Marne van Opstal works with the artists of Ballet BC. Photo by Michael Slobodian
Imre van Opstal works on Heart Drive with Ballet BC dancers. Photo by Michael Slobodian
IT’S ALL TOO FITTING that when Stir reaches Marne and Imre van Opstal, they are at Vancouver Airport, waiting for a flight to Paris before heading back here for their much-anticipated world premiere at Ballet BC’s season-launching OVERTURE/S.
It’s an illustration of just how busy and in-demand this dynamic sibling duo is these days—and not just in the contemporary-dance world. They made a dramatic, dreamlike splash in September, choreographing dancers for Christian Dior’s SS23 ready-to-wear fashion runway show, its performers wearing nude shorts and vinyl breastplates painted to look like torsos; they moved hypnotically amid an elaborate set that looked part Renaissance palace, part grotto.
Whether their works are unfolding at London’s Rambert Dance or Nederlands Dans Theater, where they both performed, or across a fashion show staged in the middle of Paris’s Jardin des Tuileries, two words seem to come up again and again to describe the van Opstal’s style: surreal and dreamlike. Otherwise. reviewers reach for descriptives like “glitching”, “unsettling”, “distorted”, and “weird” when attempting to articulate the pair’s physically charged movement language.
Where does that shared innovative vision come from? More than once in our conversation, in which the brother and sister often finish each other’s thoughts, the van Opstals point back to their creatively charged family upbringing in the village of Venlo, Netherlands.
“Our parents were very open-minded and always looked beyond the obvious–they taught us to dig and gather knowledge,” Marne says. “We like to distort movement, and with that comes this surrealistic layer.”
“For us, it’s not interesting to just make steps,” Imre adds. “You want to feel something with it–to express something…”
“…beyond what you see,” Marne says.
The other word that pops up again and again when people talk about their work is sexuality. The van Opstals are fearless in the way they look at intimacy, vulnerability, and sexual taboos—and their new work, called Heart Drive, will be no different. Created in a pioneering coproduction with Finland’s outstanding Tero Saarinan Company, it explores the constant, primal drive humans have to love and connect, looking at sexuality as a fundamental energy. 
“We have this incredible sexual drive that allows us to procreate, that allows us to survive as a species, and it’s an incredibly potent energy that we tap into everyday, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously,” Marne reflects. “And all around us, it’s shaping how we see the world–the level of desirability we feel toward one person or not, how we create our self image. And there are so many subtle layers connected to this topic that we wanted to explore.
“Also, sexual energy is a life force—I think it’s one of the things that comes closest to our animalistic instincts as well; it’s intuitive in that way,” Imre jumps in. “And artistic expression and creativity comes out of that as well. We also want to talk about taboos around it. Why are we so ashamed of showing that side of us? It has been repressed through religion and societal conditions over time, basically by not speaking about it—as if it is not there.
“Sexual energy is part of us,” she continues. “It’s not going anywhere and we need to express it. You can almost compare it to hunger, if you take that part of yourself, your sexuality, away.”
The duo say they’ve purposely created a light, safe, supportive atmosphere to explore that topic in the studio with Ballet BC—a company they had heard about for years but never worked with before. The van Opstals may connect with dancers so well because their memories are fresh about what it’s like to perform for a company: only in 2020 did they leave the stage to devote themselves full-time to choreography. The fact that they work so intuitively, with the kind of mind meld only siblings can have, adds to the connected atmosphere in the studio.
Until they took the leap into full-on choreography, they’d had a rich experience in the top tiers of the world’s contemporary dance. Marne trained at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague before joining NDT in 2009. Imre, meanwhile, studied at Codarts Rotterdam, heading to cutting-edge Norwegian company Carte Blanche before joining NDT in 2012. From 2017 to 2020 she performed with Israel’s celebrated Batsheva Dance Company.
The current project came about, they say, because they received invitations to create work from Ballet BC’s Medhi Walerski and Tero Saarinen only weeks apart. They knew both artistic directors through NDT, where Walerski had danced and Saarinen had choreographed work.
The piece is created here, and then travels to the Helsinki company, where it’s reset on those dancers. Costumes designed here will travel with it; guest artist Chloé Albaret is the only dancer who will perform in both renditions. Coming out of the  pandemic, this style of transcontinental coproduction is a way forward to a more sustainable future, Walerski says in a separate interview, allowing companies to share resources and the cost of the commission. “Especially with the pandemic, arts organizations need to find new ways forward—cost and the impact on the environment are things we need to consider,” he says.
There are benefits for the choreographers as well, says Marne. “We asked, ‘What would extend the shelf life of a piece?’ As you know, you put all this creative energy into it and they are performed just a few times,” he says. “So it makes it more sustainable for us….It’s also great because Tero and Medhi know each other from the past, through NDT, and it’s really nice that we can connect these companies.”
“Also, it’s interesting for us to have another look at it,” Imre adds. “We’re going to have some time and space away from it, and when we come back to it, three or four months later with another group of dancers, and it will be probably still a different work, because dancers are all individual beings and have all different bodies. So it’s also interesting for us to have another crack at it.”
At OVERTURE/S, Heart Drive shares a program with Walerski’s Silent Tides, an intimate duet that explores touch, mortality, love, and eternal time, set to an original composition by Adrien Cronet as well as music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s pulsing Bedroom Folk returns to round out the trio of works.
And from here, expect to see the work of the van Opstal siblings popping up not just in the fashion world but other unexpected places. Their careers are just getting going—and they’re only beginning to take their vision out beyond traditional contemporary dance venues.
“We are very interested in working on multidisciplinary projects,” Imre says. “In that way, we will be able to bring our work to a different kind of platform. As you know, contemporary dance is a small bubble, a niche. So I think it’s good exposure for the professional contemporary dance world, which is still quite hidden in that sense.”  
Janet Smith is an award-winning arts journalist who has spent more than two decades immersed in Vancouver’s dance, screen, design, theatre, music, opera, and gallery scenes. She sits on the Vancouver Film Critics’ Circle.
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