Vancouver’s newest ballet company marries art and science
A group of dancers gathered in front of the ballet bar that runs the length of the airy rehearsal space above Davie Street. They chatted softly, laughing and unfurling long limbs as they took advantage of the pause in their hectic schedule. Roberta Baseggio, Artistic Director of Vancouver City Dance Theatre (VCDT), walked towards me, hand outstretched, gliding across the floor with the kind of studied grace that comes only with years of training. She smiled sweetly, almost girlishly, and welcomed me to the studio.
Since July 19th VCDT, Vancouver’s newest professional ballet company, has been rehearsing for their debut performance, The Dali Universe. Founders and co-directors, Roberta Baseggio and her husband Enrico Sorrentino relocated to Vancouver from Tuscany three years ago. VCDT is a family business; not only are Roberta and Enrico business partners but their oldest daughter will have a small role in Dali.
The idea of starting a dance company was inspired by a trip to London last summer. They envisioned a model that would bring together different disciplines, uniting the performing and visual arts with modern technology. Their style draws on a base of classical ballet fused with elements of contemporary dance.
VCDT adds a touch of drama to the city skyline.
Baseggio, who choreographed Dali Universe, began dancing at the tender age of five and has studied with Victor Litvinov, Margherita Trayanova and Diana Ferrara, the former Etoile of the Opera Theatre in Rome. Baseggio has clearly never tired of the art. She only half-jokingly described dancing “like a drug” and although she has now taken on the role of Artistic Director, she is still very much the ballerina. Throughout our conversation she remained standing, spine perfectly straight, never once looking fatigued.
Sorrentino, a slight man with softly greying hair, practised medicine in his native Italy, with a specialty in hypnosis. He downplayed this role, explaining that it is too narrow to encompass his wide-ranging interests and preferred instead to be described simply as a thinker. Sorrentino spoke with intensity, leaning in towards me as he expressed his vision for the company, and of the role of the arts in creating integrated communities. He’s in charge of the “philosophical side” of their venture, his wife told me.
In Vancouver the couple saw the opportunity for a new Renaissance city, a 21st century version of the most famous period in Florence’s history. “Our desire was to establish a new company with new values, new principles,” explained Sorrentino. “Arts have the possibility to express important values. One of the values that the humanities need is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism expresses the history of the people and the history of the people is the base for their future.”
After a thorough search for a country that best embodied diversity, Sorrentino and Baseggio settled on Canada, which Sorrentino describes as a world laboratory for multiculturalism with Vancouver as a key location.
“The city has many different cultures and communities but they are totally atomized, they are separate, they are not integrated. We have all the basic elements of multiculturalism but we have to create a synthesis,” Sorrentino said. A stronger emphasis on promoting the arts and dance in particular, would provide opportunities for various communities to work together, he said.
Still, the couple knows that they have a hard road ahead of them. Well deserved or not British Colombia has a notoriously bad reputation for failing to nurture its artists. They seem all too aware of this potential stumbling block when I raise the issue. “In Vancouver we have all the ingredients, but at the same time, from a cultural point of view Vancouver is quite empty. It’s a space, it’s a frame,” Sorrentino said.
Baseggio jumps in to point out that, “It’s a young country, it’s a young city. We are striving to build something here.”
As if on cue, one of her dancers leaps into action behind us, studying his reflection in the mirror as he adjusts his form.
Is there a good pool of talent in British Colombia, I ask. “Yes I think so,” said Baseggio. “There are a lot of small companies, and lots of artists that are really hidden. They are striving to create something and push themselves. There is a will.”
Trust is the key to the execution of this pose.
What Baseggio and Sorrentino hope will differentiate them from other dance companies and ensure their survival is a model intended to balance their artistic vision with the practical and financial limitations of running a company. Eventually they want to open a dance school that would begin training students at the age of six. They hope that by emphasizing the values of the arts in Vancouver, their company will attract private investors who can participate in the creation of culture. They also plan to appeal to the provincial government, asking them to create incentives for investing in the arts.
“In an ideal world, any government should have to finance arts, culture, that is the most important part of life, “ said Sorrentino. “Investing in culture is investing in who we are. It’s incredible and unacceptable that any government would cut funds for us. Values have changed and everything that is important is just money.”
Their long-term vision includes an economic and artistic partnership between the cities of Vancouver and Florence. “The idea is to create a twinning of these two cities, based on the idea of a Renaissance. What are the possible connections between Florence, its history, its present and Vancouver?” said Sorretino.
Fittingly, their debut performance, The Dali Universe, is a reflection on the power of dreams. The piece tells the story of a meeting between another doctor and artist: Freud and Dali. When the two met around 1928 they discussed how dreams could be a source of inspiration and catalyst for change, said Baseggio. VCDT’s original piece will explore this idea through a variety of media.
“We want to deliver a message that explodes the audience, “ said Baseggio. “We will have actors” - she turns to her left and smiles at David Bloom who has dropped by the studio today and who will play Freud in Dali – “and puppets on stage, as well as a TV projection, animation, a set that changes quite a lot. It’s a trans-disciplinary project. It’s very complex.”
The show’s principal dancers, Sonya Rodriguez and Piotr Stanczyk, are both members of the National Ballet of Canada, while the corps is composed of a diverse group drawn from local and international talent. I wanted to know more about their experiences so Roberta called them to sit down with us for a little Q & A. They range in age from 18 to 27 – with an average age of 21 - and come from all over the globe. South Africa, Colombia, Albania, Italy and South Korea are among the countries that the dancers have either lived in or call home. The company's Ballet Master, Victor Litvinov, hails from Russia. Several of the dancers have flown in from Italy and Roberta translated for them while I spoke.
“Vancouver is a beautiful city,” said Valerio Moro, “But we don’t get to see it because we work so hard!”
When I ask if they ever fight, the dancers burst into laughter and a few of them shout out “No!”
“You will find people who fight when they are working but they are always friends afterwards,” said Baseggio, her twinkling eyes hinting at a few good stories.
How do they find the discipline to practise for an average of seven hours a day?
“It becomes part of what we do,” explains Andrea Pena. “The work is not work.”
“Throughout your youth you have to pay to dance. So to get paid is amazing. It’s a dream,” adds Cai Glover.
Before I leave Baseggio asks the dancers to give me a preview of Dali. As the music swirls into a crescendo, they line up along the side of the studio before springing forth across the floor - a delicate balance of athleticism and artistry.