‘PO­EMS ABOUT CANADA’

Al­berta Ballet cel­e­brates its 50th an­niver­sary with songs by Light­foot

Edmonton Journal - - YOU - SALENA KITTERINGHAM

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.

PHO­TOS: GAVIN YOUNG

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.

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