Ballet BC returned to Portland last night with a densely-packed trio of pieces by three distinguished choreographers. Program 1 in Ballet BC’s 30th anniversary celebration, this show, the company’s second visit to Portland under the auspices of dance presenter White Bird, would be a perfect way to demonstrate what you mean by “contemporary ballet” to a skeptical friend or family member. Compact and rigorous, the program treated its score, movement language, and dancers’ relationships in ways that should be familiar to viewers of classical ballet but deftly pushed the boundaries of the form and maintained a sharp edge of challenging content.
The pushing was done from a virtuoso’s standpoint—rules broken by masters of the rules. This was also one of the rare shows where I felt like the music had been as carefully considered as the movement, fitting the developments in tone and theme. Throughout the show I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching the work of three different choreographers, not three movements in a single piece.
The show opened with Twenty Eight Thousand Waves by Ballet BC’s current resident choreographer Cayetano Soto. Developed with Ballet BC and premiered in April of 2014, Waves was named from the notion of a deepwater oil rig, battered by 28,000 waves a day, but remaining standing. Dancer Alexis Fletcher says:
“the physical extremity of the work serves an especially important purpose because it allows us to work with some central themes. We talked a lot in the process about … our personal lessons in life, like our battles and hardships, and hopes and fears.”
Waves felt as angular and immediate as Bryce Dessner’s Aheym, a main feature of its soundtrack. The dancers seemed pensively studious and a little angry, as if doing a difficult job that was needed but not understood, or maybe vice versa. The many effortless leaps and lifts, coming almost too fast to process, were perhaps the strongest evidence of the virtuosity that supported the contemporary structure of the work.
The second piece, Awe by Stijn Celis, picked up where Soto left off just as smoothly as dancer Gilbert Small lifted his partners in Waves. Debuting only a few days prior in Vancouver, Celis’s piece seemed to soften many of the themes from Waves. Not in the sense that they were dulled, but as reflected in the shift from the sharper dissonance of Aheym to choral vocals, some of which included the lyrics of Leonard Cohen. The dance took on a warmer physicality, and maybe this is just me projecting, but it seemed to offer a more relaxed emotional climate for the dancers.
Another interesting progression was the casual androgeny of the costuming in both pieces. Waves was full of satisfying grays and pastels that were surprisingly successful when applied to culottes for the male dancers in the final sequence. In Awe, all dancers were dressed as if American Apparel had started in the 1930s, and I easily lost track of the genders of the dancers during the group work.
Crystal Pite, who started Kidd Pivot after dancing with Ballet BC in the early 2000s, closed the show out with the somber piece Solo Echo, featuring a gorgeous, simple mechanic. A solid wall of flickering snowflakes fell from the rafters from the moment the curtain went up until the show closed. Apparently Pite had originally been slated as the second act in the program, but the order had been changed at some later date. This was clearly the right choice, as Pite’s work seemed to gather both the edginess of Waves and warmth of Awe into a sort of malevolent stillness that occasionally erupted.
Kidd Pivot puts on a great show, but they have a distinct flavor of their own, so it was rewarding to see Pite’s work in a slightly different frame. There was a sense of fighting together and then fighting by—or with—yourself while alongside others throughout the whole program. I liked Dancer Livonia Ellis’s comment on these themes when talking about Solo Echo:
“Opposition, separation, and isolation were not new concepts to work with, but in this piece the sophistication of those ideas were elevated.”
The terms “ballet” and “modern dance” can cause very different reactions and associations for many people. Ballet tends to be considered a “classical” art form, framed in a relatively fixed time and style. Ballet fans often react negatively to the term “contemporary ballet,” possibly due to an anxiety that the skill or a special language which was fixed in the classical past, has been left behind or distorted beyond recognition. But if you understand that those skills have been carried forward and updated since that imaginary point in the past, you may realize that much of the work that feels comfortable doesn’t feel that way because of its content but because that content has been digested and framed for you by history. It is the fixedness that makes it comfortable and entertaining, and the new work which presses on its boundaries does not feel comfortable because it requires changes to your worldview.
Of course “classical” work often does just as much pressing within its context. And skepticism that new and strange things can be “high quality” may simply hide a discomfort with not knowing where the boundaries are, of rupture and self questioning, of fleeting but treasured relationships. That’s what BC Ballet’s program was about, really, and these themes can be found in ballet throughout the years. Ballet BC is an excellent statement of what is happening with ballet now, proof that “contemporary ballet” is not an oxymoron.