4 min

Up to the challenge

Rising star shines with new-found liberty

BOUNDING OVER BOUNDARIES. At the tender age of 25, choreographer Matjash Mrozewski premieres his contemporary piece, A Delicate Battle, with the National Ballet Of Canada. Credit: Paula Wilson

Matjash Mrozewski was told that he would never amount to anything in the dance world.

“I don’t have the body-type of a classical dancer. When I entered the National Ballet School [at age 10] I was told that I would probably never be hired; later I heard maybe the corps de ballet, but I would never be a soloist,” says Mrozewski.

Mrozewski has had the opposite problem since graduating. Instead of having trouble finding work he has had a tough time getting a day off. He became a corps de ballet member of the National Ballet of Canada when he was 17 years old in 1993. In 1997, he stretched his wings and danced in Europe for two years, before returning to the National in 1999. Soon after, he was promoted to second soloist in the company.

Even more notable than his dance career is Mrozewski’s impressive list of choreographic credits. He has created countless pieces in genres that span the dance spectrum. In the past year alone he has choreographed for the modern Toronto Dance Theatre, the alternative Fringe Festival Of Independent Dance Artists and the opening number for the AIDS fundraiser Fashion Cares.

Now, at the tender age of 25, he is poised to premiere his contemporary ballet, A Delicate Battle, as part of the National Ballet’s mixed program at the Hummingbird Centre on Wed, May 2.

“I was amazed when [artistic director] James Kudelka asked me to think about a commission for the Hummingbird stage,” admits Mrozewski. “But I’m up to the challenge.”

Mrozewski attributes his triumph over his non-traditional physique in part to changing trends in ballet itself. “Just like in all worlds, borders are melting right now. Even in ballet the aesthetic of one ideal of perfect is changing.

“I’m a big-boned gal,” he quips. This claim sounds ridiculous coming from the lithe Mrozewski, but it makes more sense when you see the flocks of barely-there ballet dancers moving through the lobby of the National Ballet’s building.

“I was told to hope for male character roles, instead of getting to be the fairy prince. I’m fine with that as an adult, but as a child it caused me a lot of drama because we were all supposed to be aiming for the same ideal, which I didn’t fit. I think it’s easier for kids in the school now.”

Mrozewski established himself as a dancer to watch out for early on in his career, but it is choreography that is winning the larger part of his adult time and affection. “It’s hard to focus on learning a dance when your mind is always thinking about three of your own projects that you would like to create.”

It was this unrestrained creative energy that brought Mrozewski to ballet in the first place. “I was constantly moving as a child – my mother had to find something to do with me.

“At first ballet was just one more activity, like gymnastics or downhill skiing. It took me a while to realize how gratifying the marriage of movement and music is for me.”

Attending the National Ballet School allowed young Mrozewski to focus on his creative life without some of the distractions of public school. “I was always being bullied,” he says, “I was being called gay which really annoyed me because I hadn’t even thought about sex yet. At ballet school the classes were smaller and I could be in a creative environment and express myself without worrying about getting the shit kicked out of me.”

At ballet school Mrozewski hit puberty, started thinking about sex and realized that he was in fact gay. “Coming out is not exactly the right word for it, because I was never ‘in.’ It wasn’t contradicting a previous lie like it is for some people because everyone pretty much expected it. My mother talked to my brothers about having me as a gay brother, before I even told her I was.”

Mrozewski claims that coming out as a man who wants to dance ballet was also no big deal. “I think the myth that it’s so hard to be a male ballet dancer is really self-perpetuating. In his day and age, at least in this part of the world, it’s pretty much accepted. The myth that it’s so hard leads to a lot of spoiled male dancers.”

Perhaps because of the lack of drama in his coming out process, Mrozewski’s choreography has not focussed solely around queer or gender identity. His newest piece, A Delicate Battle, features three traditional male female couples.

“Many people will read the delicate battle of the title as the battle of the sexes and I can’t do anything about that,” says Mrozewski. In fact the piece was inspired by his musings on contemporary dance companies’ dependence on government grants, which led him to the topic of support and independence in a more universal sense.

The piece is in two movements. The first, set to Bach, features a fairly traditional ballet under a snow covered canopy. Three women weave in and out of the ballet, which is the world over which they preside. In the second movement, set to a piece by the contemporary composer Gavin Bryar, the canopy has collapsed and the women are left alone in a vast landscape dressed in huge period gowns but stripped of their environment.

“Three men step forward and offer to help and the dance explores how much they need to surrender their individuality to get the support that they need. Each couple has a different dynamic as they work their way towards surrender. I’ve been thinking a lot about how sometimes you can get what you want, but lose what you’re all about in the process,” says Mrozewski.

Ironically this dance about surrender and support signals a giant step towards independence for Mrozewski. He will be leaving the National after this production. For the first time since he was 17, he will not be a member of any company, but dancing and choreographing on his own.

“I’m not sure what comes next. I’ve had my whole life mapped out for me since I was 10 years old, so it feels good to just see what comes to me for once.”