Ballet Jörgen brings the romantic spirit of Anne Shirley to Toronto in his ballet « Anne of Green Gables »
Anne Shirley, Avonlea’s exuberant freckled redhead, finally comes to town.
After a two-year postponement—the pandemic, of course—Ballet of Canada Jörgen presents the Toronto premiere of its colourful, family-friendly, all-dance adaptation of Anne of Green Gables on the main stage of the Bluma Appel Theatre.
Founded in 1987, the company has carved a significant place for itself in North America’s dance ecology by touring compact productions of full-length classics as well as original ballets and shorter contemporary works in communities often deprived of access. exposure to the performing arts.
During a regular season, Ballet Jörgen travels up to 50,000 kilometers from coast to coast and in the United States. Along the way, he built valuable relationships with local studios by frequently bringing young dance students into his productions. Jörgen is personally committed to making the company’s work as accessible as possible, especially to disadvantaged and underserved communities.
At a cost of one million dollars, « Anne of Green Gables—The Ballet » is the company’s most expensive and ambitious production to date. In full, the production requires a cast of 30 people – the company regularly hires a permanent company of 18 people – and even then requires multiple castings and endless costume changes to accommodate all the characters and wild creatures depicted.
Of Swedish origin, Bengt Jörgen, CEO, artistic director and principal choreographer of the company, likes to give his productions a Canadian touch. Her charming version of Tchaikovsky’s « The Nutcracker » is set in pioneering Northern Ontario and has designs inspired by the Group of Seven. Given her iconic status among Canadian literary heroines, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne Shirley was for a long time in Jörgen’s crosshairs.
“I had thought about doing it for at least a decade,” Jörgen said, “but when we were ready to move, it took three years to get everyone on board and secure the rights. They had to be convinced that we would really do them justice.
When the Montgomery heirs authorized the creation of a stage musical version in the mid-1960s, they pledged not to authorize any further musical adaptations while the 1965 Norman Campbell-Don Harron version was still in progress.
This production, the longest running in Canadian theater history, is still the centerpiece of Prince Edward Island’s annual tourist magnet, the Charlottetown Festival. This meant that Jörgen was forced to use Campbell’s score rather than commissioning original music.
« It actually turned out great for us because it set a clear path and we were able to carry on. »
The score, written to accompany the songs, required adjustment to make it suitable for dancing. That task fell to Russian-born composer Alexander Levkovich, whose symphonic-scale arrangement and orchestration provide enough music at appropriate tempos to sustain a two-hour ballet.
For practical and financial reasons, Ballet Jörgen mainly performs to recorded music, which in the case of the new production meant that anything that affected the timing had to be locked in two months before the world premiere on September 28. 2019. Ironically, given Russia’s ruthless belligerence, the ballet’s score is performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, the beleaguered country where Levkovich spent his formative years.
Montgomery’s 1908 novel also required careful attention to bring visual life to what had been so well described in writing, especially to capture Anne Shirley’s romantic spirit and dazzling flights of imagination. Here, Jörgen enlisted the help of director Heinar Piller and his frequent design collaborator, Sue LePage. The process is well documented in the movie “This Is Ballet: Dancing Anne of Green Gables,” available for free to stream online on Plex and Tubi.
The ballet generated so much interest that long before it opened in Halifax, thanks to the surprise presence of then-National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Karen Kain, Ballet Jörgen had a busy touring schedule.
« We’ve covered about half the country, but got stuck in Saskatchewan, » Jörgen said in reference to the pandemic shutdowns that began in March 2020. « We still have to cover the West and meet our US dates. . »
Fortunately, with a lot of ingenuity and the loyal support of donors, the company came out of a difficult first two-month confinement almost intact and was able to continue operating. As a result, all of the original cast principals, led by Hannah Mae Cruddas as Anne, Daniel Da Silva as Gilbert, Hiroto Saito as Matthew, and Clea Iveson as Marilla, are here to reprise the roles they created.
« Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet » is in such high demand that beyond its currently scheduled tour, Jörgen expects to perform it frequently over the next few years, but he is already thinking about his next project.
Jörgen is drawn to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and would also like to consider doing a ballet on the famous Nova Scotian folk artist Maud Lewis. It all depends on raising the necessary funds. Despite all its success, Ballet Jörgen is still sailing close to the wind financially.
« It’s a struggle, but we’re still here, » said Jörgen. « We’re still doing great work, and we’re still making a difference and reaching a lot of people. »
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