Ballet Victoria’s season finale kills it with classical, modern and improv ballet

Carmen Ballet Poster from Victoria British Columbia

On Twitter, a review of Ballet Victoria’s season finale in less than 140 characters might read like this: Badass Carmen ballet caps a thrilling evening of white swans, interactive improv, Leonard Cohen and a contemporary ballet premiere.

Whatever’s on artistic director Paul Destrooper’s iPod right now, it includes music as diverse as Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Cohen and Bernier. Carmen & Other Works, which opened in Victoria on March 18 and plays the Cowichan Theatre in Duncan, BC on the 25th, (the production actually opened this time in the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay, BC, on March 16th) was an expertly prepared banquet of ballet styles that even featured an experiment in audience participation.

Tweet and Dance, the second part of the five-part, two-hour program, was two or three minutes of improvised dance led by Destrooper himself, who was joined by a few other company members. He explained to the audience that if they had a Twitter account they could tweet their requests to the dancers during the performance by using a specific hashtag.

Dancer Geoff Malcolm coordinated the improv by reading the requests from his iPad at stage right. The audience was entertained by this demonstration of how a dance can be created in its earliest stages (some of the commands included “shake it” and “you’re moving through Jello”).

Yet beyond the intended humour of the piece, this experiment was a fascinating first glimpse how technology is increasingly breaking down the walls between performers and audiences and allowing audiences to be creative participants in an artform.

Ballet Victoria is never afraid to serve up whimsical or experimental dance, but the artistic power of the evening was generated by Carmen (from the BV repertoire), three excerpts from Act II of Swan Lake, and two outstanding modern ballet works by Shawn Hounsell and Bruce Monk.

Carmen, which was choreographed by Destrooper and premiered in March 2009, is a visually lush production with evocative lighting and costumes that shows off the dancers’ technical and dramatic abilities. Destrooper says he made some changes in this production, including adding two new dancers for a total of nine, but the music is still the familiar Georges Bizet score associated with the opera of the same name.

Ballerina Tao Kerr, who joined BV last season, dances the title role with sashaying seductiveness and a haughty attitude towards the men she uses and discards. Soldier Don José (Robb Beresford) abandons his fiancé Micaela (Andrea Bayne) after he falls in lust with Carmen and frees her from jail. Carmen, however, has little loyalty to any man and keeps her obsessive lover on a thin string, ready to jettison him at any moment.

Beresford’s torment is etched on his face during every moment of his romantic madness, and Kerr’s like a bird whose wings have been pinned, and is always longing to fly away. Bayne does a fine job in this tragic tale as the virtuous girl who pines for her lost lover and haunts him in his dreams. At one of the Victoria performances, the audience remained mesmerized by the final scene for a few moments before bursting into loud applause for the dancers.

With the recent buzz about the film Black Swan, it was exciting to see Ballet Victoria include three excerpts from Act II of Swan Lake, the ultimate classical ballet. No demented Black Swans here just a blazing display of technical prowess and magical emotion by BV’s prima ballerina Andrea Bayne and staged by Paul Destrooper.

Bayne’s pristine lines, superhuman control and a preternatural ability to shine her inner light gave us breathtakingly beautiful performances in her Swan Queen Variation and the Grand Pas de Deux with Prince Siegfried (Robb Beresford, with magnificent poise and emotion). As a dancer, Bayne is one of Ballet Victoria’s crown jewels and could hold her own with the world’s leading ballerinas on any stage.

The audience also loved the sensual, romantic charm of Leonard Cohen’s most recognizable songs, brilliantly set to dance by former Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer-choreographer Bruce Monk. Cry Sigh Hungry Kiss is set to the songs Hallelujah, Suzanne and Closing Time, in that order. Hallelujah and Suzanne captured the 1960s Bohemian nuances – a generation wanting to be young and carefree but burdened by the oppressive cultural and political forces around them.

The tender romanticism of Suzanne, performed with perfect grace and musicality by Paul Destrooper and Andrea Bayne, was arguably the finest of the three. Closing Time, a humorous and entertaining dance about drunken lovers at a bar, featured dancers Christie Wood, Risa Kobayashi, Geoff Malcolm and David Beales.

The production also included the premiere of a work by another Royal Winnipeg Ballet alumnus, Shawn Hounsell. Ran, with music by Nicolas Bernier, is a pas de deux performed by two men, which is rare in the world of modern ballet. The mechanical, clockwork precision of Robb Beresford and Paul Destrooper, showing independent strength and will yet also a unity of purpose and direction, was one of the finest new works seen on a Victoria stage in recent years.