In a cavernous rehearsal studio at Montreal’s Place des Arts last month, the 19 dancers of Vancouver-based Ballet British Columbia were tripping over their own feet. Unable to afford a travelling pianist, the company had to use taped music, and it was so much faster than the tempo to which they were accustomed that the dancers could not keep up. Dressed in a bulky sweatshirt and pink leg warmers, Ballet B.C.’s new artistic director, Patricia Neary, barked at an assistant to stop the tape and began clapping out the beat herself. But there was no stumbling later that day at Place des Arts when the troupe presented a seamless version of the lyrical, elegiac Return to the Strange Land by Czechoslovak-born choreographer Jiri Kylian. Later, the company shifted easily from the arching backs and flowing lines of Kylian’s piece to the fevered angularity of Lovesongs—Old Records—Side One, American choreographer William Forsythe’s steamy evocation of the battle of the sexes.
That resilience and versatility have made Ballet B.C., in only three years, one of the most exciting dance companies in Canada. Now in the midst of its third national tour, which stopped in Toronto last week before going on to seven other centres in Ontario and further west, the troupe is entering a new era of excellence under Miamiborn Neary, 47, who took over as artistic director in July. Once a dancer with the illustrious New York City Ballet, and former head of the ballets in Geneva, in Zurich and at La Scala in Milan, she is known for her exacting standards and her gift for teaching.
Neary says that she is determined to keep Ballet B.C. moving forward. “I didn’t come to Vancouver to run a provincial or even national company,” declared Neary. “I want Ballet B.C. to be a company the world wants to see dance.”
Those closest to Ballet B.C. admit that they did not expect the troupe to make its mark so quickly. In mid-1985, Ballet B.C. was still little more than a dream in the minds of a steely group of Vancouver dance lovers determined to give the city a permanent classical dance troupe it could be proud of. The most recent attempt, Pacific Ballet Theatre, had ground to a halt earlier the same year after the Canada Council cut funding because
of what it said were poor artistic standards.
David Y. H. Lui, an impresario who presented many of the world’s best dance troupes in Vancouver in the 1970s, became a key member of the planning group that charted a fresh course for Ballet B.C. Said Lui: “We knew we had to start from scratch and that we had to let everyone know we meant business.” To that
end, Lui booked the city’s largest theatre, the 2,800-seat Queen Elizabeth, for the company’s debut even before Ballet B.C. had either a director or dancers. The first artistic director was Swedish-born Annette av Paul, who had recently retired from a distinguished dancing career with Montreal’s Les Grands ballets canadiens. In only three months, she drilled the dancers into a cohesive troupe. By the time Ballet B.C. mounted its first season at the Queen Elizabeth in April, 1986, it astounded critics with its confidence and energy.
Cashing in on her extensive network within
the dance world, av Paul was able to present major works by British master choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and by her husband, Canada’s celebrated Brian Macdonald. She also helped secure Ballet B.C.’s future by recommending the appointment of New Westminster, B.C.-born Reid Anderson to teach and choreograph. After 17 years with West Germany’s celebrated Stuttgart Ballet, most recently as ballet master and principal dancer, he was the ideal choice to succeed av Paul when she decided to head back to her home in Stratford, Ont., in the summer of 1987.
Like his predecessor, Anderson wanted Ballet B.C. to be a classical company with a contemporary look. Alongside the works by Kylian and Forsythe, Anderson commissioned original ballets from emerging Canadian choreographers including David Allan, John Alleyne and Serge Bennathan. Said Lui: “Annette struck the die. Reid brought us a distinctive performance style.” It was a style that had less to do with technical finesse than with an infectious desire to entertain.
Meanwhile, the company’s financial footing had to be secured, and that was the job of general manager Robert McGifford, a former accountant who had most recently managed the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. By taking on the presentation of Vancouver’s major dancesubscription series and including Ballet B.C. as part of it, McGifford was able to attract a large local audience. From the days when, as McGifford puts it, “we were a heartbeat away from financial disaster,” last year Ballet B.C. had a total operating budget of about $3 million, and, in an era of fixed or shrinking government grants, it has received healthy infusions of cash from Ottawa, the province and the City of Vancouver.
Now, as Neary begins to g make her mark on the compa8 ny, there is a new atmo| sphere of excitement at BalQ let B.C. Charming, outspoken and hyperactive, Neary has already caused a stir in Vancouver by making public her demand for better studios. Neary, who started out as a ballerina with Toronto’s National Ballet of Canada when she was only 14, says that she plans to continue polishing the company’s technique and hopes to add two or three members to the troupe. And she is clearly enthusiastic about tours of Europe and the Far East planned for next season. Although located far from the major dance capitals, Ballet B.C. is intent on establishing its place on the dance map of the world.
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