Magazine article Dance Magazine

Dramatic Moves: Jean Grand-Maitre's Theatrical Flair Has Boosted Alberta Ballet to a New Level

Magazine article Dance Magazine

Dramatic Moves: Jean Grand-Maitre's Theatrical Flair Has Boosted Alberta Ballet to a New Level

Article excerpt

CALGARY-BASED ALBERTA BALLET, UNDER THE ARTISTIC DIRECTION OF CHOREOGRAPHER Jean Grand-Maitre, is rapidly emerging as the Canadian troupe to watch. The originality of its programming combined with the passionate commitment of its dancing has earned Alberta Ballet a strong following at home and growing attention This. This season the number of performances jumped to 107 from 57 the previous year.

In the upcoming season, when it expands to 26 dancers, Alberta ballet, situated in the capital of Canada's oil industry, will become the country third largest ballet company--after the National of Ballet of Canada and Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montreal.

Quebec-bred, multilingual Grand-Maitre says he is determined "to break through all the ballet stereotypes" he hated as a dancer. He wants to shape Alberta Ballet as a contemporary ensemble with an innovative repertoire and dancers who are powerful communicators. "I do not intend to let them hide in their technique," he says. "I want them to be dancing on the edge. That is what makes our art exciting." Grand-Maitre is eager to eradicate the lingering perception of Alberta Ballet as a regional troupe from cowboy country by establishing its presence firmly in the Canadian and international dance scene.

These goals have earned Grand-Maitre the confidence of his dancers. Since his arrival in 2002, the annual turnover has been unusually low. Ohio-born Leigh Allardyce auditioned "on a whim" for Alberta Ballet in 2003 after four years with BalletMet Columbus. "Many of us moved here to work with this man," she says. "I'm going to be settled here as long as Jean is."

Grand-Maitre makes a point of communicating his vision to board, funders, staff, and dancers. "The company," he says, "must move with a shared sense of purpose." And he has no room for divas. "Everyone here must work cooperatively."

The result is a notably happy atmosphere. "I've never seen a group more enthused to come to work every day," says Jonathan Renna, who previously danced with the National Ballet of Canada and Britain's Northern Ballet Theatre.

"He pushes us to the maximum emotionally and physically, but in such a positive manner," adds Sabrina Matthews. After 10 seasons she is leaving--with Grand-Maitre's blessing--to become an independent choreographer. "Jean is so supportive of people's artistry and he teaches us to support each other. There's a real sense of being part of a team."

Grand-Maitre's ballets are highly theatrical. He seeks dancers with strong dramatic potential, and last season he even organized a one-week acting workshop for them. He collaborates with his favorite designers to create environments that amplify the choreography's poetic or emotional intent. His approach is very much that of a theater director, and he's not afraid to mix things up.

The hour-long Carmen he created for the company in 2003 takes Russian composer Rodion Shehedrin's astringent re-scoring of the Bizet original and combines it with excerpts from the actual opera, sung live. When Don Jose wants to be left alone with Carmen he simply barks an order. Grand-Maitre references traditional Spanish dance to lend his Carmen an Iberian flavor but also incorporates contemporary, full-body movement to suit the ballet's semi-abstract setting. He even puts a platoon of soldiers through a balleticized version of military boot camp--push-ups and all. Grand-Maitre's Don Jose is a man driven to tempt fate--like the bullfighter we see being gored in a video projection. His relationship with Carmen is a test of wills. In one of their face-offs, both the lovers paw the ground.

Grand-Maitre, 42, is Alberta Ballet's sixth artistic director. The company began as a small, amateur ensemble founded in 1966 by dancer and teacher Ruth Carse. By the time she retired in 1975 the group had evolved into a professional company. It continued to develop under artistic directors including Vancouver-born Brydon Paige and Iranian-born Ali Pourfarrokh. …

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