From Disco Sitcoms to Artistic Direction: A Candid Conversation with the Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître | By Blue Knox

Arts Visionaries in Edmonton Part III
Arts Visionaries in Edmonton is a mini-series of several interviews which have been conducted with notable leaders in Edmonton’s arts community. By sharing these interviews, and the thoughts and opinions of some of the city’s strongest leaders, The Wanderer hopes to give Edmontonians a better idea of the strength of the arts in our community, and build relationships with local arts institutions.

 

When I was very young my parents put me in dance; jazz, tap, and contemporary. I was terrible at all of them. I didn’t have the discipline, the rhythm, the focus, or any of the other elements that it takes to be a dancer. It is an art form that I will always admire and respect from a distance. The grace and beauty of  the human body floating across a stage, seemingly effortless. Jean Grand-Maître however, had what it took. He has had what it takes since he was fifteen years-old. The passion, the dedication, the fire of dance in his soul.

As I sat down in a café downtown and dialed his number, my hands shook slightly and I had to catch my breath. This is understandable when you consider this man’s remarkable career. Growing up around Ottawa he has always been inspired by art. He went from being a dancer, to being one of the most successful choreographers in Canada. Grand-Maître has since stepped out of the choreographer’s shoes and into those of the Artistic Director at the Alberta Ballet. For eleven years now Jean has been in this position and has developed an acute understanding of the arts and the needs of the arts community in Edmonton, Calgary, Alberta, and Canada. Jean is not only a visionary in our province, he is an icon in Canadian arts. What he has done with the Alberta Ballet during his tenure as Artistic Director is incredible.

I couldn’t possibly have predicted the honesty and the depth of his insight that he would share with me. His wisdom for students and up-and-coming artists is invaluable. I have a greater understanding of Alberta’s arts, the artists, the organizations, the support, as a result of this conversation and I have a whole new respect for the quality of the arts in Alberta. The expansion of the Alberta Ballet, the attention it has gotten in tours across the country and recognition it has received around the world prove its premier status.

B: How has it felt moving from being a choreographer to being the Artistic Director?

Jean: It was something I wanted to do. Nobody twisted my arm. After I’d been choreographing for many years I thought I needed a new challenge, and a challenge that would be much more multidimensional. Being a choreographer means you’re traveling all over the world. You arrive, you stage a ballet, fly away, go to another place, like a butterfly. It was challenging absolutely, but I didn’t have to raise the money, I didn’t have to put the core of dancers to together, I didn’t have to run the company. I knew that with all the experience I’d had working with orchestras, and the dancers, and the budgets, costume, wardrobe, marketing departments, that I had the experience to direct a company after so many years of choreography. So that sounds like a natural challenge for me, the next step.

At the same time many of my colleagues, artist colleagues, told me that the most interesting challenge is really to take a group of people and, for many years, direct a vision, bring them toward the vision. All of the company, not just the dancers, but the marketing, wardrobe, because an arts organization is really a microcosm of everything from the artist to the janitor to the accountant. So really the challenge was interesting because when I was a choreographer my challenge was to go somewhere for eight weeks, inspire, and then leave. To take a group of people, and see a vision over many, many years and really develop a vision, is a greater challenge for me.

B: Can you think of a particular moment or time when you were younger that started your love for ballet?

Jean: I think it was really [that] when I saw dance, I wanted to dance. I feel like, at the time, you won’t believe this, but it was the big dance craze on television, you had to know, Saturday Night Fever and Fame and all these movies about art and dance and when I saw those movies I wanted to go to a school like the school in Fame. I wanted to go to an arts school. I used to go to see the Winnipeg Ballet when they toured to Ottawa in the National Arts Center. I grew up there, and I’d go backstage, I’d watch them get on the bus and I wanted to get on the bus with them, and tour and dance for a living. The calling came when I was about 15, which is already late for a dancer – for women it’s much too late – but for men it’s possible, and that’s when I started.

B: Talking about traveling Canada, you’ve traveled the world as a dancer, choreographer, and as our Artistic Director you’ve moved the company all over the world to do tours. How does Alberta’s arts community stand out compared to other arts communities around the world? How does support for the Ballet here stand out?

Jean: That’s changed in the years that I’ve been here because I arrived in the very dark Ralph Klein years, which, for artists, was a very medieval time. When I arrived it was interesting because I always think there are levels of cultural emancipation. You go to a city like Montréal for example, out of 5 stars, it’s 4.1. You go to a city like San Francisco it’s very similar, New York, and then you go to other cities where it’s even more intense, and those cities don’t always have to be the rich cities. You go to some South American places, you go to Havana for example, culture is such a part of the fabric of their existence that it’s who they are. In many countries around the world it’s like that where the level of culture is even more ingrained into the fabric of life. When I got here I thought Alberta was actually pretty good because I didn’t know. When you live out East you don’t really know what’s going on, even in Toronto if you’re in Montréal or Québec, the great solitudes of Canada.

So I didn’t know that Alberta had two orchestras, and two opera companies, that they had all this theater, these festivals, the Fringe festival in Edmonton. It was extraordinary that there was that much culture in Alberta. That surprised me, so  I thought that the real problem was that Alberta didn’t know how to promote their culture. They were too busy promoting their cowboys, and their oil, but they were not busy promoting their soul and their culture and if they would have done a better job people would have known that there is, indeed, quite a lot of culture [for example] playwrights  and piano competitions. It was interesting that really there wasn’t a lack of culture but a lack of promotion and support morally,[…] people wanted that culture to be who they are, really to represent the people’s aspirations. Now it’s changed of course. If you asked me today, ten years later, I would tell you that Alberta’s one of the finest places to be now, to be an artist. Premier Redford didn’t cut the Arts, you have a Mayor in Edmonton that’s very pro-culture, one in Calgary that’s much better than the one in Toronto. If you look, for me, the political scene is very important for the nurturing of arts and there has to be support, all the way from the top, that inspires corporations to sponsor, that inspires philanthropists to get involved, there has to be something right at the top. […] I think today if you look at the belief and support and how those in Edmonton and Calgary are proud of the culture and promote it around the world, they want to tour, they want to be represented, and so I think the change has been quite dramatic.

B: The Alberta Ballet is the third largest ballet company in North America. How have you been able to accomplish that?

Jean: I think I have been very fortunate, first that we have two home cities, that’s very helpful. Second, that the economy’s good in Alberta. You could be directing the finest ballet company anywhere but if you’re in a city where the economy is tanking or there is a huge challenge for people to even buy a ticket to go to a show, obviously you’re [not going to be able] to put on the best show. There has to be that climate. In that way I think the company has [improved] the quality of the production, [the quality] of the dancers has gone way up because the reputation of the company has attracted better dancers in auditions.  Our school has gotten much, much better so that now we are able to produce large scale productions like Swan Lake. In that way I think the company has been growing because of many factors but the main factor I think is that everybody in the [Alberta Ballet] building, believes in what we do, and that what we do can have a transformative effect on society and inspire. And consistency, consistency is a big deal. If people say “I’m going to go to see a movie with Meryl Streep” it’s going to be good because we know Meryl Streep is consistently good. That’s the reputation I’d like the Alberta Ballet to have. That you can depend on them to go see a really good performance.

B: What would you say to university students to get them to go to the ballet?

Jean: I think they should realize that first that there is different programming. There is programming that is more classical, and there’s programming that’s much more innovative and risky and edgy, like our collaborations with pop singers and some of our contemporary fair. I would say to them that if you love to see a performance that will touch you, that will excite you, that will thrill you. If you want to see something that you never see, we hear people talking all day, we can hear music all day in elevators, in restaurants, but to see highly trained, athletic body dance with soul and emotion, is really something special. I always tell people, if you want your life to be multidimensional, if you want to expand your horizons, go to the Arts. Certainly with dance you have the physicality, we know that young people love to see dance because of all the television shows that are so successful. You discover live music with the orchestra, you discover the performing arts, the lighting, costumes, storytelling if you want. Dance is a way to discover many art forms at once.

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