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Soraya Stories

Two New, ‘Now’ Ballets in World Premieres at The Soraya

By Debra Levine

It is a big, hopeful, nervous-making, celebratory event when a ballet has its world premiere. The preparation is immense, with many moving parts to orchestrate: choreography and rehearsals, of course, but also staging, design, lighting, production, costume fittings, selection and licensing of music. Even seemingly small details like, ‘What is the new ballet’s title?’ need to be addressed.

But…what if a performance includes two world premieres? What then? That’s exactly what Los Angeles dance lovers have in store in a very exciting performance by Ballet BC on May 6, 2023. As planned by Executive Director Thor Steingraber in tandem with Ballet BC Artistic Director Medhi Walerski, the Vancouver-based contemporary-classical ballet troupe’s third outing at The Soraya will be a ‘double bill’ of never-seen works.

The pairing of two disparate-but-‘now’ choreographers, Johan Inger and Roy Assaf (neither with extensive exposure in the U.S.), is the act of a sure-footed curator. It has taken Ballet BC’s leader three years to get to this point. The Frenchman Medhi Walerski began his career as a dancer with Paris Opera Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT); his second, ongoing chapter has been as a choreographer; his current phase, directing Ballet BC, started in March 2020. The less-than-optimal timing of his appointment coincided with the COVID lock down. Now relatively unbound, Walerski brings to The Soraya his unfettered vision for the company’s forward-motion.

Dancers of Ballet BC rehearse at the dance company’s brand-new headquarters on Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia | Photo by Hans Weichhart

Giving Ballet BC a nice boost, as well, is its brand-new headquarters building on Vancouver’s artsy/foodie/trendy Granville Island. There, Walerski oversees a troupe of dancers whom he calls, in admiration, “athletes.” Of a big group of nearly 20 soon to take to the Soraya stage, many graduated from top training academies of Europe and Canada, as well as Juilliard and the USC Glorya Kaufman School. Ballet BC dancers exhibited vast range in Walerski’s Romeo and Juliet and Crystal Pite’s demanding dance-theater work, The Statement, in past Soraya performances.

Now, to the premieres! One emanates from Johan Inger, a well-regarded, highly experienced Swedish-born dance maker. The product of superlative training (Royal Swedish Ballet School, National Ballet School of Canada), Inger danced in great companies (Royal Swedish Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater) and went on to serve as NDT’s associate director and artistic director of Stockholm’s historic Cullberg Ballet. He is a versatile choreographer, having generated works across genres, his sumptuous dance phrases interrupted by breakouts of pedestrian movement and physical humor. Walerski, who shares Inger’s NDT roots, sums up Inger’s new, lengthy work (it clocks in at 50 minutes): “The first part is narrative, the second part maybe more abstract. There is a lot of humor, it’s very human, there is beautiful dancing, great ensemble work, and it’s very surprising what he did.”

The evening’s other premiere is spawned by a dance renegade. A choreographer often called a minimalist, Roy Assaf is the offspring of the fertile Israeli dance culture that took hold in the 1990s. An Assaf work uses repetitions and tiny motifs writ-large, and he often creates unusual intimacy between dancers. Walerski, in commissioning an Assaf work, was drawn by his “very strong choreographic language. His movement is beautiful. His works are different [one to the other]. And there is a lot of mystery.”

Assaf tends to avoid speaking to the press about his pieces (plus, at time of writing, he was still mid-rehearsal in Vancouver). But Inger, having created on Ballet BC last August, spoke in a Zoom call from his home in Seville. He described a jumping-off point two years ago, when seven thousand residents of La Palma, a Spanish-colonial island off the coast of West Africa, had a forced evacuation in the shadow of a volcanic eruption. Inger found in this natural disaster a call to creativity. The sight of lava and ash enveloping a village struck him as “symbolic of where we are as humans living on this planet with the challenges that we face.”

“The lava was slowly going down the mountain,” he said. “It’s going very, very slow, but you know where it’s going, then all of a sudden it engulfs a church, a hospital. We can see where it’s going, but, are we doing anything about it?” To translate this existential question into a dance, Inger chose to “create a little society—with its celebrations, its culture, secrets, judgments, with being old, being young. This small community we follow in the ballet,” he said.

Inger insisted: “It’s not a dystopic piece, it has a lot of hope; it has a lot of humor; it has a lot of tenderness. The theme, yes, is heavy, but it’s not a heavy piece.” To prove that, he even used tap dancing.  “I had five or six dancers who could tap. I have used that as a bit of a weapon, something more aggressive.”

Ballet BC rehearses ahead of the company’s two world premieres at The Soraya on May 6, 2023. | Photo by Hans Weichhart

Roy Assaf, the product of a very different terrain, uses a dance studio as an experimental lab. “He always starts from a blank canvas, almost like a canvas,” says Walerski. “His concept is the result of the relationship that he has with the dancers in the studio—the encounter. He tries to let the work reveal itself.  It’s about the artistic process, he does not like to be too specific about his work.”

Soraya Director Thor Steingraber recently spent a few days in Vancouver observing rehearsals, remarking “Assaf has the full trust of the dancers to try new things, make discoveries, and to take risks. I watched them create a soundscape for the piece with their own voices—something I’d never seen before. The movement and vocalizations naturally synched and created something very human and visceral. It’s an incredible idea, and more so, a feat to persuade dancers to do it with such commitment and nuance. I hope this aspect makes it into the final version of his piece.”

While Assaf’s under-wraps work did not get fleshed out directly with him, his words in the Israeli press give insight. “It’s never my intention to make a piece about something, not in any creation,” Assaf recently told The Jerusalem Post. “I look at my dance pieces as a landscape; it’s about offering things to wonder about, to be excited about, to dream of, to be afraid of, to doubt, to sleep on, to hate, to cherish, to yearn for.”

About the Author:

Dance critic Debra Levine’s feature articles, reviews, and interviews have been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, DANCE Magazine, EMMY Magazine, South China Morning Post, and more. Debra’s fine arts blog, arts●meme, which she founded in 2008, is a gathering point for arts journalism by many contributors.

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