Alberta Ballet's Dramatic Moves

July 22, 2007
Calgary-based Alberta Ballet, under the artistic direction of choreographer Jean Grand-Maître, is rapidly emerging as the Canadian troupe to watch. The originality of its programming combined with the passionate commitment of its dancing has earned Alberta Ballet a strong following at home and growing attention abroad. This season the number of performances jumped to 107 from 57 the previous year.
In the upcoming season, when it expands to 26 dancers, Alberta Ballet, situated in the capital of Canada’s oil industry, will become the country’s third largest ballet company—after the National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal.The
Quebec-bred, multilingual Grand-Maître says he is determined “to break through all the ballet stereotypes” he hated as a dancer. He wants to shape Alberta Ballet as a contemporary ensemble with an innovative repertoire and dancers who are powerful communicators. “I do not intend to let them hide in their technique,” he says. “I want them to be dancing on the edge. That is what makes our art exciting.” Grand-Maître is eager to eradicate the lingering perception of Alberta Ballet as a regional troupe from cowboy country by establishing its presence firmly in the Canadian and international dance scene.
These goals have earned Grand-Maître the confidence of his dancers. Since his arrival in 2002, the annual turnover has been unusually low. Ohio-born Leigh Allardyce auditioned “on a whim” for Alberta Ballet in 2003 after four years with BalletMet Columbus. “Many of us moved here to work with this man,” she says. “I’m going to be settled here as long as Jean is.”
Grand-Maître makes a point of communicating his vision to board, funders, staff, and dancers. “The company,” he says, “must move with a shared sense of purpose.” And he has no room for divas. “Everyone here must work cooperatively.”
The result is a notably happy atmosphere. “I’ve never seen a group more enthused to come to work every day,” says Jonathan Renna, who previously danced with the National Ballet of Canada and Britain’s Northern Ballet Theatre.
“He pushes us to the maximum emotionally and physically, but in such a positive manner,” adds Sabrina Matthews. After 10 seasons she is leaving—with Grand-Maître’s blessing—to become an independent choreographer. “Jean is so supportive of people’s artistry and he teaches us to support each other. There’s a real sense of being part of a team.”
Grand-Maître’s ballets are highly theatrical. He seeks dancers with strong dramatic potential, and last season he even organized a one-week acting workshop for them. He collaborates with his favorite designers to create environments that amplify the choreography’s poetic or emotional intent. His approach is very much that of a theater director, and he’s not afraid to mix things up.
The hour-long
he created for the company in 2003 takes Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s astringent  re-scoring of the Bizet original and combines it with excerpts from the actual opera, sung live. When Don José wants to be left alone with Carmen he simply barks an order. Grand-Maître references traditional Spanish dance to lend his Carmen an Iberian flavor but also incorporates contemporary, full-body movement to suit the ballet’s semi-abstract setting. He even puts a platoon of soldiers through a balleticized version of military boot camp—push-ups and all. Grand-Maître’s Don José is a man driven to tempt fate—like the bullfighter we see being gored in a video projection. His relationship with Carmen is a test of wills. In one of their face-offs, both the lovers paw the ground.
Grand-Maître, 42, is Alberta Ballet’s sixth artistic director. The company began as a small, amateur ensemble founded  in 1966 by dancer and teacher Ruth Carse. By the time she retired in 1975 the group had evolved into a professional company. It continued to develop under artistic directors including Vancouver-born Brydon Paige and Iranian-born Ali Pourfarrokh.
The arrival of former San Francisco Ballet star Mikko Nissinen pushed the company to the next level technically and artistically. He introduced Balanchine works to challenge the dancers, while also continuing to commission new work from Canadian and foreign choreographers. Nissinen was the first director in Canada to stage a Christopher Wheeldon ballet; his
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
was a major hit. Nissinen also took the company to China, his native Finland, and Egypt. The board, however, could not raise enough money to support Nissinen’s expansionist plans. When he left for Boston in 2002, Alberta Ballet was still struggling to stabilize itself after posting a huge deficit. “That debt was not money thrown away,” comments Grand-Maître. “It was an artistic investment in our future.”
Although the debt was soon eradicated, fiscal restraint became the board’s mantra. Grand-Maître responded by staging his dramatic ballets on a shoestring yet also offering riskier fare such as last year’s “Arias,” a program of new works by mostly Canadian women choreographers using music drawn from opera. This fall, Grand-Maître will create a new
Romeo and Juliet
, co-produced by Alberta’s Banff Centre.
Grand-Maître has already chosen his first-cast Juliet—Tanya Dobler, one of only three Albertans in the company and after 12 seasons its most senior ballerina. “Juliet’s is one of the most profound metamorphoses in ballet,” says Grand-Maître. “It takes someone like Tanya, who has all the beauty and lyricism of youth yet is also a mature dance-actor.” He is pairing her with “an ardent poet of a Romeo,” the young Kelley McKinlay, and in Jonathan Renna believes he has the ideal dancer to portray the complexity of Mercutio. But, typically, he will double- or triple-cast the leads because he wants to provide opportunities for less experienced dancers to grow.
Alberta Ballet is Grand-Maître’s first job running a company, but he brings rich experience to it. A relatively late starter in ballet, he was, by his own admission, never a great dancer. His real ambition was to choreograph. “I was more curious about the process of how you put steps together than in interpreting them.”
He began choreographing for student workshops and continued while performing with various Canadian companies. Toronto’s Ballet Jörgen Canada, a troupe that fosters emerging choreographers, commissioned several works. Grand-Maître’s breakthrough was
Frames of Mind
, an almost grotesque deconstruction of ballet classicism, created for a 1993 National Ballet of Canada workshop and later moved to the main stage and toured in Europe. Its success helped Grand-Maître secure commissions from other Canadian companies as well as from La Scala, Paris Opéra Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, the Norwegian National Ballet, and Hartford Ballet.
The season just ended was a trial for Alberta Ballet. Its twin, publicly-owned home stages in Edmonton and Calgary were closed for renovation. The company’s inability to present
The Nutcracker
in Alberta had severe financial consequences, but the company planned ahead and expects to emerge relatively unscathed.
Grand-Maître was still able to take his company back to China last December and, after a long absence, to Montreal and Canada’s National Arts Centre (comparable to Lincoln Center or The Kennedy Center) in Ottawa this spring. He remains fiercely optimistic. “We’ve been fixed in survival mode for too long. Now, with the momentum we’ve gathered, it’s time to adopt a mentality of growth.”
Some of Grand-Maître’s dancers are concerned that he pushes himself too hard. “He’s so passionate about it all,” says Tanya Dobler, “I worry that sometimes Jean takes on too much.”
Grand-Maître admits that he sometimes reaches the exhaustion point, but whenever burnout seems imminent he takes a quick break in Mexico or drives to the nearby mountains for a spa treatment in Banff. However, he says, “I thrive on challenge. I see huge potential here and intend to keep pushing.”
Michael Crabb is the dance critic of the Canadian daily
The National Post and author of An Instant Success: Arnold Spohr and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (Toronto, Dance Collection Danse).