Robert Binet's The Dreamers Ever Leave You, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, comes to London in mid-October. Dancers from The National Ballet of Canada and The Royal Ballet will join forces for this ‘immersive work' at The Printworks, which is, appropriately, in the Canada Water area of London.
The work was first performed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2016, after which The Globe and Mail wrote, “Binet is more than a breath of fresh air in the ballet world; he's like a blast of Novocain. Here's a choreographer with a rich and extensive imagination who wants to do things differently and clearly has the skills to realize his ideas.” I asked him what those ideas are.
I'm very interested in creating ballets for new contexts and pushing ballet as a language to talk about new ideas and situations, as that is the only way any language develops.
I always start from the fact that dancers are people — their emotional depth and wealth of experience is the most interesting thing about them. I'm not concerned about defining a signature, as every creator has a signature because it's all coming from them, but I hope that what interests me within the art form leads to work that has a depth of humanity.
It was this quality that first drew Binet to the landscape paintings of Canadian artist Lawren Harris that inspired The Dreamers Ever Leave You.
I've always had a very emotional response to Harris' paintings. They make you feel at once strong and connected to this extraordinary natural world we have the privilege of occupying, and tiny and powerless in contrast to nature's magnitude and force.
I think that the way Harris abstracts nature to show its spiritual power is very similar to what we do in ballet: we abstract the body from the way it usually moves and is presented and aim to show its spiritual power.
The work's title also came from Harris:
Harris was also a poet and ‘the dreamers ever leave you' is a line from one of his poems. The poem is about tiny houses in tiny towns and how ‘dreamers' always leave them. I think the line on its own captures the metaphysical nature of Harris' work and the transience of nature, dance and life.
Binet has collaborated with fellow Canadian, Lubomyr Melnyk, for the music for The Dreamers. The composer, of Ukrainian origin, is well known for his ‘continuous music', which he executes on a piano using ever-shifting repetitive sequences of notes, creating music that is both hypnotic and sensuous.
When I was living in London in 2012 he had a concert here. I went because I saw he was Canadian and his ideas looked interesting, and I immediately fell in love with his music.
Music and visuals in place. Now for the movement. With Melnyk improvising and the audience moving around the action which takes place in a non-theatrical space, this is certainly not going to be Petipa. A nightmare of logistics?
There is a 50-minute loop of choreography that repeats three times over the course of the performance.
Structurally, all the choreography functions independently of the music with the dancers taking all their cues from each other. The movements of music are reordered every performance and Lubomyr improvises on themes.
The lighting is always in the same shape at the same time so that the dancers can see and be seen, but the colour and intensity is different every time. So the dancers have the responsibility of shifting their movement quality, dynamics, intent, speed, rhythm, and so on, based on the qualities of the music and light they find themselves interacting with.
Are their advantages in having an audience free to move during the piece?
For the audience I think the advantage is they can create their own experience of the work. They can watch for 20 minutes or two hours, they can stay right up close to the dancers or take it all in from a distance. I think you have a better chance of connecting to people if they can experience the work in the way that's most comfortable to them, that leaves them the most open. Experiencing the energy of these extraordinary dancers close up is so powerful and captivating.
There are logistical challenges to presenting immersive work but I wouldn't call any of them disadvantages, just challenges that spark creativity. You are choreographing the audience's experience as much as you are choreographing the ballet itself which is a very interesting task.
The Dreamers Ever Leave You was performed last year in Canada, but this time around there will be Royal Ballet Dancers involved in the performances.
Because the performance runs for two-and-a-half hours, the dancers are in four groups of three. There are always two groups on stage, and two groups resting. This means that I was able to choose four roles to be danced by Royal Ballet dancers where they pretty much only interact with each other, save a couple simpler sections. This was necessary because we only have one day with both companies together because of the intensity of both companies' schedules at this time of year.
Binet knows The Royal Ballet well after spending 18 months as the company's Choreographic Apprentice in 2012-2013. A useful experience?
To be able to see all the repertoire and new works created at the company in that time was an incredible learning experience. The most formative part of the experience was being mentored by Wayne McGregor, who taught me so much and pushed me very hard to stretch myself creatively. He really helped me find my own voice as an artist and gave me practical skills to support that.
The opportunity to work with dancers of The Royal Ballet, Company Wayne McGregor and other organizations the Royal Opera House partners with through the Studio Programme was a gift as you can learn so much from creating with dancers of this high calibre.
The Dreamers Ever Leave You is the latest in a series of collaborations between The National Ballet of Canada and The Royal Ballet which has included co-productions of Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale as well as the annual World Ballet Day live digital stream. Robert Binet will continue working with dancers from both sides of the pond.
I've got a new piece premiering in Toronto on Wednesday as part of Fall For Dance North, an amazing festival entering its third year. The work brings together Canadian dancers who have never performed at home before. I have a brilliant cast of dancers from San Francisco Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. This winter, I will be adapting The Dreamers Ever Leave You for proscenium stage and it will be performed on a triple bill in Toronto in March and Hamburg in July. I'll also be setting an existing work on The Royal Ballet School next month.
Karen Kain, Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada, said,
The National Ballet of Canada has a long and meaningful relationship with The Royal Ballet and we are pleased to mark the occasion of Canada's sesquicentennial with this landmark performance featuring dancers from both companies.
So it is interesting to read what Lawren Harris (1885 – 1970) once wrote,
We in Canada cannot truly understand the great cultures of the past and of other peoples, until we ourselves commence our own creative life in the arts. Until we do so, we are looking at these from the outside.
This is something that The National Ballet of Canada has been doing since its beginnings in the 1950s, and young artists like Robert Binet continue to further a dialogue between older and newer cultures. Through collaboration and initiative, The Dreamers Ever Leave You is just the latest product of such collective cross-border creativity.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.