INDEPTH: PASSION IN DANCE|
By Alex Waterhouse-Hayward | December 2003
"In Carmen there is a lot of crotch grabbing. There will be no matinee."
Sylvain Senez, ballet master, Ballet BC
I once thought dance was all about effortless leaps by handsome princes and dying swans. I now know that dancers are mortals like the rest of us, breathing and sweating, too. Since arriving in Canada in 1975, I've slowly come to recognize a trend towards showing a more sexual and erotic side in dance. The first ballerina I saw in Vancouver, for instance, took off all her clothes on stage. Jackie Coleman, a fantastic dancer and a regular on Vancouver-based CBC variety shows of the time, moonlighted at the city's notorious strip joint, Number 5 Orange. A well-known choreographer also worked nights at the 5 - as a DJ - and the club's dancers were urged to study ballet and other forms of dance.
On January 22, 1998, I had my road-to-Damascus experience while sitting in the third row of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. My conversion was precipitated by a long kiss during a Ballet BC performance of Serge Bennathan's In and Around Kozla Street (Warsaw). As I watched Lauri Stallings and Mirsoslav Zydowicz twirl around and around - their lips seemingly glued together - I had a revelation, which I whispered to my wife Rosemary: "Ballet is about sex."
Photo: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
She hushed me, pointing out that Stallings' boyfriend, Rick Carvlin, was sitting next to us. He had heard me. "They kiss for one minute and 58 seconds," he said. "I have timed them before."
Stallings later moved to Chicago and joined Hubbard's Street Dance. In 2000, after seeing her perform, noted American dancer and choreographer Asimima Chremos wrote about her in Chicago's The Dance Insider: "Stallings's own carefree generosity about her body is sweet and self conscious. But once again," Chremos continued, "I found myself up against my own notions of modesty, honesty and pornography."
Soon Chremos, like me, was also converted, not only performing with Stallings but also choreographing works for her. Through Stallings, I had begun to notice a delicious trend of emotion and sexuality in Vancouver's dance scene. It had always been there, according to most of the dancers I have spoken to in Vancouver, but Stallings' lovely technique and idiosyncratic style (when she danced I knew it was her just by looking at her dancing ankles) had opened my eyes.
My eyes were further opened on October 20, 1999, when I saw Caroline Farquhar, Kathleen McDonagh and Cori Caulfield perform Cornelius Fischer-Credo's The Beauty Machine. The three uncommonly tall and curvaceous dancers brought to mind the women of photographer Helmut Newton's 1999 book Big Nudes. In ballet, you sometimes forget that the women are women and that the men are men. These women made it obvious and oozed sensuality. The performance, with its dancers in slinky dresses, seemed far removed from the world of ballet.
Photo: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
In later performances featuring Caulfield and Ballet BC's Emily Molnar, I paid increasing attention to the role of passion and emotion in dance. I now sat up front, where the facial expressions and heavy breathing were best seen and heard. At a recent Dancing on the Edge Festival performance, the six-foot-tall Molnar, who made her entrance in an outfit made of black nylon stocking bits, left me awestruck. Following the performance - to my delight - my precocious six-year-old granddaughter Rebecca said: "I liked that much more than Sleeping Beauty."
This September, I photographed Nice-born dancer Sandrine Cassini, previously of the Paris Opera Ballet and the Monte Carlo Ballet but now dancing with Ballet BC. The company's artistic director had picked her for the lead in Jean Grand-Maitre's Carmen. I attended a rehearsal with my granddaughter, but upon seeing Rebecca, ballet master Sylvain Senez warned me of the production's sexual content, which would be much more evident in the close quarters of the rehearsal hall.
Rebecca and I watched as Carmen becomes frustrated by Don Jos� - played by the cool Edmond Kilpatrick - who falls asleep after a spirited but simulated session of fully clothed ballet-sex-on-a-bed. She throws a chair to wake him. He awakens and grabs her. She escapes him, throws herself on the floor and hikes up her skirt (that day she was wearing long pants underneath). Don Jos� looks away in disgust.
Edmond Kilpatrick and Sandrine Cassini
Rebecca leaned over: "Papi," she whispered, "on the real day, if she does this we will see her underwear." The palpable electricity between Cassini and Kilpatrick left me thinking I had not seen anything like this before in Vancouver.
This new sexiness in dance doesn't necessarily have anything to do with nudity, however, as I thought back to Chick Snipper's Slab, which Rebecca and I saw last March. Rebecca noted that dancers Anne Cooper, Susan Elliott and Kathleen McDonagh had worn "no costume" for the production, which was inspired by the anatomical drawings of 16th century scientist Andreas Vesalius. Their dance was exquisitely choreographed anatomy that moved. The impression it left was surgical and intellectual. I quickly forgot that they were naked.
Watching Cassini, as the gypsy Carmen, grappling with Kilpatrick's Don Jos� was not so intellectual as Slab. At another rehearsal, I was struck by a very vocal Grand-Maitre, whose direction dipped more into Prosper M�rim�e's Carmen and 0ther Stories for his ballet than Georges Bizet did for his opera. There is, for instance, the knife scene. When Kilpatrick wields the knife, Grand-Maitre shouts at him: "In the book, you kill a man so violently that your knife handle breaks off!" I was fascinated at how much of Grand-Maitre's direction was aimed at the dancers' minds and hearts, as if applying Lee Strasberg's Method to dance.
In my photography studio, 28-year-old Cassini and 34-year-old Kilpatrick also brought up the acting element of their performance. "I was a bit shocked when we started Carmen because we have to dance less and act more," she said. "In my first week in Monte Carlo, I was 18 and fresh from the Paris Opera Ballet. The choreographer, Jean-Christophe Maillot, put us in a situation with bare feet and had us touching our partners with out-toes to see what we were like. Maillot asked me to bare my chest. Actors do this in movies. Is it different with us just because we are dancing?"
"There are a number of times when Grand-Maitre has asked us to kiss. We just kiss," Kilpatrick explained. "There are no fake stage kisses. When it's time to kiss, we kiss, and when it comes to grabbing, we grab. It's honest to just do it and not try to pretend or to mime it."
When I asked if the grabbing was uncomfortable, Kilpatrick shared his reasoning. "I feel that if we were to cross some boundary, she would say so. This piece isn't about Edmond and Sandrine making out on stage, it's about Don Jos� and Carmen."
When it was time for the photos, I showed Cassini and Kilpatrick my sevillana, a switchblade from Seville, and pointed towards a sofa bed covered with a rumpled white sheet. Instantly, they became Carmen and Don Jos�, just as they were during the ballet's opening performance in November. Rebecca wasn't there to say it but I thought it: "This is better than Sleeping Beauty."
Photographer, writer and dance aficionado Alex Waterhouse-Hayward lives in Vancouver