‘I Love to Be a Beginner’: Emma Portner’s Busy Ballet Era

“Islands,” a ballet for two women, knits and knots its dancers together. They start out sharing a single pair of pants. Two of their arms meet to form a circle; a head snakes through, then an elbow, a wrist. Legs — how many? whose? — twine and untwine, a meticulous confusion of limbs.

Emma Portner, the work’s choreographer, has spent her career interweaving genres and disciplines. She has made dances for Justin Bieber, collaborated with the tap dancer Michelle Dorrance and worked on the West End musical “Bat Out of Hell.” She sings in the indie music duo Bunk Buddy and acted in the A24 film “I Saw the TV Glow,” set to be released in May.

“I think I go a little insane if I stay in any one place or in any one medium for too long,” Portner, 29, said. “I love to be a beginner.”

Credit…Jörg Wiesner, via Norwegian National Ballet

“Islands,” made for the Norwegian National Ballet in 2020, was her debut as a ballet choreographer, and the first in what became a string of works in the form. This week it will be at the National Ballet of Canada —a kind of homecoming for Portner, who grew up in Ottawa.

“Islands” is a milestone work in other ways, too. During its creation, Portner was contending with a series of personal crises. She had begun, slowly, to grapple with her childhood experience of sexual abuse. She was battling the chronic pain disorder trigeminal neuralgia. (In 2019, she had to withdraw from a New York City Ballet commission because of illness.) And she was navigating the dissolution of her very public marriage to the actor Elliot Page.

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