by Gillian Crowley –
Sheer grace and athleticism is part of what makes ballet a special art form. Even those who don’t know a jeté from a plié will discover the local Ballet Étoile creates magic accessible to all.
“We see ourselves as a way for the community to enjoy dance through a narrative structure – people like to see a whole story evolve on stage,” says Ashley Evans, director and principal ballerina for Ballet Étoile.
The dance troupe is a dream come true for Evans who has performed in Ballet Victoria and the now-defunct Canadian Pacific Ballet. In 2013 she formed Ballet Etoile to give local ballet dancers another way to keep doing what they love. The initial seven dancers started small, performing classical ballet in the 80-seat Berwick facility auditorium followed by summer evening gigs in Butchart Gardens’ fairyland setting. There the troupe connects with a diverse audience by choreographing a blend of contemporary music (think Beatles and ABBA) and traditional ballet music.
Over the past six years their popularity has blossomed and Ballet Étoile is now filling the seats in Sidney’s Charlie White Theatre at the Mary Winspear Centre. Last December the troupe put on three performances of the “Storybook Nutcracker,” a condensed version of the Nutcracker Suite suitable for wriggly younger children. The sold out shows featured young dancers from local dance schools in addition to the 12 core ballet dancers. In March the company will perform Sleeping Beauty at the Charlie White Theatre.
Ballet Étoile has attracted a number of dancers who had performed with other ballet companies and then gone on to “regular” jobs. Evans says: “We have a veterinarian and several government workers, for instance, and everyone is motivated because they want a place they can continue to dance.” David Roland and Amalia Schelhorn are former dancers with the Berlin Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada who now play character roles and act as mentors to the ensemble.
Evans is a whirling dervish who not only is the company’s elegant prima ballerina but creates the choreography for each performance and creates all the costumes. During her years at Canadian Pacific Ballet she helped out in the wardrobe department where she picked up some of her seamstress skills. For the upcoming Sleeping Beauty ballet, she has been sewing all the tutus and other costumes. “The cost of costumes is prohibitive so making them yourself is the only solution,” she says.
At 90 minutes long, the Sleeping Ballet production is a shortened version to ensure younger children can enjoy the story and the dance. Evans says she loves to see the excitement and wonder on the faces of her student dancers at rehearsals. “They may have practised some of the variations (a solo dance) in their ballet classes but it’s so thrilling for them to see these dances in the context of the whole ballet.”
Evans graduated from the University of Victoria with an art history degree and says the relationship between art and dance has always fascinated her. At rehearsals she likes to talk about the history of the ballet and the marriage of artistry and character essential to ballet: “Every movement has to reflect the character the dancer is embodying,” she says.
Tchaikovsky’s music in Sleeping Beauty still gives Evans “goosebumps.” The music and magical story, interpreted through the ballet dancers’ artistry, is bound to give the audience goosebumps too.
Photo by Alan Austen.