Our Canada: Alberta Ballet offers a glimpse into the Canadian soul

by Maja Staka

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. In Alberta Ballet’s newest offering: Our Canada, featuring the music of Gordon Lightfoot, images of past events in Canadian history are combined with spectacular choreography and the sounds of classic folk to show facets of Canadiana.  Spanning several decades, the program portrays loss, love, respect and freedom of movement and expression in an unquestionably Canadian way – simple, but full of heart.

The idea for Our Canada came naturally to Alberta Ballet’s artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, who grew up travelling the nation and speaking both official languages. With national pride as his inspiration, Grand-Maître set out on a quest to honor the highs and lows of Canadian history, including the tragedies and victories of World War II, the deaths of sailors in the Maritimes and the perilous lives of railway workers, many of them Chinese and Indigenous. Although the scenes were largely unchronological, they seemed to connect to one another seamlessly, showing true mastery in terms of production and execution.     

The first scene of the ballet, which takes place in what looks like a compilation of iconic Canadian cities, was my favorite of the night. Evidently inspired by the 70’s, dancers set the bohemian theme with swaying hips and beautiful extensions. The costumes are just as fantastic – colorful leggings, flowery hair accessories, bright blouses and corduroy pants for the male dancers. As dancers leap across the stage, it’s clear that Our Canada isn’t just any ballet. This is dynamic energy at its best, with traveling movements and numerous levels of bodies rolling across the floor and matching each other’s rhythms. Contrary to the controlled torso, pelvis and facial expressions of traditional ballet, the dancers of Our Canada have open hips and even wider smiles. There is a mixture of soft shoe and point, a combination of rigid and limber movements and a clear homage to early modern dance. A cascade of kisses between dancers – male, female and both – shows the frivolity of youth and the endless freedom of young love.

The scenes that follow are equally beautiful, including a moment between a man and the ghost of his lover in 1950’s Montreal. As they fall asleep on a small metal-framed bed, the woman slips out of the dancer’s arms and disappears into the night, leaving the soon awakened man bewildered and alone. The lyrics of the accompanying song, “Affair on 8th Avenue”, couldn’t be more suited to the scene: “The perfume that she wore was from some little store on the down side of town, but it lingered long after she’d gone, I remember it well”.  

Our_Canada_Alberta_Ballet_Dress_Rehearsal_May03_PC_PaulMcGrathAn emotional portrayal of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald continues the theme of loss, with dancers moving in unison with their sinking ship. The song that accompanies the scene describes the event in full detail, and although the line “they may have broken deep and took water, but all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters” would have been enough to elicit tears, the addition of a screen onto which images of jagged waves are projected made the scene especially realistic – and therefore more personal.

Indeed, the use of projectors is integral to the show, which uses a simple wooden set for the entirety of the ballet. Three giant doors give the space an Alice in Wonderland feeling, while various images projected onto the white walls of the set transform the stage into a dreamscape of ocean, sky, city and earth. The fact that I remained baffled by the enormity of the set is testament to its magic alone, and praise must be given to the Alberta Ballet’s set designers.

Of course, it isn’t all doom and gloom, the simple joy of the first dance is matched with a square dancing scene – featuring dancers from an actual senior’s center and a dance where elementary-aged children run, scream and laugh, ultimately gathering around Gordon Lightfoot himself, who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the ballet, leaving viewers unsure if it’s really him, or simply another ballet dancer dressed in his clothes.

My only real complaint is the lack of indigenous representation in the ballet, which otherwise does its best to be as diverse as possible. Although there a Metis dance accompanied by a projection of a beautiful Indigenous woman in regalia and a dance in which ballet dancers are garbed in native inspired dress – the inclusion of an actual indigenous dancer would have been even better. This in turn would have been more recognizing of the fact that indigenous cultures are still very much alive and not simply romantic images of the past.

That critique in mind, Our Canada remains a magnificent depiction of our nation, both in terms of the images portrayed and the way in which Gordon Lightfoot’s music blends so seamlessly into each story. You couldn’t portray the Canadian soul in a single ballet if you tried, but Our Canada certainly comes close.  

Our Canada played in Edmonton on May 12-13, 2017 at the Jubilee Auditorium.

Photography courtesy of Alberta Ballet.