After a lifetime in the world of dance, Serge Bennathan is feeling resilient. Not only has he lasted, he’s thrived—following intuition and chasing ideas. At Scotiabank Dance Centre where the 61-year-old choreographer is rehearsing his upcoming premiere with Ballet BC, Bennathan talks about the privilege of being part of the great creative enterprise of theatrical dance. You get the feeling he’s glad to be there, exactly where he is: in the studio, with company dancers and staff passing by, surrounded by space in which to move.
Since the late ’80s, Bennathan has made a handful of pieces for Ballet BC; the first was at the invitation of former artistic director Reid Anderson when the company was just a few years old. The present creation, Poesía, will be part of the company’s Program 3, which marks the conclusion of Emily Molnar’s tenth season at the helm of the popular, sleekly contemporary troupe.
The title, Poesía, is a nod to the Spanish poets who are dear to Bennathan’s heart: Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda, among others. He’s also been reading young Instagram star Rupi Kaur, who immigrated to Canada from India with her family when she was a child. One of Kaur’s poems features her parents’ struggles in their new world, and how she has learned to appreciate her mother’s accent, “thick like honey.”
“It’s a beautiful poem because you see that to come to a new country you have to have resilience,” Bennathan says.
Raised in Normandy, he immigrated to Canada as a young man and has his own indelible, and very musical, French accent. He arrived in 1985 with a suitcase and a huge appetite for dance, an art form he has been drawn to since childhood. Over the decades, he’s built a solid choreographic career in Vancouver, where his company, Les Productions Figlio, is based, and in Toronto, where he directed Dancemakers from 1990 to 2006.
He describes his work as being “very terre à terre—down to earth—so it’s very physical. But through that you can reach a poetic level.”
A poetic imagination fuels his creativity, with the image of a river returning often during our conversation. Bennathan wants Poesía to evoke the sense of a river’s flow and depth, an effect best created by a large ensemble. This is one of the reasons he has chosen to use twelve dancers, almost the whole company, but, also, “it just seemed natural to use everyone,” he says. “In all my work, I try to have people who are different but make sense together. That’s how I find Ballet BC right now: it’s made up of very different artists who are unique and have strong personalities, but they make sense together.”
When it’s time for the rehearsal to start, Bennathan assembles the five male dancers. They work on finessing the amount of space between them while travelling across the studio: how close can they be without bumping into each other? It’s thrilling to see the men power through big grounded steps that devour space, erupting in the turbulent explosions on the floor and in the air that are characteristic of Bennathan’s work.
Once the seven women join in, there is an even greater breadth and depth of energy in the room, which runs alongside the gentler orchestral sounds of Bertrand Chénier’s specially commissioned score. Bennathan is like a happy general in the midst of the action, his compact body travelling along with the dancers, but only suggesting their full moves, as he watches intently. When something goes particularly well, he calls out an encouraging “Oui!”
They spend some time on a tricky section that is intended to look off-balance. In fact, insists Bennathan, the step has to actually be off-balance for the breath of time necessary to make it look natural. Yet it can’t be so off-balance that the dancers lose control of the move that follows.
Once they nail it, Bennathan shouts an approving “Et voilà!” And the dancers move tirelessly on to the next moment and then the next one, each finding their own resilience inside the river of dance.