Making a monster of a ballet in Banff Centre’s bucolic surroundings

Zacharie Dun, right, as the monster and Kelley McKinlay as Victor Frankenstein dance their tortuous pas de deux in a workshop performance of Alberta Ballet's Frankenstein. Photo: Phebe Murison

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.

BANFF, Alberta — For almost 90 years the Banff Centre has been hosting artists hoping to hone their talents and develop important pieces of new work.

It has certainly become a go-to maker place for dancers and choreographers such as Crystal Pite of Kidd Pivot. The Olivier award winning production Betroffenheit was polished here.

Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of Alberta Ballet originally from Aylmer, Quebec, recently brought 12 principal dancers from his company for a workshop in the centre’s studios in this bucolic Rocky Mountain setting. It was a chance to get out the normal routine and focus on a task at hand, he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

Grand-Maître has been using the Banff Centre as a place to focus on new work since he was hired to lead the company in 2002. He’s not alone. Some 4,000 artists — about 75 per cent of whom are Canadian — from disciplines that include dance, visual arts, writing, theatre and music, attend the Banff Centre every year for courses and project development.

Grand-Maitre at work on Frankenstein. Photo: Peter Robb

“When I got to Alberta Ballet, I found myself in an interesting place,” Grand-Maître said. “They were all freaking out about a $400,000 deficit.” It took a year to get rid of that, he said.

The previous director had recommended Grand-Maître because he felt the company needed a choreographer at the helm. Commissioning new work costs money and deficits are built on artistic failures.

“For me, it was a great situation” when he landed in Calgary. He inherited a skilled contingent of dancers and the Alberta economy had truly started to boom.

“It was like surfing when I arrived here.” But, despite its quality, Alberta Ballet was still seen as a regional company.

He wanted to give the company a Canadian identity and maybe even an international profile. He says there is a residual effect of a regional profile. “We are the least funded ballet company in Canada by a large margin.”

Raising the flag isn’t an easy thing to do and it got harder when the provincial economy started to sour.

In this scene from the workshop of Frankenstein, the dancers play a macabre game of musical chairs. Photo: Peter Robb

“I have two cities that I program so that means if I do Swan Lake, I have two orchestras to hire and two tech teams. We mount and strike the ballet twice all for four shows in Calgary and two in Edmonton. You can’t survive on that.”

That was a broken model, he said. A new model was needed and it emerged with a suggestion from a writer friend who suggest reaching out to Joni Mitchell.

One thing about Grand-Maître that you discover when you talk to him is that he knows what can work with an audience and with artists.

He pitched Mitchell, who in those years had retreated from the public eye. He sent her a card with a picture of a ballerina under a lamp post in a town that looked a lot like Mitchell’s birthplace in Fort Macleod, Alberta.

The result is The Fiddle and The Drum which was at the NAC this past season.

“Those shows accomplished something. The media went nuts. It was worldwide and unlike anything Alberta Ballet had ever seen.”

The first one spawned more featuring artists such as the Tragically Hip, kd laing, Sarah McLachlan and Gordon Lightfoot. But the first of these was Elton John.

“I got a call from Elton’s guy, who said, ‘Mr. Elton John will be in Calgary tomorrow performing at the Saddledome and he would like to meet you’. I thought someone was pulling my leg, but he insisted.”

It was true and Grand-Maître met the man himself. John had heard of the Joni ballet and he wanted a copy of it. Two months later, Grand-Maître had a deal to use John’s music on another ballet.

The next one of these ‘pop’ ballets appears very likely to be a piece based on the music of David Bowie. The singer’s estate seems on board, Grand-Maître said, but he’s not quite ready to confirm it will go ahead.

The novel Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus was written 200 years ago by 23 year old Mary Shelley in 1818 is another example of his thinking. It is considered the first science fiction novel. It is also a horror novel with depth.

The subject matter appealed very much to Grand-Maître when he first started to think about the 2019-20 season of the company a few years ago. Since then dozens of productions have been staged around the world including one ballet in London, England. Ottawa, too, will see a new opera on Nov. 1 at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre written by the composer Andrew Ager.

Alberta Ballet had staged Ben Stevenson’s Dracula a few years ago and it was a hit.

So, “we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s think of doing something else around the end of October. We looked around.” He discovered there weren’t a lot of good horror ballets out there, so he decided to build a monster ballet of his own.

“I started studying the genres of horror and discovered there are some 30 different kinds. There’s sci-fi horror, zombie horror, monster horror, thrillers and on.”

The team ruled out a family ballet and focussed on an adult ballet.

“We decided it should be psychological too” and that, in Grand-Maître’s mind, ultimately meant Frankenstein.

Grand-Maître is a deep researcher. He started reading and found his way into the story through a new annotated version of the novel with a preface by the film director and horror fan Guillermo del Toro.

Del Toro calls Frankenstein the most beautiful and moving of all monsters,

“The monster is a vegetarian and he doesn’t kill animals. He doesn’t want to hurt anything. He’s innocent,” Grand-Maître said. But he becomes an outcast and turns dangerous eventually wreaking his revenge of his maker.

Del Toro said that “you have to try to capture the human trapped in the monster’s body.” That takes you to the core of the idea, Grand-Maître said.

In Banff, Grand-Maître was refining several scenes from the ballet which he has set in the present day in a medical school in Boston and even in the Mar-a-Lago resort. The final scenes will take place in the Arctic.

ARTSFILE watched as he worked though a complex scene in an operating theatre where a class of students in lab coats examined a corpse in a kind of frenetic and macabre game of musical chairs.

Then he worked with the dancer playing Victor and the dancer playing the monster in dynamic and tortuous pas de deux. And finally he was developing a more poignant pairing between Victor and his doomed bride to be Elizabeth.

“What is frightening about the novel is its portrayal of a slow slide into a godless world, which, in a way, is what is happening now. We are using God like a rabbit’s foot.”

Grand-Maître is not a religious person — “I’m absolutely aggressively atheist” — but he hedges his bets a bit.

“I hope there is something more. If we all found out for sure that there was no God, it would change everything.”

Grand-Maître is interesting to watch in rehearsal. He sits in a chair and directs the dancers from there.

“I depend on the dancers for almost everything that I do. I almost don’t think of my body when I am choreographing. I sit on a chair often, like I am doing pottery or something. Sometimes I’ll get up a little bit, show some energy and talk about what to feel.

“When you work with dancers for a long time it is like a scientist having his own lab. You can go further and further and further than you would if you were just guessing, which is what I did at first.

“But it’s interesting how, when you get older, telling the dancers what you want them to do becomes clearer. You get rid of a lot of stuff you don’t need and you can be more to the point which means you can choreograph until you are 95.”

These days he’s “comfortable in Calgary. I have seen too many other artists looking around for happiness.” And he’s also gained a real appreciation for the West.

“The country is so big. I’d like to fly a lot of my still separatist artist friends to Lake Louise and Banff and tell this this is home, what do you think?”

Being in Alberta though does present some difficulties.

“For the past decade we have gotten out of Alberta at least once a year headed either east or west. Still, it is the most difficult thing to get seen out east” because of the travel.

“It means flying 45 people on a plane and the per diems add up because of travel days. We end up feeling frustrated because we have done such good productions.”

The low dollar has also limited opportunities in the U.S. but he says they are looking at getting back into that market in cities such as Spokane and Seattle Washington.

The executive producer of dance at the National Arts Centre, Cathy Levy, is coming to the opening of Frankenstein in Calgary so perhaps the Ottawa audience will get a chance to see this monster ballet too.

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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.