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In conversation with Jean Grand-Maître

Jean Grand-Maître in rehearsal with Sarah McLachlan and ballet mistress Bev Bagg. Photo: Darren Makowichuk.

I have always thought of dance as an individual art form, one where pure movement expresses  meaning and beauty. But that was before a recent conversation with Jean Grand- Maître, Artistic Director of Alberta Ballet. I spoke to him in advance of the Banff performance of one of his original ballets, and his thoughts on  ballet as a multidisciplinary art form altered my outlook on dance production. Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, inspired by the music of Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, was partly developed by Grand-Maître at The Banff Centre in 2011 during a Performing Arts and Production Residency.

The Centre shares a longstanding partnership with Alberta Ballet, and it’s an important one for Grand-Maître.“The landscape itself is inspiring for any artist,” he told me. “It brings you to a pure space, a place where you need to create art.” He explained that the residency environment is the best tool to protect the arts identity, creating a space where it can be both fostered and nurtured.

“The residency allows us to put all the elements together for a week at a time and see how it all relates, which gives dancers the opportunity to mature in their role before they have an audience.”.

I learned that technologies are fusing within the arts, an interesting concept that got me thinking about what the future of creativity will look like, a place where projections re integrated with  lighting cues, scenery, and costume design.

For Grand-Maître, access to residency and retreat can inform the ballet as a whole. “Knowing I can have a residency with the Banff Centre changes how I conceive the actual ballet. Without a residency, I would make the ballet much more simple and less refined.”

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Donald Sales’ onstage improvisation


Still from Donald Sales’ ballet The ugly duckling, with costumes by Jorge Sandoval. Photo: Don Lee.

Award-winning choreographer Donald Sales isn’t new to The Banff Centre. He was here last year to work with Aszure Barton on a piece she created for our Dance Masters performance series. But this year, Sales — who received the 2013 Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award — had a completely new experience here. He’s experimenting with giving dancers more creative freedom on the stage — a style of artistic direction that’s also the basis for his new dance company, Project 20.

“Last year I knew when I came back I wanted to do a story,” Sales says. “I’ve been able to elaborate on ideas and dreams I’ve had.” His new work, The ugly duckling, was choreographed for dancers in The Banff Centre’s Professional Dance program, and premiered at Dance Masters last week. “It’s very cinematic, very character-driven, and very personal to the dancers,” he says.

The piece also gives the audience freedom to interpret the story for themselves. “I purposely designed it so we don’t know exactly who the main character is.” As I watched The ugly duckling on opening night last week, I saw a dancer — who opens the piece on a dark and eerie set — haunted by someone she can’t shake, and it’s unclear whether she wants to. “I can’t even say there’s an ending,” Sales says. “The piece should be continued.”

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Jorge Sandoval: designing dance

Jorge Sandoval has been a dancer, and now he sees his career in design as a natural evolution that keeps him in that world. He was just in Banff for the tenth consecutive year, working with a team of staff and work studies on the costume and production design for Dance Masters. He’s recently finished his Master’s degree in theatre and performance, and is now getting ready to start his PhD in the fall. He recently answered a few questions for me around process, design, and dance.

Why do you love designing for dance?
One of the reasons I think they keep inviting me back is that I understand movement. So when dancers move, creating these characters, the costumes have to be an extension of those characters. I’m always thinking about how they can really move the way they need to move and still look the way I want them to look.

How do you approach this type of design?
Before the performance, the choreographer and I have a lot of conversations. I always ask a lot of questions about the style of dance … choreographers tend to include a lot of different styles of movement, a little bit of hip-hop, acrobatics, and balletic style. I ask them are they doing a lot of stuff on the floor, or are they doing a lot of jumping, or are they doing a lot of partnering? Some choreographers want to prepare in the studio with the dancers, which is a more organic, a more artistic way, to collaborate. They count a lot on what the dancers bring to them. So a lot of the questions that I have are just theoretical until the moment we see the dancers in the studio. Continue Reading →

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Bollywood moves and late-night freestyling

As playwright-in-residence at Nightswimming Theatre, I had the opportunity to spend a week at The Banff Centre last month to work on my one-person show, Boys With Cars. Brian Quirt and Rupal Shah, (Nightswimming’s artistic director and producer) and I arrived expecting the standard 10 am to 6 pm workshop scenario, so my jaw dropped when the Centre’s David Cseke told us, “The studio is yours any time of day or night. Whatever you want”.

“Whatever I want? I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you’re saying, David.”

Playwright Anita Majumdar working on Boys With Cars during a recent creative residency. Composite photo by Don Lee.

Playwright Anita Majumdar working on Boys With Cars during a recent creative residency. Composite photo by Don Lee.

When I first started theatre as a UBC BA Theatre student, we were all treated like vermin for using rehearsal studio spaces for non-BFA scene study rehearsals. When we were found and kicked out, we’d sneak into the condemned part of the building with heavy asbestos deposits and moldy sandwiches discarded by the homeless gentlemen in the area who also snuck into the building and shared the space with us.

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Jock Soto’s “full circle” dance career brings his brilliant mentorship to Banff

Ballet dancer Jock Soto leads a rehearsal during the 2012 Indigenous Dance Residency. Photo: Donald Lee.

A New York Times article about the 2005 retirement of ballet dancer, Jock Soto  sums up just a few of the reasons why he has had such a warm welcome by emerging dancers at  The Banff Centre:  ”At 40, he can look back to a special place as one of ballet’s most creative personalities. While choreographers are essential to the art, dancers like Mr. Soto – and they are few – also define and redefine choreography with bold individuality and implicit collaboration.”

Jock Soto enjoyed an amazing career that includes the distinction of being the most choreographed dancer in the history of the New York City Ballet. A celebrity in his own right, he was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World”, and Andy Warhol made a graphite drawing of him in 1986. But as he neared the end of his 24-year career with the New York City Ballet, he began to realize he had lost a connection to his Navajo heritage.

In 2007, Soto was chronicled in the award-winning documentary Water Flowing Together, where he began to reflect on his roots and past in Arizona. This project also first brought him to The Banff Centre. At a screening of the film at the ImagiNative film festival in Toronto, Soto met Sandra Laronde, director of the Centre’s Indigenous Arts program. Since 2009, Soto has come to Banff each summer as faculty for the Indigenous Dance Residency. This summer, the group performed Spirit with dancers from all over the world.

In the audio interview below, hear more about Soto’s amazing journey.

Music: Rubies to the music of Igor Stravinsky
City sounds from acutescream, bulbastre, eric5335, cognate perceptu
The final song, A Tribe Called Red – Electric Powwow, was used in the Indigenous Dance performance of Spirit
Produced by Camara Miller. Mastered by Magdalena Kasperek.

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Reflection on an I.D.E.A.

Interaction Design Installation – all photos are video still frames. Joan Karlen, video, choreography. Kenny Lozowski, software developer. Courtney Holcomb, dancer.

I’ve just completed an amazing six-week Film & Media residency at The Banff Centre. As a dancer and choreographer I’ve been creating dance and multimedia projects for 15 years and was thrilled for this opportunity to branch out into interaction design. My goals were to create choreographic work in three areas – for iOS /touch, for interactive installation, and for interactive performance contexts. With Nik Mills’ and Jean Macpherson’s invitation to work with Banff software developer, Kenny Lozowski, my interaction design planning took off. Together Kenny and I focused our work on creating a video, poetry, animation installation that users control with a Kinect. Nineteen video scenes move through the projection frame in a randomized order while users control video size, cursive and block text overlay, and leaf animation. We were elated to present our work during the IDEA Summit 2012 October 19 on the Eric Harvie Theatre’s 30-foot screen.

Funniest videotaping moment
For one of the scenes I wrote single words from Rumi’s poem The Flap of the Wallet on many aspen leaves. Videotaping these poem-leaves blowing around in my Lloyd Hall bathtub while focusing my camera, holding my wall-mounted hairdryer in one hand and sprinkling leaves into the tub with the other was amusing. If only the hairdryer cord had reached just a bit further! However, the shot turned out really well and made it into the final installation. Continue Reading →

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