Encount3rs: Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître celebrates a homecoming

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

The National Arts Centre has commissioned three brand new dance works from three of the country’s best choreographers and companies. In addition, each work will be accompanied by a new piece of music by an important Canadian composer, chosen by the choreographers. The music and dance were jointly funded by the NAC’s Music and Dance departments. ARTSFILE has interviewed each of the artists involved in these new works. Today we begin our coverage with an interview with Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître. This conversation will be paired with a second interview with the composer Andrew Staniland. Together they have created Caelestis. It will debut April 20 with pieces by Ballet BC’s Emily Molnar (paired with composer Nicole Lizée) and the National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté (paired with composer Kevin Lau).

When Jean Grand-Maître was a teenager living in Aylmer, Quebec, he’d get his culture fix by taking a bus ride into Ottawa to see a show at the National Arts Centre.

That’s why Alberta Ballet’s performance, which is part of the centre’s Encount3rs series of new commissions, is so special.

“I’ve got three generations of my family coming to see the show. It’s 75 people, grandparents and cousins. It’s almost a plane-full. It’s a coming home in that way for sure.

“The National Arts Centre was where I discovered the performing arts. So this is the most nervous I have been in awhile,” Grand-Maître, who is the artistic director of the Calgary-based company, said.

The members of Alberta Ballet rehearse their production of Caelestis. Photo: Maximillian Tortoriello

“Alberta Ballet has had Nutcrackers there and other things but this one is such a special commission. It’s such a different challenge than the other works that you feel more nervous about it. You really want to do well.”

Grand-Maître was a student at École secondaire Grande-Rivière and the CEGEP in Hull. After graduation he went to Montreal and started dancing.

“I went into ballet as soon as I could because it was already getting late.”

He has been with Alberta Ballet as artistic director for almost 15 years. He moved to Calgary at age 39 from Montreal where he had been working for more than 20 years. Grand-Maître has commissioned more than 50 ballets in his tenure. One highlight occurred in 2010 when he was director of choreography for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Before heading to Calgary, Grand-Maître worked with some pretty prestigious companies including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Ballet BC, the National Ballet of Canada, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Munich Opera Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet and the Teatro alla Scala of Milan.

This NAC commission, however , is only the third time that Grand-Maître has been offered something like this, he said. He was contacted by the NAC almost two years ago now and was offered the commission and was told that he could work with any composer on a list of names provided by the centre.

So he did his research and came up with Andrew Staniland, who is a JUNO nominated composer and professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL.

“I always need to feel a connection almost immediately. I have to be able to feel that the way I choreograph an shape itself into that music. And when I heard Andrew’s music, it was very avant-garde, but at the same time very human, very emotional and intense.

“It really connected with me and I felt that we could go there together.”

Grand-Maître did have an idea for his commission. He wanted to capture in a performance a representation of what it known as the Golden Ratio, which is a mathematical ratio found in flowers, hurricanes, the human body and the Parthenon … in other words it’s everywhere. It’s also known the Golden Mean, the Golden Section or Phi.

“When I got the commission from Cathy (Levy, the head of NAC Dance) I was so pleased. The work I had been doing over the past 15 years had been ‘What does Alberta Ballet need this year?’ Was it Cinderella or something like that.

“To be able to start carte-blanche, I loved it. I didn’t want to think about characters or narration. I wanted to think of something almost primal. I just wanted to talk about abstract things with Andrew.”

Grand-Maître says the idea of the ratio both scares him and fascinates him at the same time.

“I also believe in spontaneity and that we can change destinies. With abstract thinking humans can go deeper.” But the math wins out in the end. The deeper we go into something the more we find Phi, he says.

Jean Grand-Maître, artistic director of Alberta Ballet

Grand-Maître was not good at math in high school, but he has fallen under the spell of the philosophy behind mathematics over the years.

“I thought this was a deep idea that we could explore in our own ways and come up with something.”

He will have 10 dancers on stage, five males and five females. Th other Encount3rs companies are bringing troupes of that size, he said and “everybody is bringing their principal dancers.”

For the dancers, he says, it will be an experience that they won’t forget. It’s a rare opportunity to share the stage with other companies doing new work.

What will live on is that the companies will each be able to put these works into their repertoire, along with all the material that goes along with them such as the lighting design, the music, the costumes.

“It’s worth hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to each company,” he says. Most individual dance companies can’t afford new work such as this.

Staniland’s music has different zones, he says, that he wanted to respond to with the choreography.

“I knew the narrative for me would be human flesh contrasted against technology. I look even at the posture of people and how it’s being changed by technology. I see how people are relating. I read that even our children’s grandchildren will barely even see other human beings in a week.”

He even finds that it is hard to get young dancers to get their faces to register an emotion during a performance because they are so used to communication by text which doesn’t require a smile.

The raw emotional movement of his dancers will be set in front of a film of contemporary landscapes created by film-makers Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, who, in their careers, have been nominated for an Oscar. Even the screen used in the show will be created with the Golden Ratio in mind.

“I know the first steps, when I go into the studio and … then I let the dancers move. They are amazing athletes.

“It’s like painting, when you put that line across the canvas and another one. And then they come up with things that I would never have thought of. I never get bored watching them.

“The longer you work with dancers the better it gets.”

For more information about Encount3rs (April 20-22) including tickets please see nac-cna.ca.


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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.