Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître up close and personal

Jean Grand-Maitre (centre-left) in rehearsal. Photo: Maximillian Tortoriello

In late July, ARTSFILE travelled to Banff, Alberta, at the invitation of the Centre for Arts and Creativity to meet with the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet and member of the Order of Canada, Jean Grand-Maître. The native of Aylmer, Quebec was at the centre workshopping a new production, Frankenstein, which will open in Calgary on Hallowe’en. Grand-Maître’s resumé shows he is one of the most successful choreographers for ballet in Canadian history.

BANFF, Alberta — Jean Grand-Maître was born in the Hull Hospital and grew up in Aylmer, Quebec, in a home that encouraged his artistic temperament.

As a boy, the current artistic director of Alberta Ballet, liked to draw. And he loved to move. He was, by his own admission, “a dreamy kid. I never took notes at school, I was always just drawing flying saucers and the like,” he said during an extensive interview with ARTSFILE in the Maclab Bistro at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity overlooking the beautiful Rocky Mountain refuge.

In elementary school, Grand-Maître discovered dance. He joined folk dance classes and that love of movement continued into high school at the École secondaire Grande-Rivière where he signed up for evening courses in folk dance and contemporary dance.

Grand-Maître had an older brother, Denis, who was a pretty typical older sibling. He would pull Jean’s hair and rub his knuckles on Jean’s scalp.

Even so, Jean looked up to Denis. They took karate classes together and at school when Jean’s sexuality was emerging and he was being bullied, “he was my defender.”

At 16, Denis had a moped and he’d ride it around town. One day he was travelling on what is known as the Lower Road which runs from Aylmer to the Champlain Bridge along the Ottawa River, when he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

“When he died, I felt guilty about it. It was ‘Why him not me?’ You think your parents are mad at you. These things really go deep in a way that you don’t understand when you are young,” he said.

“When it happened, the colours went away. The trees weren’t green. You go inside and if you are able — it takes a couple of years — you start finding places where you can release all these emotions that are very hard.”

None of us knew how to mourn” including his parents. “Their idea was not to mention him.” and for 14 years the family did not talk about Denis, but every couple of years they moved to a different house in Aylmer, hoping the change in scenery would help them heal.

The saving grace for Grand-Maître in those years was dance.

“I knew I was gay and I could see hypocrisy everywhere. So I realized very young it would be somebody else’s problem.” But also, he said, he didn’t want the cynical side to win over.

Dancing helped with that, much as it would later help with his grief over the death of Denis. More about that later.

“Dancing is the first thing I could do well. I was co-ordinated. I love moving. I watched all those Fred Astaire movies and Gene Kelly movies over and over.” Whatever was available to him he did. “It was an immediate attachment.”

But he didn’t get really serious about a life in dance until he entered CEGEP de l’Outaouais.

“There is a moment when an artistic kid takes the plunge into the arts. That really came when I started at CEGEP.”

He had first enrolled in an accounting program.

“I thought it would be the simplest thing to learn,” but he hated the course.

“I was really depressed and, after about three months, my accounting teacher came up to me and asked ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?'”

At CEGEP, there was a modern dance company that he was working with and he had discovered ballet.

So after his epiphany about accounting, he went to his father and told him he wanted to attend a summer dance workshop in Lennoxville at Bishop’s University led by Yves Cousineau, who ran York University’s dance department at the time.

His father said yes to Grand-Maître taking the plunge. Out of the workshop came a scholarship to York where he stayed for a year.

“York was wonderful if you wanted to be in the humanities or if you wanted to be a modern dancer but not a ballet dancer.”

So he applied for and got into the ballet school run by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal.

Starting as a ballet dancer at age 17 is late for several reasons, but first and foremost it meant Grand-Maître’s body, particularly his bone density, was not developed enough to withstand the physical demands of the art form. That led to injuries because in the 1970s dancers were working on hard floors that didn’t give.

At ballet school he was a good dancer but after he graduated, “none of the big ballet companies wanted me because I wasn’t strong enough. I started so late.”

He was, he said, a good corps de ballet dancer so he did catch on with smaller companies such as Ottawa’s short-lived company, Theatre Ballet of Canada and then with Ballet BC.

He had an eight year career as a dancer, but when he stopped he just kicked open a door into a room he was already exploring.

“I had really wanted to choreograph all along,” he said.

His first experience with choreography was at ballet school.

“I would steal the dancers and we would go in the studios on the weekends when they wouldn’t see us there. The other dancers loved doing it.”

The main proposition was to avoid bumping into the formidable founder of the company, the aristocratic Ludmilla Chiriaeff, who was part of a generation of women who all founded ballet companies in Canada.

In Montreal, Grand-Maître mingled in an arts scene that included dancers, and theatre people. He frequented the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, and he was friends with people such as Michel Tremblay, the playwright and novelist.

On one occasion, Grand-Maître asked Tremblay how he still “put pen to paper after all his successes. He said, ‘Jean, you take your work seriously, not yourself’. I never forgot that.”

Grand-Maître’s retired from dancing and started creating dances. His early work was with Ontario’s Ballet Jörgen, which didn’t pay a lot, he said, but did offer artistic freedom and experience.

“You miss the applause when you retire from the stage because of that feeling of triumph. As a choreographer, you don’t have that, the applause is not that visceral.”

But he knew he was more comfortable.

“I was a lot less nervous for a world premiere than I would ever be dancing on stage.”

His breakthrough work was called Frames of Mind, created for the National Ballet of Canada in 1993. That led to commissions in Europe and for the next decade Grand-Maître was one of the busiest Canadian choreographers. He worked with companies from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, to the Stuttgart Ballet, to the Paris Opera Ballet, the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich and Norway’s National Ballet located in Oslo.

He worked out of a suitcase, conceiving ballets in the Montreal office of his agent and then taking the ideas to Europe.

“I made a very good living doing that, much better than here, but I, somehow, went too far too fast,” and, by the end of the ’90s, he said, he needed a break — even though he had finished his most successful year ever.

It was in Europe that Grand-Maître came to terms with Denis’s death.

“When AIDS hit the gay community (especially the dance community), suddenly half my phone book disappeared. I had to look at death again, right in the face.

He lost friends and relationships. He sought solace in a survivor’s group.

“That group was profoundly changing for me. The woman who ran it was a very zen, very spiritual person.

“I’ll always remember something she said. It was about death … that it was like the curve of a river, that it’s natural. It’s in every garden. It changed my perspective.”

In the group they talked about how to release someone who had died.

What he learned from that group became a libretto for a ballet called La Veglia degli Angeli (Vigil of Angels). It premiered in Milan, Italy, at La Scala in 1995.

“The ballet starts with a woman on stage with her back to us. She has long grey hair about 30 feet long. She is playing the cello. She is almost 200 years old in my mind. Some angels heard her playing and they came down to earth to discover what made her so good.”

The angels explored her youth and found that she had been in love with a boy who died young.

“She couldn’t die because she couldn’t accept his death. The angels realized this and they teach her how to accept death.” At the end of the ballet the woman accepts his death and passes away too.

“It was a big release for me.”

His family was there for the premiere.

“We were all on stage after the curtain came down all crying together and hugging each other. It was something.”

There were many big nights in Europe, he said, but “the best decision I ever made was to direct the Alberta Ballet.”

During his break, he was thinking about “what’s next.”

And that’s about when the job in Calgary came up. There are very few ballet companies in Canada and the job of leading one comes up rarely, maybe once in 30 years.

So he put his name in.

Next: Making Frankenstein

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.