Ballet's ability to endure into the 21st century – to maintain a sense of relevance, even urgency – will depend upon the vision of the artists who make it. So what better way for the National Arts Centre to celebrate Canada 150 than by an investment into the work of three key choreographers? ENCOUNT3RS, which opened in Ottawa on Thursday night, consists of newly commissioned ballets by three major companies (Ballet BC, Alberta Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada). The results are a bit all over the map but, in its finest moments, the program is invigorating and emotionally charged. Even more heartening may be that the stuff that fails often does so with a sense of bold exuberance.
Emily Molnar's Keep Driving, I'm Dreaming is a gorgeous, minimalist sweep of momentum and resistance. Each choreographer has paired up with a Canadian composer of their choice, and one of the things that works so well in Molnar's collaboration with Nicole Lizée is how often she lets herself work against the gurgling, popping experimentation of the score. The eight Ballet BC dancers are athletic risk-takers who bring alertness and sensitivity to everything they do. Dressed in simple, stylish clothing and moving under cones of diffuse white light, they enter and exit with mellifluous speed. The program notes tell us that we are observing "a dream within a dream within a dream," and there's definitely an oneiric quality in the limpid flow of action and barefooted bodies. At times, her dancers face invisible obstacles, as though moving through zones of turbulence or unseen blocks of jelly. They search, they wander, they disappear. The effect is arresting; I had the very real sense that I couldn't look away.
Many striking moments demonstrate what makes Molnar imaginative and confident as a choreographer. She has a talent for making sequences of turns and off-kilter legs look as though they're melting into ribbons of motion. But she might be even more memorable in her use of stillness and simplicity and the real-life dynamic she builds between her dancers. A moment I won't forget is when dancer Emily Chessa (a standout throughout the piece) performed a développé à la second so slowly, and with so much attention from the dancers around her, that this straightforward step became an instant of charged dramatic tension. In another moment, a man and a woman appear magnetically repelled from each other as they cross the stage, forcing them to communicate in flat, anxious gestures. Molnar is so invested in detail that the way a dancer lifts her head toward the rafters in a pas de deux is as if the sequence's defining element. There's poetry in these details, and tremors of sadness, too.
Dark Angels, from the National Ballet, reunites choreographer Guillaume Côté and composer Kevin Lau after their collaboration on Le Petit Prince last June. The two works couldn't be less alike, and having criticized the earlier ballet for being short on new ideas, it's refreshing to see a veritable cornucopia of tone and experimentation here. Lau's score is dark and affecting, with lots of dramatic brass. But Côté doesn't let himself get stuck in a single mood. In fact, there are so many choreographic moods in the piece that it still feels under development. Still, it's interesting to see this abundance of physical ideas set side by side.
The choreography leans toward an ugliness that's intriguing but doesn't get enough payoff. Dylan Tedaldi introduces a kind of self-conscious posturing in the rippling of his shoulders and arch of his back. It suggests a vanity that is later reprised in a solo by Greta Hodgkinson – and vanity makes sense in a ballet about primal instinct and the dark side of human nature. It's a thread that could have been picked up again to great effect.
There are a few of moments in this 10-dancer piece that feel like bursts of inspiration. Elena Lobsanova and Skylar Campbell perform a short, ghoulish pas de deux in which they seem to appear out of nowhere and operate on a different level (literally lower) than everything else that's transpired. It's tonally surprising and exciting to watch. A trio of male dancers (Campbell, Tedaldi and Félix Paquet) show muscular detailing as they twist, rebound and contort, then collapse face-forward onto the floor. Better still might be the exquisite ensemble section near the end in which the dancers are suddenly under a strip of amber spotlights and the tense rules of engagement seem to unzip themselves into a striking frenzy.
Jean Grand-Maître's Caelestis might have worked as a rumination on stasis and simple lines (we're told the piece is about phi and the golden ratio) if he'd lit his stage better and done without the distracting background video of outer-space images, cogs and bar codes. Andrew Staniland's score is full of brawn and energy, but it overwhelms the very straightforward choreography. Midway through the piece, the stage brightens, the music softens, and the 10 Alberta Ballet dancers are able to open themselves up and express more. It's a refreshing counterpoint – a moment of reprieve the piece could have used more of.
ENCOUNT3RS runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until April 22.