Evolving the Space of Ballet 

By Mary Theresa Kelly
  • Gilbert Small and Livona Ellis in Bliss by José Navas for Ballet British Columbia / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Alexander Burton, Peter Smida and Andrea Pena in Bliss by José Navas for Ballet British Columbia / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Maggie Forgeron, Alyson Fretz, Alexis Fletcher and Connor Gnam in Annunciations by José Navas for Ballet British Columbia / Photo by Chris Randle 
  • Darren Devaney, Peter Smida and Connar Gnam in Annunciations by José Navas for Ballet British Columbia / Photo by Chris Randle 


José Navas / Ballet BC

May 10 - 12, 2012  

If Ballet BC enthusiasts and supporters had any doubts about the capacity for Emily Molnar to lead the company into a thriving future, they were quashed with the recent opening of Bliss, a program of three full-length works choreographed by resident choreographer José Navas. Molnar, artistic director since 2009, is on record for promising to deliver a fresh, contemporary ballet that is innovative, collaborative and dynamic. I wondered how this promise would translate to performance.

Navas’ artistry and training flows from the seminal lineage of American modern and postmodern choreographer Merce Cunningham. In the 1990s, Navas migrated to the Merce Cunningham studio in New York City, leaving his native Venezuela to pursue choreographic studies in the North. The Navas link with Cunningham connects him to an abstract and formal approach to the moving body in space, as well as to avant-garde movements in American dance. Navas, who is artistic director of Compagnie Flak in Montreal, is also a prolific solo performer of his own contemporary work. His collaboration with Ballet BC is his first opportunity to abandon the hallmark bare feet of contemporary dance and contend with ballet dancers on pointe. 

The three works comprising Bliss offer three different perspectives on this theme and, cleverly, the three works also offer three varying perspectives on ballet, thereby satisfying traditionalists and progressives in one program. The world premiere of Annunciations leads off the evening, accompanied by program notes that include a poem by 20th century poet Edwin Muir, entitled The Annunciation. The poem begins The angel and the girl are met, Earth was the only meeting place, referring, of course, to the Biblical story of Mary’s divine impregnation. I read the poem as a means of seeding our minds with an inquiry about divine Eros, and the relationship between human existence and the Divine. To explore this idea, Navas, in collaboration with the fifteen company dancers, has choreographed a highly abstract, virtuosic ballet that embodies proclamations of bliss – annunciations in the plural. The work is performed to sections from three of Mozart’s Trios, echoing the idea of trinities. The work opens with three dancers crossing downstage on the horizontal, two men and one woman entwined, the woman supported in a highly complex balance, legs skyward in space. The angel, the girl, the earth.

Navas is selective in his use of ballet vocabulary. The dancers perform wide, strong relevés in second position on full pointe – embodied, joyful annunciations. Chaîné turns, big leaps, arabesque lifts and pirouette turns in high retiré are presented beautifully and smoothly, the dancers recombining in endless variations and groupings. The infinite and ever-changing arrangements of bodies in space is like a small miracle; Navas takes fifteen dancers and produces what seems like hundreds of different movement groupings. The muted reds and browns of the geometric-style pattern on the body leotards reiterate the emphasis on spatial relations. Although most of Annunciations is ‘lifted’ and skyward, there are glimpses of contemporary floor work: in a section for six male dancers, the men push out of the floor on their forearms transitioning through a dolphin-like yoga pose to reach a standing position. In another striking scene, the women bourrée on pointe without travelling; the tap of the pointe shoe originates downstage centre with Rachel Meyer and slowly ripples out, infecting the other eight women, a sea of percussive rhythms. In the solo that closes Annunciations, Meyer hovers endlessly and effortlessly on pointe, the perfect idealised woman, occupying the space at a junction between the earthly and the transcendent. 

In comparison with Navas’ 2010 work, The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes, which is also the third work on this program, I found Annunciations to look and feel more abstract and more formal in its display of technique, although perhaps that is due more to the design elements and music score. This is curious given that Annunciations is said to be a response to the 2010 work.

The bliss that from their limbs all movement takes is a magnificent kaleidoscope of colour and movement that at times achieves the effect of endless limbs radiating in all directions from strong centres. Navas matches the minimalist repetitive structures in the Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar score by making repetitive phrases that turn back and forth on themselves, simultaneously driving forward to a steady underlying pulse. There is a feeling of quick, continuous phrasing, long kinetic chains of movement that are open, released and ecstatic in tone. Grand jetés, long and high, galloping chainés and pirouettes dragging one toe – the movement is all large, open and fast, a contemporary lens on the ballet code. And, fortunately, Navas ignores occult ballet standards like beat work for the feet, choosing to focus on full leaps, turns and arabesques. There is also a distinctive and beautiful way Navas places or directs the arms on dancers in this work, opening and relaxing the bound quality sometimes characteristic of classical dance. Navas’ arms are frequently raised in an open, almost-fifth position above the head, or dropped by the sides, weighted and relaxed, or used in a contemporary spiral motion as the impulse for a full body turn. When extended in long lines from the back, the arms still manage to subtly embrace space. Briefly, there were also windmill arms and angular arms perpendicular to a rotating body for accent.

Linda Chow’s costume design is a perfect complement to the overflowing, lively mood of the work. The brilliant rose and turquoise leotards in the opening section are later covered with bold red and yellow dresses for the women, red shorts for the men. 

For me, the shining crown of the evening was A Thousand Ways to Meet You Tenderly, danced by four couples: Alexis Fletcher and Gilbert Small; Makaila Wallace and Peter Smida; Alyson Fretz and Connor Gnam; and Maggie Forgeron and Dario Dinuzzi. Danced barefoot to Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the eight dancers perform a meditation on loss, on dying, and the inevitable experience of separation and letting go of another that is the earthly experience. Described as sacred classical music, the Górecki score is a lament based on texts about a mother’s loss of a child. The work opens with the steady pulse of deep basses as the dancers walk onstage, each carrying a chair. Navas’ staging and essential choreography, as much as the mournful score, contribute to the work’s haunting effect. The stage side wings and backdrop are stripped away, exposing the backstage work areas. The four women line up on one side of the stage, seated on their chairs, and the men line up opposite them on the other side. With intention, they all remove their shoes, slowly placing them underneath their chairs. The expanse of space between the two rows of dancers becomes the space of loss, in which the dance is performed in canon, sequentially by each couple as they come together and separate repeatedly. In some ways, this dance belongs to Fletcher and Small, because their performance is so exquisite; however, all eight dancers are gorgeous in their own ways. The couples walk towards each other at centre stage, the men contracting their spines in a long hollow curve (the one full Graham contraction in the program), pushing their heads into the solar plexus of their partner. The couple folds into the floor as one, coming to rest with the woman seated, the man’s head in her lap. The work is built on these pure contemporary phrases that the dancers fully and with simplicity enact: embraces standing and lying, runs that fly into turns, falling and stumbling forward, or sloughing down the side of a body. The work has a long steady arc culminating with a soprano voice and four breathtaking duets that make the world spin: the women, suspended and supported at the torso by their partner, revolve in circles until they blur, legs bent at the knee and turned out in attitude position. 

The audience of May 11 showed their approval of the Molnar-Navas collaboration, jumping to their feet in a warm standing ovation. I would love to understand what this ballet audience most appreciated. Was it the way Molnar and Navas skilfully offered the audience a new taste, a trinity of works based on birthing, mourning and living, inserting the most contemporary work between the two ballets with pointe work? I have no way to know for sure, but I heard many annunciations and proclamations of bliss from the audience around me.

In many ways this program, the creation of which Navas credits to his collaboration with the dancers, is like an artistic experiment to discover the edge of evolution for Ballet BC. The question, of course, is locating the space of that newly evolving edge, a space that honours ballet’s near-mythic past while incorporating and transforming itself through the aliveness of contemporary creative direction. I am curious and waiting to see how far and how fast cultural and artistic evolution in ballet might move.

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