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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 1

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens : Renewed Vitality at 50

by Aline Apostolska / September 4, 2007

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At his Rivard street office, Gradimir Pankov, Art Director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (GBCM) since 1999, sports a contented and serene smile, and understandably so: the last Grand Ballet season was a great success in the eyes of professionals and critics alike, and the upcoming one promises to be no less than dazzling. The year 2008 will be one of celebrations in Quebec, highlighting 400 years of French presence in America, will no doubt also be a major chapter in the history of this great company, the first Quebec dance company of world-class caliber, born in 1957. Fifty years already! Of course, compared to the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris or ballet companies in London or Vienna, which are several centuries old, fifty years of existence may seem rather young, but by North American standards, fifty years is a phenomenal accomplishment.

“I feel privileged to direct this company,” says Pankov. “It is at once a privilege and a responsibility. I have dreamed of leading a renowned company and this is one of the great satisfactions of my long career. To live among youth forces me to stay grounded.” And so he does, surrounded by 32 world-class dancers of various origins, leading a multicultural, multi-linguistic, inter-generational and international group, a representative slice of Montreal.

Each year, a much awaited audition allows for the recruitment of new dancers, usually one or two, depending on the season. “The company is well known, even in Europe and therefore very sought after. Dancers come from all over the world to try their luck with us.” How does Pankov select them? “More for personality than for technique. I can teach technique, but what I really want is character.” Throughout the years, there has been an evolution in the dancers’ physique. “Granted, they are all beautiful, but they have different types of bodies. I look for people who are interesting to look at but not all made out of the same mould.”

Likewise, he avoids featuring only one or even several stars in the company. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a star, but it’s just not in the spirit of the house. I don’t like stars who act like stars, simply because I depend – the whole company depends – on all of the dancers, not on any one in particular. At the Grands Ballets, they get a chance to be stars each in turn, depending on the productions. If one of them leaves the company, even a principal dancer, for me it’s not so serious because they are all interchangeable.” When Anik Bissonnette retired last June, she was not really “replaced” as such but “another dancer took on her roles and things are perfect that way. The life of the company goes on, even though Anik is obviously a unique personality.“ The grandiose and extremely touching event that the GBCM held for her on June 6th, 2007, was testimony to this sentiment.

Gradimir Pankov explains that he makes it a point of honour to promote the stardom of the company rather than create individual stars within it. Based on his extensive European and New York experiences he favours this modern working approach popular with international ballet companies. All the dancers are special, but it is only as a team that they are unique and irreplaceable. “During the past nine years my goal has been to make the name of the company a guarantee of quality itself. We are invited throughout the world, trusted that all of our dancers are up to the challenge, not just a few of them.”

So what does he expect from his dancers? “I want them to dance the way actors perform in the theatre – they should be able to change their skin at will. This requires open-mindedness and I think this is precisely one of their characteristics.” In effect, what has struck professionals most throughout the years is the extraordinary versatility of the company, its remarkable ability to adapt to choreographers while maintaining a level of technique beyond comparison. This is what, for example, enabled dancers during the last season, to transport themselves from the mineral, introverted and somewhat motionless world of New Yorker Shen Wei, to the jubilant, earthly and breathtaking universe of the Roman choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti. Pankov adds : “I believe that the Grands Ballets has become a company which has the ability to surprise and astonish its audience, capable of presenting a magnificent Casse-Noisette, the classic of all classics, while also being able to dazzle with more contemporary pieces. It’s a great achievement.”

The greatest transformation that the Grands Ballets has undergone since 2000 is its conversion into a contemporary dance creation company. Pankov remarks, “The only journalists who still refer to the GBCM as a classical ballet company are those who have not attended any of our performances for the past eight years! Essentially, aside from Casse-Noisette,.we don’t do classical ballet anymore,” Pankov has taken another approach to satisfying fans of the classics. by inviting world-renowned classical ballet companies to perform in Montreal three times a year. The Houston Ballet, always a favourite, will be back to perform Madame Butterfly in May 2008.

The GBCM was founded as a classical ballet company in 1957 by Ludmilla Chiriaeff who was born in Berlin of Russian Jewish parents. Following a ballet career on stage and television in Berlin and later, in Switzerland, where she went to escape the Nazi raids, she immigrated to Canada with her husband and children. With a classical ballet background Chiriaeff simply “brought ballet in her luggage” at a time when there was absolutely no such thing in Quebec. Thanks to the television arm of Radio-Canada, she was able to introduce ballet to Quebec households, playing a key role in the province’s emerging cultural identity.

The GBCM started exploring the world of contemporary dance as early as the 1970’s with Fernand Nault (who died in December 2006), creator of Casse-Noisette, a series of favourite classical and contemporary ballets (e.g., the rock opera Tommy) as well as with several productions under the artistic direction of renowned artists such as Colin McIntyre and Lawrence Rhodes. Taking inspiration from works by Gilles Vigneault, Nacho Duato, Edouard Lock and Paul- André Fortier, the company further widened its horizons. 1

Nevertheless, until Pankov’s arrival to the GBCM, the company’s repertoire was classical with contemporary exceptions. Now it’s the opposite, a contemporary repertoire with the exception of Casse-Noisette at Christmastime. “Young dancers are greatly motivated to audition here.” And did this change come easily? “In total harmony,“ assures Pankov. “When I outlined my ambitions, everyone was perfectly convinced and in fact, everyone was ready for a transition which would allow us to compete effectively with world-class companies in Europe and America. Such was our state of readiness that only one person left us because of this shift, something which occurred naturally and smoothly.”

A majority of companies worldwide have adopted a similar move. Classical training is really the only kind that adequately prepares artists for all forms of dance. Today, most choreographers, Lock and Chouinard especially, seek dancers with classical training. Companies must recruit dancers of international caliber and possessing strong technique. Within the GBCM, dancers have evolved and bloomed. The same can be said of the choreographers to whom Pankov has entrusted productions such as Didi Veldman (TooT) and Stijn Celis (Noces and Cinderella, scheduled to return in October). This kind of incubation has largely helped put the company on the international dance map. “I am particularly happy with the unanimous (favourable) reviews of our last American tour, especially from the revered New York Times. We have also signed reciprocal agreements with several American and European companies and have been invited to return each year to perform at prestigious events, such as the biannual Jacob’s Pillow.”

Eventhough the future looks bright general manager Alain Dancyger says, “2007 was a glorious celebration year, but 2008 will really be exceptional.” And more… Of course, Ohad Naharin will present a new production in April and there will be two big announcements. First, after an excruciating wait, as with most Quebec arts groups, the company will finally have its own home (“We are currently living and creating in a garage!” exclaims Pankov, referring to their confined and run-down Rivard street location). The building will be designed especially for the GBCM, most likely behind Places des Arts, complete with offices and creation and rehearsal space, contributing to the city’s architectural landscape. Secondly, with arts education close to his heart, Pankov harbours a dream of promoting dance training. Without giving specifics, Dancyger can only comment, “We will know more about all this in January 2008.” Finally, many events, “still to be confirmed” could be forthcoming for summer 2008. Of course, we will keep abreast of developments. Whatever happens, the Grands Ballets fully deserves its reputation, its place in the world and … its future. n

[Translation: Claude Libersan and Lilian I. Liganor]

1 La vie des Grands, 50 ans de la vie des GBCM. Christine Bourgier. Catalogue of photographs and texts available in most bookstores.

For more information, visit <www.grandsballets.com>

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