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Pushing contemporary ballet’s limits

Arts Preview: Ballet Victoria is putting its own spin on the famous tale of Dracula

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By Jamila Douhaibi


Fear. Addiction. Love. Lust. Violence. All these themes and emotions intersect in Ballet Victoria's upcoming performance of Dracula.

Though ballet is usually considered an art form that consists of lighter, dreamier works like The Nutcracker—which Ballet Victoria puts on with a twist—this company likes to stretch the boundaries of contemporary ballet.

Ballet Victoria is in its 13th season, first founded as a project company to ensure there was a space for the point work style of dance. The organization now runs a teaching conservatory and several community outreach programs, too.

Paul Destrooper joined Ballet Victoria as the artistic and executive director in 2007, and has always been focused on making sure his final product connects the audience to the dance. "I like telling stories ... and want an emotional connection, not just choreography," he says. He believes when people come to see a ballet, they "live vicariously through the dancer and see themselves in the story"—so there has to be a connection to the narrative, even if it is abstract.

Fresh ballet
Destrooper says that his works are "not dry 100-year-old ballet." He wants his performances to appeal to "different types of voice." Rather than having big sets and multiple costume changes, the "focus is the dance and human quality," he says.

That's why a piece like Dracula, which blends the contrasted assumptions of ballet as something light and airy with the dark side of humanity, is a work that Ballet Victoria is drawn to perform. It runs from Oct. 27 to 29.  People can "enjoy the beautiful dancing, or see the deeper sketch of the story," says Destrooper.

He adds that the story itself actually works well with the ballet style because the fluid movements look like floating, and there is a certain strength in ballet that comes out in pieces like this.

As far as the themes and emotions in Dracula's story, there is a contrast between the main characters that draws these elements out.

The story centres on the straight-laced couple of Mina and Jonathan, opposite the free-spirited Lucy and her relationship with Arthur and Dracula. Destrooper delves into these relationships in his piece, and fleshes out the true love and purity on one end, contrasted with the dark force of lust and violence on the other.

Destrooper says this "playing with the myth of love eternal" alongside the "draw of the dark sid," are story lines that a variety of audiences can relate to—especially when used with a mix of classical and modern music.

Ballet for all
Alongside the company, which has about a dozen professional dancers practicing daily in the back of St. Andrews Church downtown, Destrooper also runs the Ballet Victoria Conservatory. It’s a not-for-profit school that started three years ago, as well as a number of community outreach programs.

Destrooper says art should not only be accessible to the elites. For instance, in the Tea for Tutu program, seniors can come and see an abridged 40-minute performance, and then have tea while talking to the dancers.

That way they still get to experience the performance, but in a compact and social way.

The programs also reach out to single parents, children and youth, and new Canadians. When the dancers perform in schools, they see "kids that hate P.E. getting interested in dance," says Destrooper. If an individual is "not the classic ballerina shape, who cares?”

Ballet is great for movement, but also "so complex for the brain, creating new synaptic connections," says Destrooper.

Some dancers learn faster or slower, and a bigger company might not keep slower dancers, but they might end up learning the dance better in the end, says Destrooper.

He says the company is "very much a community, but also has a high standard."

Even though Victoria is a small city, Destrooper believes it still has a place in the bigger ballet scene, especially because other, larger ballet groups from across Canada and the U.S. come to perform here.

The company strives to expand and tour more, and Destrooper hopes originality in arrangements like Dracula will help bring Ballet Victoria to the forefront of artistic entertainment—while remaining mainstream enough for audiences to attend performances.

Finding her footing
A principal dancer with Ballet Victoria for 10 seasons, Andrea Bayne was first drawn to working for the company by the city itself.

Touring with the Alberta Ballet School out of Calgary, the group came to Victoria during December one year.

Bayne fell in love with the mild climate and auditioned for Ballet Victoria.

Bayne was interested in ballet for both its athletic and artistic aspects. No matter what company you are with, or where you are in the world, "you can always be better than the day before," says Bayne.

Even practicing or performing the same piece, Bayne believes that there are always different ways to improve the technique.

Since Ballet Victoria is a small company, Bayne says she has more opportunity to dance. "The more you get to dance, being in a small company, the more you can improve yourself as an artist," she says.

Bayne graduated from the Alberta Ballet School, but also received training in New York and Toronto.

She says "for a lot of dancers, a bigger company is more exciting, but for me it's all about the art."

Bayne is also the school artistic director for the Ballet Victoria Conservatory. She runs the school along with Destrooper, which teaches individuals from three-years-old to adults.

Bayne has seen a lot of growth in the school over the past three years. Some people "just come because they like to move," she says.

Classes are more affordable, with small sizes, and parents can pay monthly instead of all at once.

"It's pretty rare to have a non-profit ballet school," says Bayne, with everything they make going back into the school.

A haunting ballet
With regards to this year's performance of Dracula, Bayne says Ballet Victoria has grown in its technique even in the last few years, and because it's a "group of really strong dancers ... that always makes the production stronger."

Having performed the piece before, Bayne says the "muscle memory is incredible" when starting to rehearse the piece again after performing another version two years ago.

Playing the part of Lucy, Bayne's character goes through the struggles of independence, disconnection from her peers, and being drawn into addiction.

Bayne admits that ballet can often be perceived as "light, frilly, tutu" dancing, but that innovative performances like Dracula draw in a wide variety of people.

"We keep in line with the classical technique of the art form, but we make it contemporary" and that brings in new audiences, she says.

Even some of the music is modern. "People that think of the ballet tutu, well this is exactly the opposite of that," Bayne notes.

Dracula is a "dramatic story that people can get drawn into," says Bayne, "even people that didn't think they'd ever enjoy ballet.”

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