To an outsider, the production company titled ‘Alberta Ballet’ seems to embody two contrasting ideas, posing the question ‘what is an institution of fine arts doing in a province built by the oil industry?’
Alberta Ballet’s Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître, internationally recognized as one of the greats of his generation, responds with a telling analogy;
“Economy and industry build the fire which we live to dance around.”
His words resonate in Alberta; with the strongest economy in Canada (CBC 2014) and a growing creative and fine arts cultural scene, there are few places better suited to host an evening of celebrated sophistication.
As the second largest ballet company in Canada, Alberta Ballet — now in their 48th season — bring Ben Stevenson’s production of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote to both Calgary and Edmonton with an invigorating energy and to rave reviews. Executive Director Martin Bragg has, in his own words, accomplished his mission of ‘bringing outstanding talent to the stage’ and Artistic Director Jean Grand-Maître has exceeded the highest of expectations as ‘one of the most successful Canadian choreographers of his generation’ (CBC 2014). Along with their team of talented dancers — including Jean Grand-Maître himself, returning to the stage after 22 years in the title role — their stunning performance has certainly raised the barre.
Don Quixote: The Ballet
Stories glorifying the days of chivalry compelled the seasoned Don Quixote to draw his sword and travel across Spain on an epic journey to restore integrity to the world. The tumultuous adventure was brought to the stage this past Friday, October 3rd at the Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, in spectacular fashion. The dancers each showcased incredible talent, capturing the novel’s rich imagery with their grace, form and fluid motion synchronized beautifully with the classic score by Leon Minkus. Judanna Lynn’s costumes were imported from Stevenson’s original production, embroided with particular attention to detail. Jaciel Gomez as Basilio, and Garrett Groat as Lorenzo were both high-flying and fast-paced, showcasing excellent technical ability as well as astonishing athleticism. Kitri, played by Hayna Gutierrez, captured the audience’s hearts with an admirable display of strength and natural chemistry with her character’s suitor. As Don Quixote’s faithful squire Sancho, Ian Buchanan brought the audience great insights and comic relief. Meanwhile Jean Grande-Maître as Don Quixote — in his triumphant return to the stage — explored a full spectrum of emotional depth and humour, serving as an archetypal character and anchoring the production.
Grand-Maître is widely recognized as The King of Pop Ballet with a résumé boasting commissions by numerous world-renowned ballet companies, such as Opéra de National Paris; the position of the Director of Choreography for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics; and choreographer for the 2013 Alberta Ballet’s production of Love Lies Bleeding, centred around Elton John’s life and rise to fame. So really, it was no surprise his daring artistic direction of Don Quixote was an assemblé.
Born in Hull, the oldest part of the city of Gatineau, Quebec, Grand-Maître began his dancing career at York University in Toronto, continuing with Montreal’s L’École Supérieure, later dancing with Ballet British Columbia and Theatre Ballet Canada. He broke out with his 1993 production Frames Of Mind, propelling him onto the international stage for over a decade. Deciding to bring his acclaimed talent back home in 2002, Grand-Maître has brought both critical and financial success to Alberta Ballet, establishing the company both nationally and internationally.
The Wanderer had the honour to interview Jean Grand-Maître this past weekend after attending Alberta Ballet’s Don Quixote;
Elliot Rose, Editor, The Wanderer Online: Jean, amazing performance and direction of Don Quixote, the passion and commitment of your team was pronounced. What was it like to step back onto the stage after 22 years behind the scenes, especially in Edmonton?
Jean Grand-Maître, Artistic Director, Alberta Ballet: It was an amazing experience. Typically, myself and the Alberta Ballet Directors and Production are sitting in the ‘Zed Row’ in the back and we are, albeit unintentionally, largely disconnected from the audience – we cannot hear them laugh or clap because of the way we are situated. Stepping back out onto the stage, it was just as I remembered; I could fully experience the audience’s energy, from their laughs to their whispers. Edmonton was especially fun to perform for because your audience is very appreciative and I can feel the performance’s tension build and release throughout the room.
ER: I can only imagine. How did the other actors react to your transition?
JGM: I noticed my engagement with other dancers was much more intimate, given my hands on experience. It was an opportunity to really get into the character, working hard in the practices — especially those last six weeks out. The dancer camaraderie was refreshing; popularized movies based on the ballet industry have created the perception that there is animosity amongst fellow dancers. This could not be further from the truth. We work collaboratively to bring out the best in one another.
ER: As you mentioned, Ben Stevenson’s interpretation of Don Quixote is acknowledged as highly complex, requiring top talent and athleticism from its performers — what separates the difficulty of this performance from others?
JGM: Each masterpiece that has lasted centuries, especially with large ensembles, has its own unique qualities — such as Swan Lake; renowned for its lyricism, romanticism and tragedy.
Don Quixote is very special — the emotional aspects, the intense technical ability — both for males and females, which is quite unusual for a classic ballet, typically, the focus is on the females. As well, the influence of Spanish Flamenco is quite apparent, the very physical movements and macho demeanour of the males and the women are both strong and sensuous.
Allowing the lead couple, male and female, to both showcase and express themselves through duets and solos every act has been a large part of our success, something Ben Stevenson has really developed.
ER: I was inspired by your words, to quote you, if you don’t mind:
“Perhaps now more than ever, we need those eccentric individuals who will walk bravely into the unknown for new ways of understanding.”
Could we explore this insight further?
JGM: Our world is becoming more generic, more predictable, especially with big box stores and companies dominating much of our daily life. Free thinkers are becoming more important to the world, offering new ways of understanding. The need for reflection and introspection is so crucial to progression.
Don Quixote, even in his madness, exemplified these values, providing a different perspective to his world.
There is a point in the ballet where our hero wakes from his dream, Sancho hands him his lance and Don throws it to the ground, turns to the audience and proclaims:
“I will fight for beauty of truth.”
Don Quixote knew of a world with greater art and beauty and I, myself, share that dream. It was a bit of a revelation for me.
ER: Wonderful. It is visions like yours that are transforming our province. To quote Michael Crabbs of New York City Dance Magazine:
“Rapidly emerging as the Canadian Troupe to see, the originality of its programming combined with the passionate commitment of its dancing has earned The Alberta Ballet a strong following at home and growing attention abroad.”
You are at forefront of advocacy for education and fine arts, especially with your organization Up Close. We’ve touched on this earlier, but could you share with us why you believe art is so important for Alberta’s progress?
JQM: Art is education; from drawing on cave walls, communicating how to hunt the open plains, to our ballet, expressing thoughts and ideas, such as believing in a beautiful truth. Up Close is an opportunity to share this idea, an organization dedicated to educating and inspiring young choreographers. Fundamentally, the fact that the Alberta Ballet has grown so much is a reflection of our provinces’ aspirations.
ER: Jean Grand-Maitre, thank you so much for your time.
JQM: Thank you and The Wanderer! Can’t wait to be back again, we love performing here in Edmonton.
Special thank you to Danielle Bartha, Alberta Ballet Publicist and Promotions Officer for the privilege to attend Alberta Ballet’s Don Quixote and to speak with Jean Grand-Maitre.
Illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; all photos courtesy of Paul McGrath.