Image provided by Emily Cooper

What do you think of when I say the word ‘ballet’? Graceful dancing, tutus, and classical music, right? 

Ballet Kelowna’s performance of Macbeth this May challenged all that and showed its audience the diversity of ballet and its ability to be ominous, dramatic, and contemporary. 

Before the performance, I interviewed Ballet Kelowna’s Artistic Director & CEO, Simone Orlando. 

Image provided by Nina Dombowsky

Firsts for Kelowna, Firsts for Canada

“This piece is our first commissioned full-length work, which is a huge milestone for the organization.” Simone explained, “We have an original score that’s been composed for Macbeth and visual design by Okanagan artist, Jane Everett.” 

A full-length work is a long, multi-act ballet that usually tells a story. In this case, Ballet Kelowna’s first commissioned full-length work is a ballet recreation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which is originally a play about themes of corruption, ambition, and paranoia. 

Award-winning choreographer, Alysa Pires, was also commissioned for Macbeth, marking the first time in 40 years that a Canadian ballet company had commissioned a female choreographer to create a full-length work. 

I was surprised to hear this because I thought ballet was a more female-dominated industry. “When it comes to choreography, it’s been dominated by males. When you’re a young female dancer, you’re focused on getting a job in a professional company, [not] on thinking about choreography as a career.” Simone told me, “Ballet Kelowna has specifically given opportunities for women choreographers in the ballet company. Commissioning an emerging choreographer to create a full-length work is risky but it is only through this type of opportunity that dancemakers can learn and develop their craft. I feel it's time there is a woman creating works of this scale for a ballet company in Canada. And Alysa is doing an amazing job.”

Image provided by Nina Dombowsky

The Power of Collaboration

Shakespeare is known for his powerful words, but Alysa Pires was able to turn them into a dance that was just as enticing. “With dance, there’s a physicality where you can almost do more than just words alone. [Alysa] talks about the high-stakes nature you can bring out through a combination of dance and acting. So in this particular piece, she’s incorporated a lot of gestures and movements that indicate things like a knife or a crown.” 

Simone also mentioned how the costumes are vital. “Macbeth has this gradual upward progression because he ultimately wants to become king. And his advancement is [shown] by different colored coats that represent the next level up in the hierarchy in his path towards becoming the king.” 

The music, composed by Adam Sakiyama, also expressed the themes and high-stake emotions of the production. 

“In some scenes, it goes in a classical direction, and then other scenes where Macbeth is going insane, there is hardcore electric guitar.” And it’s an entirely original score! 

Art was also an essential component of production to display characters’ inner emotions. For example, “When Macbeth is at the height of his tyranny, these red streaks are [projected] on him, just like blood. And then it builds up layer upon layer until there’s this whole forest of red trees.” 

Image provided by Emily Cooper

Not Your Typical Ballet

I also got the opportunity to watch Ballet Kelowna rehearse Macbeth

It felt like I was watching a cinematic blend between ballet, contemporary dance, and acting. My favorite was the evocative scenes with themes of madness, anger, and betrayal, which caused me to challenge my preconceived notions of ballet as an “elegant” dance form. 

Though there were only 12 dancers, I never felt like the stage was empty as they all brought depth and passion to their roles. Even when they weren’t dancing, they always had a stage presence. In addition, they helped to create seamless, cinematic transitions between scenes with props. 

I realized that dance can express things that you wouldn’t pick up on if you watched a re-enactment of Shakespeare’s play. 

Before watching the ballet, the main question on my mind was: how will they do this with no words? After watching it, I realized how fallacious my question was. 

When watching Macbeth as a play, can we understand everything? Unless you are fluent in “Shakespearian,” the answer is no. We understand the play based on the actors’ tone and movements. And, after watching Ballet Kelowna’s Macbeth, I found that dance could do the same. Words were not needed to guide viewers through the themes of power, corruption, and manipulation. The facial expressions and symbolism against the hauntingly eerie music made for an enticing performance. 

Ballet Kelowna has three programs planned for this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Each features a work by their very first Artist-In-Residence. Their first program, Aspirations, is from November 4-5th, with tickets on sale here. I am excited about what Ballet Kelowna will do next!