We’re thrilled to have two veteran Ballet BC dancers returning this season!
Brandon Lee Alley was just 20 when he first came to the company. He decided to take a year off during the 2018/19 season to hone his skills as a teacher and choreographer.
Livona Ellis joined Ballet BC in 2010 and spent 8 years with the company before taking time to work on her own creative ideas and other projects outside of her comfort zone.
Brandon and Livona met with me virtually on Nov. 16 to discuss their return to the company. The two dancers sat on opposite sides of a large table, with plexiglass between them, turning Livona’s phone back and forth to show whoever was speaking in the moment.
Tell me about your journey to Ballet BC, when you first joined us years ago and then again this season. What motivated you to return?
Brandon: I had been watching Ballet BC videos and was super interested. One of my friends had Emily Molnar’s email and told me they were looking for one more contract. I sent my stuff in and they got back to me and asked “can you fly out within a few weeks?”
While auditioning, I fell in love with the company. I saw how they worked in the studio, and how Emily was pulling out the artistry in every dancer. It felt like a place to learn and grow.
When I took a year off, I had been dancing with companies since I was 17 and wanted to switch it up. I wanted to freelance and shape another side of myself.
Then Medhi Walerski was named Artistic Director and I was interested in what he would bring to the company with his freshness. I wanted to implement some of my new skills, and to pick up as many things as I could from Medhi and all the new artists.
The group is really special this year. There’s a lot of incredible talent and high caliber artists. People who care about the art form and about growth, not only for themselves, but for everyone involved.
Livona: I joined Ballet BC as an apprentice. I had a long-standing relationship with Emily because she was one of my teachers and a director at Arts Umbrella. It was amazing to have that support from her, that familiarity. When I left in 2018 I needed to explore, and be more uncomfortable. I had to be around different dancers, and live in another city to figure out what things I came back to.
I did a few projects here in Vancouver, and this past year I staged one of Medhi’s works in Germany. Then finding out that he was becoming Artistic Director, I knew I wanted to continue working with him. He has a special way of bringing out individuality. I trust myself and my choices around him.
There’s a way that we work here that I haven’t found anywhere else. It’s rare to have a company of such high caliber that feels like such an intimate group. Everyone’s invested in how the company is going to grow, and what we’re here to do. It was interesting to see different environments, and recognize what that is, and then to come back to it. It’s really rare and special.
What did you learn during your time away?
Livona: I learned a lot about how I work. I thought if I had more freedom I’d have more time for my own creative ideas, but I found that when I have more structure I can actually focus more.
I also learned why I do this as a profession, and why I love dance, even more so by stepping away and having periods of time with no dance, and doing things that I have never done before, and growing, and pulling things out of those experiences.
Brandon: Figuring out my values, and appreciating them properly. I’ve always been the dancer, but then after teaching and choreographing I come back to Ballet BC, and I really appreciate every element that goes into making a performance happen.
When I was freelancing I learned so much from the people I was working with, like how to think about movement. But at Ballet BC we work 9-6, Monday through Friday. I missed the rigour of having a studio every day. I just want to move all the time.
This season isn’t what anyone expected it would be. How are you adapting to the ever-evolving situation? How does it feel to be back, but in a very different way?
Livona: We had such a long time off that I’m just happy to be in the studio with other people. We’re all wearing masks, and we’re not allowed to touch each other, but receiving energy, and being in a room dancing with other people is so amazing that I don’t notice the restrictions so much. It’s hard to breathe (tugging mask, laughing), but it’s okay. I’m grateful that we’re able to come to work every day.
Last week we had to come in in small groups of two and three and do some stuff from home, and it was changing every day. Old me would have thought this was frustrating, but now I’m thinking “just roll with the punches.”
Brandon: It’s difficult, but you just gotta show up and appreciate it. We’re dancers so people look at us in a pandemic, wondering “what’s necessary, or what’s important?” The whole arts sector gets treated like we can just disappear.
I’ve been trying to get more into yoga, and other sorts of movement meditation. That helps me ground myself and check in to where I am physically and mentally. Last week we had to stay at home. It was difficult to stay patient, to keep listening to my body, and listening to the desire to move, and not give up on it. It fluctuates every day because of pandemic fatigue.
Are you still pursuing other interests outside of your work with BBC?
Brandon: Absolutely! I’m pursuing many different things. Music — I’ve been getting into this with all the free time. I’ve had to fill it with some kind of art.
I want to continue to be involved with Company 605, with Josh Martin. My partner and I just completed a collaboration for Idan Cohen’s work Hourglass for the Chutzpah! Festival.
Livona: Things are busy right now! I teach at Arts Umbrella, with the graduate students. They offer so much, and I’ve been in their situation.
I just worked with Mary-Louise Albert on her show Solo Dances/Past into Present. She did a solo as well, which is incredible because she’s 65 and stopped dancing 15 years ago.
Both of you have worked with Medhi as a choreographer in the past. What is it like working with him now, in his new role as Artistic Director?
Brandon: It doesn’t feel different. This is why I love working with him — there’s no hierarchy. There’s no overarching shadow. It’s super transparent, and we talk about what we need to talk about, and get things figured out, and help each other. Medhi has a beautiful way of trusting, which I respect. He knows how to trust himself, and allow the dancers to take what they need, take their time, trust the process.
Livona: Yeah, it feels the same, partly because he has been creating this season. He’s so curious, and there’s no separation between him as a director, choreographer, dancer… he’s all one person. He’s really about the creative process, going in and finding stuff. It’s inspiring. I almost see him as another dancer in the company that I can learn from because he’s so involved. It’s a really great relationship.
By Kristen Lawson, Ballet BC Marketing Coordinator
Support for this interview series is generously provided by ZLC Financial