Rehearsal for Life

I recently had the rare and absolute privilege to attend the final dress rehearsal for Ballet BC‘s Program 2, a production of Medhi Walerski‘s Prelude and NATUS. This thanks to Instameet Vancouver and Glenda Ollero, who has established a fruitful partnership with the company that not only made us privy to the rehearsal, but our SLRs privy to it as well. First time they’ve allowed it. I pray not the last.

It was, let me tell you, enchanting. Being part of the instameet group meant front row seats for the complete rehearsal. It also got us a backstage glimpse of the director giving notes to the dancers between the two movements. I was part of the last group brought backstage, so I missed the chance to photograph dancers in the wings. By then they were all on stage rehearsing the climax. I got a few shots through portals to the stage, and a couple shots of chairs and personal effects backstage, but nothing noteworthy. Henry Lee got a couple excellent shots to give you an idea how things looked from there.

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I did get a number of shots I’m quite happy with from the audience, though. The light was challenging, given of course that the house lights were down and it wasn’t a concert with stadium floodlights. Often the dancers were lit by a solitary spotlight raised just high enough to catch them in the beam but not so high as to bounce light off the stage. Prelude had no set pieces whatsoever. NATUS had a few large mirrors framing in the three stage walls, which reflected the various spotlights in curious and unpredictable ways.

From minute to minute the light dimmed and brightened significantly. It changed direction, changed colour. The dancers went from inside the spotlight, such a hard light it rendered them almost monochromatic, to just outside the spot, where they became silhouettes against the ambient glow of the stage. The more dancers visible at a time, the more frequent and mixed these lighting conditions.

I switched between shooting for speed and shooting for effect. For a few minutes I’d use shutter speeds fast enough to freeze their motion, then for a few minutes I’d use longer exposures of a second or half-second to isolate anyone still and blur anyone moving. In terms of technique and settings, the lowest ISO available for motion-freezing shots was 6400, but more often I shot at 12800.

But let me set aside technique. It’s only good for so much.

The photographs I got that I’m most happy with are the ones I took when I felt most connected to the performance. I missed a lot of possibly good shots because I was watching. Just watching. I wanted in part to get a sense of the dancers and their body language, so that I could better anticipate the right moment to snap a shot, but mostly I wanted to enjoy the experience. To revel in it.

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Prelude was stark, simple if you watched any one dancer but complex in a lovely, organic way when you considered them all and how they interacted. It’s contemporary ballet without a doubt. No ballet slippers, no dresses. In fact the dancers wore black pants and snug sleeveless translucent tops. One young lady soloist wore a skin-toned leotard, the young gentleman soloist white briefs. The movements had a sort of nudity too. They were clear, I’d say. Not plain or overt, but clear. Each scene featured a different soloist or soloists. That was a nice touch. It gave the piece a sense of evolution.

NATUS had more costume, more variation in theme, and even a sort of foreword and afterword. It began like a play, with the protagonist in a tuxedo descending through the audience, narrating. He singled a lady out, made small talk, proposed marriage, continued narrating. Then he tore off his jacket, put on another with a glittery red novelty-sized heart on it, and climbed up on stage to start the movement proper. The scenes in NATUS had sharper divisions. They were more like reflections or vignettes of the protagonist’s life. They were emotional explorations, certainly, but whereas Prelude provided the sentiment and let the viewer supply the context from within, NATUS supplied the context and let the viewer bring the sentiment.

In both movements the music was intermittent. I adore dances where music is treated as a tangible ingredient, as a sort of motion itself. It may rest. It may careen. When the music is still, I’m drawn into the performance as into a vacuum. I can hear the dancers breathing. Their feet padding. Their skin whisking in a turn. That tiny forced exhalation when they jump.

That’s the real music of a dance, in my ears. A glimpse at the swan’s feet churning underwater to propel it so gracefully on the surface. The sweat, the ache, the frustration, and ultimately the satisfaction of hours upon hours of rehearsal.

Be sure to take in Program 3, playing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on May 12, 13, and 14. Ballet is an astounding art, and this company performs it beautifully. If you live elsewhere go find a local company and let them enthral you. The dancers are not mad, I assure you. Once you hear the music you’ll understand why they dance.

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