‘POEMS ABOUT CANADA’
Alberta Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary with songs by Lightfoot
A number of milestones come together for Our Canada, Alberta Ballet’s newest production. The company is marking its 50th anniversary as the nation celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Cue up a quintessentially Canadian score for the sesquicentennial dance, the music of legendary folk singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and be prepared for ballet a la true north, Canadiana.
At the creative helm of Our Canada is Jean Grand-Maitre, in his 15th season as Alberta Ballet’s artistic director. Arguably one of Canada’s most remarkable choreographers, he has led the provincial company to national acclaim and onto international stages.
The company has just come back from Ottawa, performing at the National Arts Centre with the National Ballet of Canada and Ballet British Columbia, in three commissioned works for Canada 150 celebrations. Grand-Maitre says seeing his dancers share the stage with Canada’s very finest ballet artists had him doing a double take.
“They looked so good. They made us so proud. Dancers like Hayna Gutierrez, Mariko Kondo, Kelley McKinlay, Garrett Groat — I realized Alberta Ballet has really grown. I think the founders would have been incredibly proud to see that.”
While he’s previously collaborated to create pop ballets with the likes of Canadian music greats Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang, Grand-Maitre says for a balletic homage to the nation, Lightfoot was the obvious choice.
“Of all the Canadian singer-songwriters of his generation, most left the country, but he stayed. Almost all of his songs are somehow pulled from this country, one way or another. He sings about Canada from coast to coast to coast and that launched the script.”
Like many Canadians, GrandMaitre’s identity is complex and multifaceted. Born in Hull, Que., he grew up near Ottawa on the Quebec side of the river and considers himself more a Franco- Ontarian than a Quebecer.
Surrounded by Quebecois artists and separatists in his youth, those ideas did not resonate with him. “My parents took us to the Maritimes when we were young. We went to Vancouver Island and Lake Louise. The whole country was my country.”
He says the greatest preparatory study for creating Our Canada was his time working as director of choreography for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
“There were symposiums held with Canadians across the country, all walks of life, to hear what they think of Canada and what they thought was important to showcase. W.O. Mitchell to Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, the Group of Seven, the whales, all those symbols that came to be a part of the opening ceremonies came from those conversations. But that was just a distillation of a catalogue thicker than a phone book of what Canadians believe as Canadians.”
Grand-Maitre says the extensive research continued to percolate in his mind long after the closing ceremonies. “What the opening night of the Olympics taught me most was to be grateful. To be born in this country is an extraordinary luck in life.”
With gratitude as his foundation, Grand-Maitre set out to create Our Canada, but at the same time, he wanted to point to the darkness in our history as well. “There was a lot of cruelty, what could be considered as genocide with the residential schools. A lot of cruelty with Japanese internments and the building of the railway. One man died per mile of railroad.”
He says the ballet has scenes drawn from his own personal memories of family camping trips on the East Coast, historical recollections of men going off to war, video projections intended to pay tribute to Canada’s indigenous women and sceneries inspired by the great artist William Harris.
For a giant dance hall moment on the Prairies, 40 local square dancers allemande left and right and do-si-do. A cast of 60 children will join the company on the Jubilee Auditorium stage for the finale.
Grand-Maitre locked himself into a little hut at the Banff Centre to set the broad movement strokes of Our Canada, but he says he needed to look no further than
Lightfoot’s music, his life and what he was saying, to find the whole esthetic of the ballet.
“I went to see Gordon Lightfoot perform in Toronto just before Christmas. That was the first time I met him. He was very gracious when we met and very excited about the ballet. But the man I saw onstage didn’t really have the voice he used to have. Of course he’s in his late 70s now. But watching an artist at the other end of their career, that’s when they are the very essence of themselves. That was extraordinary. The band played more quietly than they used to, but he sang so many great songs .... When you study the anthology, you realize just how many great songs he wrote. You might not fully realize as you may have bought an album or two and heard the songs on the radio. But his catalogue is a masterpiece he wrote over a number of years.
“The ballet is not a biography about Canada but a series of poems about Canada, that’s how his music evolved .... From The Canadian Railway Trilogy to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, there are a lot of direct, historical songs that he wrote and they are some of his greatest masterpieces. The songs took me as poems and I decided there wouldn’t be any narrative, but I did want to create the picture that Gordon Lightfoot saw.”
It took an expert team of five designers to bring those visions to the stage with video design by Adam Larsen, set design by Scott Reid, sound design by Dewi Wood, wardrobe and costume design by Raven Hehr and lighting design by Pierre Lavoie.
“You can’t represent the whole country in one ballet. You couldn’t do it in 10 ballets. I hope I was respectful of Gordon Lightfoot’s impressions of the country because it’s not about my view of Canada, but his view. And honestly, there was enough there for me to do 10 ballets.”
Alberta Ballet rehearses Our Canada at the Jubilee Auditorium. The company is marking its 50th anniversary the same year the nation is celebrating its 150th.
Alberta Ballet rehearses Our Canada at the Jubilee Auditorium on May 3. The new ballet features the music of Gordon Lightfoot and uses a box on the stage to project images onto multiple surfaces.