Body innovations

John Alleyne has revitalized Ballet B. C. with bold leadership and choreography

CHRIS WOOD November 6 1995

Body innovations

John Alleyne has revitalized Ballet B. C. with bold leadership and choreography

CHRIS WOOD November 6 1995

Body innovations



John Alleyne has revitalized Ballet B. C. with bold leadership and choreography

He smokes. It is a discordant element in someone whose creative raw material is the human form worked to its most exquisite condition. Yet here is John Alleyne, 35-year-old artistic director of Ballet British Columbia, taking advantage of a break in an interview to suck a few deep drags from a cigarette outside the company’s new home of three weeks on Vancouver’s West Broadway. Pacing the sidewalk in the rare autumn sunlight, Alleyne is still fixated on the subject that was troubling him inside: the question of recurring themes in his choreography.

“I always seem to set up obstacles, then find a positive angle to them,” he reflects. Choosing his words with the care of a dancer moving through a minefield, he adds: “I believe that the nature of humanity does not allow us to express intimacy. But there’s got to be a way to break the cycle.”

Creating—or discovering—intimacy against the grain of human nature preoccupies Alleyne on many levels. One is the color of his skin. “A large component of me is the fact that I am black,” he observes, “yet we’ve basically been trained from a white male perspective. Naturally, my take is going to be different.” But if such obstacles give dramatic tension to Alleyne’s art, it is the growing intimacy between the Barbados-born, Quebec-raised choreographer and the company he has led since 1992 that has brought both to the top of their form. Now a mature troupe entering its 10th season, Ballet B.C. has provided Alleyne, who relies heavily on close collaboration with his 14 dancers, the resources for his best work to date. Alleyne’s creative leadership, meanwhile, has consolidated both the company’s finances and its reputation as one of North America’s leading showcases of new contemporary ballet. ‘When Ballet B.C. travels,” attests National Ballet of Canada prima ballerina Karen Kain, “everyone in the dance community is eager to see them. I expect to be surprised.”

Many of the surprises, however, facing Ballet B.C. itself during the past decade have been turbulent ones. Established with high hopes the same year that Vancouver feted the world with Expo 86, the company aspired from the start to a global stage. “We were not setting out to make a regional company,” recalls founding board member

Vancouver-based impresario David Y. H. Lui. “We were setting out to make a company that was international.” And under founding director Annette av Paul and her successor, Reid Anderson (now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto), the company quickly gained notice for staging daring new work. But Anderson’s replacement, Patricia Neary, lasted less than 10 months, before an internal revolt forced the ballet’s board to fire the sharp-tongued, demanding American. Her successor, Barry Ingham, a more amiable manager, died of AIDS just 17 months into the job.

By then, overambitious programming had also saddled the young company with an accumulated deficit of $300,000. The damage to its morale and reputation had become acute by April, 1992, when the company’s

board persuaded Alleyne to leave the National Ballet of Canada—where he had been serving as resident choreographer for two years—and relocate to Vancouver.

To rescue its faltering company, the Vancouver search committee (which Lui headed) chose a brash youngster—Alleyne was just 33 at the time—whose self-confidence sometimes suggested arrogance and whose own work challenged the tolerance of dancers and audiences alike. Alleyne’s highly structured and enigmatically named ballets pushed performers to the limits of their physical abilities, even as they mystified viewers familiar with less cryptic repertoires—and even some fellow choreographers. “I haven’t liked all the work I’ve seen of John’s,” concedes National Ballet artist in residence James Kudelka. In fact, Kudelka says, “I found John’s early work rather misogynist. I thought he didn’t treat women in a very flattering way.” Still, few doubted the young choreographer’s brilliance. Notes Kudelka: “I’ve always appreciated the artist in John.”

Alleyne’s creative talents, in fact, were recognized early on by perceptive teachers at the small elementary school that the athletic boy attended from Grade 1 in rural Beauharnois, southwest of Montreal. Alleyne’s parents, John, an electrical mechanic with an elevator company, and Loretta, a seamstress, had moved to Canada from their native Barbados in 1965, when John Jr. was 4. They lived at first in a Montreal apartment, but left it as soon as they could afford to, mainly to give their three young sons outdoor space to expend their abundant energy. In most respects, Alleyne, the middle son, recalls a conventional childhood spent playing in the leafy jungle gyms of plum and apple orchards in ¡5 summer and clearing the snow from § ponds for skating in winter. Even so, i the seeds of an outsider’s perspective I were planted early. Not only were the Alleynes not part of the three groups — that dominated the local social landscape—Anglos, francophones and the Mohawks of neighboring Kahnawake reservation, each of whom kept a certain distance from the others—they were also, he recalls, “the only black family in town.”

Encouraged by his teachers, Alleyne enrolled in the National Ballet School at age 11, graduating in 1978. And with his very first job, he now reflects, Alleyne found himself launched on a career track that has at times seemed charmed. Fresh out of school, the young dancer was hired by the Stuttgart Ballet in what was then West Germany. Recalls another Canadian dancer who was there at the same time, Reid Anderson: “Stuttgart was a crucible for creation. We learned a lot about basic values as artists.” For the young Quebecer with the dark brown complexion, only then just beginning

to explore the history of black performers, Stuttgart was also a dazzling introduction to the wider world of international ballet. “It was a whole way of life,” Alleyne recalls, “doing things I never dreamed of doing.” Among them: performing in Beijing and Shanghai in 1981, in the early springtime of China’s opening to the West.

Returning to Canada as first soloist for the National Ballet, Alleyne continued the choreographic explorations he had begun at Stuttgart, becoming resident choreographer in 1990. Even so, he says now of his stint in Toronto: “Every time I went back to that city,

I would get so depressed.”

By contrast, Alleyne quips, friends from Ontario who visit him now in Vancouver warn him that “I’m making a big mistake, that it’s just too beautiful here: there is no reason to create art.”

That hardly seems to have been a problem. In the 3V2 years since he took over Ballet B.C., Alleyne’s creative reach has expanded even as his company’s fortunes have stabilized^

For both artist and troupe, the pivotal moments came in the autumn of 1993. Over three nights in November, the troupe performed a ballet that Alleyne had created with his dancers, based on the late stages of Beethoven’s life. A brooding work set to an original score by Timothy Sullivan (itself based on the composer’s late string quartets),

The Archaeology of Karl. . .

A Romance Adventure was a rarity in the hierarchical world of ballet. It was a work created in large measure by the dancers who performed it, in contrast to most ballets, in which choreographers are apt to treat performers rather like pieces of animated clay.

It was also a sensation, if not precisely a hit, with Vancouver audiences, who debated the ballet’s merits after the performance for weeks in the local media. “To reach a level where people were once again publicly arguing about the work you’re putting onstage,” says Alleyne, “was the point where the company again became artistically relevant within the community. It was wonderful.” For Alleyne himself, it was “when I became aware that I was in a place where I truly belonged, where I was able to expose myself as an artist.” Alleyne is not, however, ready to expose his private life: he wears a gold band on his ring finger, but when asked about it will only say, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.”

The two years since Karl have confirmed the winning combination of company and choreographer. A spring, 1994, tour of the eastern United States, which included Karl and other works from the Ballet B.C. repertoire, won applause from New York City critics. Yet another collaborative work, The Don Juan Variations, an exploration of the interplay of sex and power created for the company’s spring, 1995, season, attracted still more acclaim. “Genius ... at once erotic and unnerving,” was the gushing judgment of The Globe and Mail. With its pro-

grams prompting such lavish praise, the company has also seen its subscriptions rebound to 2,700 from 1,800 two years ago, one reason—along with some carefully managed budget cuts—that the ballet operated in the black last season, and expects to pay down as much as $100,000 on its accumulated deficit this year.

As it enters its second decade, Ballet B.C. has clearly secured its reputation for staging new ballets that test the limits of classical idiom. At a time when many other North American companies opt for a safer repertoire in an attempt to avoid alienating even one paying customer, observes Serge Bennathan, artistic director of Toronto’s Dancemakers company, “Ballet B.C. has not stopped taking chances.” As for Alleyne, “with the years, he is more able to reach au-

diences, without compromising,” Bennathan believes. Alleyne’s collaborative approach to choreography, adds the National Ballet’s Kain, is one that he shares with “the companies that are really hot and have huge followings in Europe.”

Both heat and risk are likely to be in evidence in the company’s autumn season, opening this week at The Queen Elizabeth Theatre. (The company will tour the country early next year.) In addition to works by Kudelka and Jean Grand-Maître, a former Ballet B.C. dancer who has also choreo-

graphed for the National Ballet, the program features Alleyne’s latest collaboration with his troupe, Can You Believe She Actually Said. Set to the restrained airs of Mozart, the 30-minute work combines dance, spoken word and physical humor as it reflects on the tensions and ironies of an art form dedicated to wringing beauty and truth out of gross distortions of the human body’s natural kinetics. The piece created a stir when it was first staged in May in San Francisco as part of a festival dedicated to the United Nations. Organizers in the U.S. city—not normally noted for its prudery—insisted that Alleyne cut from the work’s snippets of dialogue a humorous reference to how male dancers arrange their anatomy in their jockstraps.

As a result, Alleyne observes with a wicked grin, “San Francisco did not get what we created.” Vancouver, he assures, will get the company’s original creation—in all its intimate details. □