaques graphically detailing their murders. All killed as a result of domestic violence. Silent witnesses.

Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada is making its first visit to Toronto with a very moving work. Ghosts of Violence is choreographer Igor Dobrovolskiy's attempt to give a voice to women killed at the hands of a significant other.

Domestic violence may seem like a strange topic for a ballet, but the powerful project began as a request from the New Brunswick Silent Witness Committee, the organization behind the red silhouettes.

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Dobrovolskiy's mandate for his Moncton-based company is story ballets. In recent years he has worked with famed Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock as dramaturge in fashioning scenarios.

The basic storyline of Ghosts of Violence follows a character called She (Anya Nesvitaylo), who's new to the city. She has one relationship with a Young Man (Sergiy Diyanov), but he breaks it up. She then meets He (Leigh Alderson) and true romance blooms. Act one ends on that happy note. Act two is the downward spiral as He shows his violent side. The tragic ending is inevitable.

During the course of the ballet, there are three other duets, all dealing with domestic violence. She is aware of them – but sees it as something that happens to other people. The program contains written monologues telling the stories behind these other couples.

As a choreographer, Dobrovolskiy is not reinventing classical dance. Rather, he uses traditional ballet to tell his stories, manipulating the vocabulary to draw character and relationships. This makes his work very accessible because it looks familiar.

It could be that Ghosts of Violence is his best work to date. Even without reading the program synopsis, the story of She and He is clear. The glory of the ballet are the duets that detail woman as victim.

The story of She and He is told through their bodies and dangerous partnering. She is feisty and attempts to voice her disgust at his drunken behaviour, but He eventually drives her down.

Nesvitaylo is absolutely incandescent. She is a wonderful acting dancer, telegraphing her sweetness and innocence at the beginning, and her growing despair at the end. Alderson is a perfect young-man icon, but a good enough actor to show his violent side.

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The other three duets use a physical prop as a symbol of oppression. With Lady M and her Partner (Janie Richard and Kyle Davey) it is a chair. Lady B (Samantha-Jane Gray) is caged by her Partner (Anton Lykhanov) with two rolling screens. In the duet of the upper-class couple, Lady T and Partner (Olena Zahkarova and Diyanov again), it is a table.

The physical images are very strong. Lady M's hands stretching out through the slats of the back of the chair in a plea for mercy. Lady B's body crushed between the two screens, only her lolling head hanging free. Lady T pinned to the underside of the table like a dead butterfly. And in contrast, the tender, sweet duet between She and He that closes the first act.

One of Dobrovolskiy's finest achievements is making male dancers look mean. His does this through clenched fists, angular arms and stamping feet. The women are positioned in awkward and difficult lifts.

He also pinpoints specific movement on the part of the men to hit the instrumental accents, so there is action reinforced by music. As always, Dobrovolskiy has fashioned a fit-like-a-glove score from classical music (Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich for the lighter scenes, and raw and edgy Schnittke for the dark side).

Brian Perchaluk has designed five screens for Adam Larsen's brilliant video projections. The latter are all abstract, yet telling. For example. Lady B's duet is accompanied by pictures of wallpaper, but by the end of the piece, the wallpaper is cracked and peeling. A single hand then crushes a tomato, the juice running down the arm as she is choked by the chair.

Denis Lavoie's costumes are clever. We know Lady T is upper class because of her spangled dress top. The character She is pert in briefs and top. Lady M's simple dress puts her in working class, while Lady B is fashionable middle class. Pierre Lavoie has worked his usual magic with the lights.

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With strong theatrical values, expressive choreography and committed dancers, Ghosts of Violence makes for a poignant dance experience.

Ghosts of Violence

  • Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada
  • Choreography by Igor Dobrovolskiy
  • At Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto on Thursday

Ghosts of Violence is performed in Toronto on May 26 at 7:30 p.m., and will be touring next season to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

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