About eight or nine years ago there was some action around this company on this site, but it looks like nothing's happened since then...hopefully some browsers or grazers will pick up on this message and help try to revive the interest.
If Ballet BC means nothing to you, here's most of what you need to know:
Since 1992 the company (now about 18 dancers strong) has been headed by John Alleyne, who started his dance career with Canada's National and the Stuttgart ballet, before coming to BC as choreographer in the late '80's, and then taking over the company. Which is probably a reasonable way to put it: Ballet BC performs about three times a year in Vancouver, with typically one or two full-length (and, more often than not, new) ballets and an evening of two or three shorter pieces. Mostly these are Alleyne's work, with occasional years off given over to second-raters like Jean Grande-Maitre. Alleyne also has an uncanny ability to find or shape up competent dancers to present work that now seems far too good to be that of merely a local company.
People seemed to know that 10 years or so ago, but that was before things got tight in the newspaper business, so that reviews of their performances in both the local and national (Globe and Mail) press would spread the word. But the Globe can't, apparently, afford to send their people to Vancouver, and the local press either doesn't have anyone competent to review ballet, or doesn't believe enough of their readers care. And Ballet BC’s performance schedules (always Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with a Saturday matinee) doesn't really help: opening night runs too late to make the Friday papers, and by Saturday you're looking at the weekend editor who sees it as last week's news. I know, he sighed, it's like that for everyone...
Okay, so here I was on Friday night checking out the company which I dropped my annual subscription to a bunch of years ago but which I like to drop in once every year or so. And this year, they offered a very neat season-opener package: a short piece by Alleyne, another by Dominique Dumais, and Twyla's Nine Sinatra Songs. How could you go wrong?
The Alleyne, which kicked off the evening was a short piece called Schubert, set to music by Schubert, as you might expect (but in the 21st century can no longer really be sure of in advance): specifically, his Trio, Op. 100. Now I gotta admit that I have a lot of reservations about Schubert generally ("trivial" is about the best I can say about almost anything he's done) but I also admit that these are purely personal, and that I never hold it against anyone when they profess to admire his work. It just don't seem to do nothin' for me, except irritate a little.
I mention all that because Alleyne's light flexible choreography -- moving dancers about in quick and constantly shifting duos, trios or quartets, turning flowing graceful lines into sudden jetes, twisting lifts, or nosedives, and sweeping them back up or down in elongated curves -- floated on Schubert's playful music like swans on bobbing water: what he did, actually, was make me enjoy Schubert, something that Schubert's finest interpreters have not been able to do.
It's in short pieces like this that Alleyne seems to function best, however, although even here there were places where he seems to have run out of ideas (and some of his jazzier ideas, like strange lighting effects, seemed not only unnecessary, but downright intrusive: why are you distracting me with all those dumb spotlights, I wanted to say, when I came for the dance?) But that, unfortunately, has always been Alleyne's problem: he simply can't seem to think beyond a single phrase, and then often just seems to string together as many of those as he needs to fill the time available.
I remember a documentary CBC made about him, back when that broadcaster could afford to pay attention to anyone but the National, maybe when he was putting together Midsummer Night’s Dream. It started with Alleyne saying “Well, here it is three weeks before opening night, and I still haven’t thought of anything to do.” I doubt that most choreographers would have wanted to make such a boast, even if it were true; but his work invariably seems to reflect that approach. “Well, why don’t you sort of move over there and let him come over…no, maybe leap over…and lift her and sort of turn and, no, don’t put her down yet, sort of twist her around behind your back…no I guess that’s not working either; let’s try…” This may not be the way Alleyne puts together a ballet, but too often that’s the way it looks, and, repeated year for year, it’s made his full-length ballets fairly unwatchable.
Still, the Schubert worked far more nicely than I remembered those shorter pieces to have done, and made the evening worthwhile right there. My only complaint would be that the program failed to credit the (canned) musicians performing the music.
Dominique Dumais is another Canadian choreographer, who began her career with the National, has choreographed pieces for most Canadian companies, and is currently house choreographer for the very edgy Mannheim Ballet in Germany. She wrote Petrouchka for Ballet BC in 2001, and it is unabashedly her take on Fokine's Petrushka, with James Gnam (Calgary born, with time spent at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens before coming to BC some five years ago) in the Nijinsky part. The program insisted on calling the music Stravinsky's although it was in fact a far more modern take on some of his themes by Eric Cadesky (whom, if you'd ever heard of, it would have been by way of his score for "Girl, Interrupted"). But together Dumais, Gnam, and Cadesky, as well as Alexis Fletcher as The Woman (in Dumais' version -- the Ballerina, in Stravinsky's) brought what could easily have been an embarrassment off with verve, aplomb, and considerably more comfort in quirky edges than one might anticipated.
It's all a rather dangerous game, this business of doing a "take" on an acknowledged classic, with the pitfalls ranging from why did you do it in the first place? to how much can you retain without committing larceny or how much can you lose without committing blasphemy. Dumais retained the cube that cages Petrouchka, some of Nijinsky's litheness in moving Gnam about in it, and the basic plotline of the poor clown, seduced and betrayed by an evil-hearted temptress...and then tacked on a more or less happy end.
Gnam, wearing a crimson streak of colored hair from the middle of his forehead to the nape of his neck, and costumed, like most of the other dancers, in bright red which, along with his antic movements gave him an almost birdlike character (was this some kind of off-hand nod to The Firebird, do you suppose -- or do you care?)...well, that's what happens to your thought processes when you try to deal with something like this... Gnam did not, of course, try to play at any of Nijinsky's games, but did catch just enough of his litheness to maneuver easily rather than grotesquely about in the bare cube of his cage, and thereby allowed early on for that necessary suspension of disbelief (forget Nijinsky) that brought the whole thing off. I was ready to frown, but hey, lighten up, for-get a-bout Ni-jin-sky: it almost sings.
Of course, all of this was only an introduction to the sheer delight of Twyla Tharp's Sinatra Songs, originally premiered by Twyla and Co., right here in Vancouver, in 1992. Or so one would think. But what we got was sheer disaster, clearly not of Twyla's making, but that of the unnamed scoundrel (one would naturally suspect it was Alleyne, except that he has rarely been known to miss an opportunity to sign his name to anything; but clearly, it was his responsibility, if not his doing.)
The matter is straightforward: Twyla is a witty choreographer, whose work is distinguished by her very precise knowledge of what the rules are and just where and how far you can bend them. The first rule of ballroom dance is that the arms be held at shoulder height at ALL times, forming a straight line; everything else follows from this. Twyla could play with that, and at times do interesting things that ranged from quirky exaggerations to various forms of near slapstick, but never did she let you forget that rule.
Whoever laid this thing on Ballet BC this season apparently didn't know that. So what we got was a lot of very very bad ballroom dance, and a few moments of slapstick. A shame. A real, criminal shame.
I haven't talked much about the dancers, since all of them were about equally good - and that, as I suggested, is not bad at all - and a few of them outstanding. Donald Sales, the most visible member of the company, being both the only black and half a head larger than anyone else (looking ideal for the part of The Genie, if Alleyne should decide to do an Aladdin) seemed to handle the Tharp better than most others, but also seemed lost at moments in the Schubert; and Gnam, as noted, brought off a role that could have been deadly as easily as a stroll into town.
While the ladies were all quite competent, none of those that have caught my attention in earlier years - Simone Orlando, Alexis Fletcher, Makaila Wallace - stood out very markedly. Like the rest of the company, although occasionally a little more, they appeared quite comfortably competent at most of what they did -- except of course in the Tharp where they, like virtually everyone else simply obeyed their instructions to do everything wrong.
Still, two out of three ain’t too bad, and hope can always spring…but do I want to spend $80 or $90 on a hope?…probably not again this season, unless someone shows me a better reason.