Choreographer Matjash Mrozewski’s inspiration for his new dance piece Wolf’s Court began with a single word — empire. “The word captured my imagination,” he says. “It’s a term that has some not particularly nice notions attached to it. After all, the great empires of the world were always built on the backs of other societies.”
The National Ballet Of Canada’s world premiere of Wolf’s Court is Sat, Jun 2. With his scruffy Slavic good looks and wide smile, Mrozewski is both keyed up and laid back when talking about his latest creation, an ambitious piece for 21 dancers. He rocks back and forth on his chair, occasionally blurts things out, bursts into laughter and then slaps his hands over his mouth.
“I didn’t feel like plunking my soapbox in the middle of the Four Seasons Centre,” he says in response to a question on the current state of US imperialism. “But it does reference that in a way. As a ballet choreographer, I have to ask myself sometimes, ‘How does my work relate to the world?’ I’d never think of myself as a political artist, but sometimes I ask myself if what I do should reflect the world at large.”
Early in his process, Mrozewski stumbled upon the book Waiting For The Barbarians by Nobel Prize-winner J M Coetzee. The novel pits an unspecified empire against a group of nomadic barbarians. Caught between these two opposing worlds are a barbarian girl, partially blinded by torture, and an imperial magistrate who has ceased to believe in the values of his state. “It’s a very powerful work,” says Mrozewski. “Most of Coetzee’s characters are not entirely likeable, which I find very interesting.”
Though he briefly debated trying to turn the novel into a story ballet, Mrozewski decided against it. “I was only given 30 to 35 minutes of stage time. I didn’t like the idea of trying to shove a really powerful narrative into that kind of time frame,” he says. “I’m interested in storytelling with future projects, I didn’t want go there with this one.”
Mrozewski found another literary reference on his mother’s bookshelf — a picture of a wolf in a book called The Astrology Of Fate. “I was flipping through it and the image stopped me dead,” he says. “It wasn’t a profoundly intellectual response, but there was something so sinister and sexy about it I wanted it to be part of the piece.”
Can audiences look forward to any sex onstage? “It’s not a piece about sex, but the National Ballet is a company of gorgeous people with great bodies and I was happy to accentuate that,” says Mrozewski with a laugh. “It’s definitely hot, but more of a sleek kind of sexy, rather than volcanic.”
The onstage action is supported by the work of designer Yannik Larivée. Together they conceived a stage covered with a huge timeworn map on which the empire could mark its progress with pins. The dancers move through this environment outfitted in space-age unisex martial uniforms. “I can’t say what it all means, but it’s going to look great,” Mrozewski says.
The amazing local composer Alexina Louie (whose credits include the opera The Scarlet Princess and the film soundtrack to The Five Senses) is creating an original score for the piece to be played by a full orchestra. Mrozewski won’t really know what it all sounds like until a week before the show opens. “At the point that I finally hear it, that’s what I’ll get,” he laughs.
His relaxed attitude may come from the fact that, though he’s only 31, he’s been doing this for so long. As a child, Mrozewski could often be found hanging upside-down from cart railings at Dominion or busting out some spontaneous choreography when the radio inspired him. After a few years of gymnastics he came across a pamphlet for the National Ballet School (NBS) and was immediately drawn to it. “I remember it was a dark image with light coming from inside a ballet studio,” he says. “It felt like a safe, welcoming place for a ‘sensitive’ child like me.”
Was NBS part of his coming out process? “I didn’t have to come out — no one ever thought that I was in,” he laughs. “I had an easier time at NBS than other schools, but mostly because it was a place that fostered excellence.”
Though the dance world offered a safe space for him to be who he was, apparently it’s not that way for everyone. “Ironically, the world of dance isn’t the big gay fiesta everyone thinks it is,” he says. “There are still a lot of gay dancers who are closeted, which is odd because you’d think of any profession this would be the one where you could safely come out.”
After graduating from NBS Mrozewski went on to dance with the National for four years, then departed for Europe. Upon returning to Toronto in 2002 he decided he wanted to shift focus to choreography. His two previous works for the National are 2001’s A Delicate Battle (later adapted to film) and 2003’s Monument. His career has since taken him to just about every corner of the earth. Last year alone, he spent 11 months out of 12 on the road with commissions from the Royal Ballet in London, UK and the West Australian Ballet in Perth. “It’s been great getting to travel so much with my work,” he says. “But I’d love to have the chance to work more in Toronto.”
After living out of a suitcase for years, Mrozewski is intent in putting down roots. “I’m thinking about buying a home out in the country,” he says. “It sounds corny but I really want a garden — to be able to cultivate something and watch it grow.” He pauses and then erupts into his trademark laugh. “Or maybe I’ll just go crazy and start eating whatever woodland creatures I can catch with my bare hands.”
For more on Matjash Mrozewski, go to Matjash.com.