Toronto's Can-Do Company : Ballet Jorgen Canada

By Crabb, Michael | The World and I, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Toronto's Can-Do Company : Ballet Jorgen Canada


Crabb, Michael, The World and I


Against all the odds, Swedish-born choreographer Bengt J"rgen has succeeded in building a truly creative ballet company in Toronto, one that steps lightly where larger troupes fear to tread.

It's almost a 1,300-mile drive from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Great Falls, Montana, crossing several mountain ranges. Undertaking such a journey in late winter with a fresh snow warning in effect is hardly prudent. If you're trying to keep to a tight schedule at the same time, the trek might be considered foolhardy. But if you're the plucky, can-do company Ballet J"rgen Canada, it's all part of the business--even if it means driving through the night and performing the next day on the brink of exhaustion. Ballet J"rgen is the ultimate bus-and-truck touring ensemble and, come what may, the show must go on.

The small Toronto-based company's dancers are used to piling into minivans, driving long distances, checking into and out of hotels, and grabbing meals where they can. They've learned to adapt rapidly, dancing in a large, well-equipped theater one day and in a cramped high school auditorium the next. All the while they manage to deliver performances that have thrilled audiences in communities great and small, coast to coast, across Canada and in more than forty American cities.

As one enthusiastic audience member wrote four years ago after watching Ballet J"rgen dance in Dowagiac, Michigan (population 6,147): "Your dancers and all the people who make your company dance need to know that they bring the audience deep delight, profound happiness, and food for the human soul." When little, unheard-of Ballet J"rgen had the temerity in 1995 to risk critical slaughter by performing in New York City, Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times declared the company "a rare and exhilarating find." On its return three years later, Newsday critic Susan Reiter heaped praise on Ballet J"rgen's chamber-scaled version of the full-length Romeo and Juliet. "What it lacks in grandeur," wrote Reiter, "it makes up for with verve and immediacy."

When Swedish-born dancer/choreographer Bengt J"rgen founded his company seventeen years ago, he could scarcely have envisaged how far it would travel, the excitement it would generate, the young choreographers whose careers it would launch--or the fact that it would one day be performing the full-length classics that had originally driven him from the National Ballet of Canada. J"rgen, who will be forty-one in February, was born in Stockholm. His mother was a journalist; his father, a career army officer. His mother put four-year-old Bengt into ballet school in the hope of improving his posture. It was a time when the great Soviet defector, Rudolf Nureyev, was electrifying audiences around the world and legitimizing the notion of ballet as a career for men.

When he was eight, J"rgen was accepted into the school of the Royal Swedish Ballet and for the next decade became part of a munificently funded state opera-house culture. He heard the great soprano Birgit Nilsson sing, observed legendary director Ingmar Bergman at work, and watched renowned Czech-born choreographer Jir' Kylian inspiring the Royal Swedish Ballet's dancers to move beyond their classical limits. Interestingly, given the way J"rgen's life unfolded, the Royal Swedish Ballet had Canadian connections. The company had been under the direction of Canadian choreographer Brian Macdonald in the early 1960s and after that was led by the great Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn, who had a long association with the National Ballet of Canada.

J"rgen was supposed to join the Swedish company but by self-description has always been a free spirit. He felt the environment at the opera house personally and artistically stifling and opted instead to begin his career in North America. He continued training briefly at the National Ballet School in Toronto and then in 1982, at age nineteen, was accepted into the corps of the associated company where Bruhn was soon to become artistic director. …

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