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The Memory Room is Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître’s final salute


The Long Goodbye: Jean Grand-Maître says ‘goodbye’ at 20 to Alberta Ballet with The Memory Room

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Jean Grand-Maître reflected on his final salvation.

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That will happen on Wednesday, when he’ll be joined by four dancers and pianist Kevin Chen at the end of The Memory Room, his intimate “farewell to the world of dance” which will be performed at Calgary’s GRAND as part of One Yellow. Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo. This will officially mark the start of his retirement after spending 20 years as Artistic Director of Alberta Ballet.

“I hate being emotional in front of people,” says Grandmaster. “That’s why I choreograph. I let others do the work for me. I hide behind the dancers. I can hide backstage and be discreet while they all get emotional on stage. So I’m going to be pretty sober, but inside, I’m going to try to capture the moment and everything about it: what my eyes see, what I hear, so I can remember it.

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Granted, Grandmaster’s retirement is a bit complicated. The Memory Room wasn’t meant to be his swan song. It was originally supposed to be played in January but was postponed due to COVID. Phi, his multimedia portrait ballet set to music by David Bowie, was due to make its final bow in March at the Jubilee Auditorium. Besides, he doesn’t really leave. At least not yet. As part of a transition period that began in 2020, Grand-Maître will remain as Artist-in-Residence for Alberta Ballet until 2023, where he will teach at the school, raise funds, present shows and will help advise the new artistic director Christophe Anderson.

“I’m like Cher,” he says. “I get three retreats.”

Still, he thinks The Memory Room is a far more fitting goodbye than Phi. It’s a simple production for a small room set to live music by teenage pianist prodigy Kevin Chen. Four dancers will perform on a score composed of compositions by Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Two of the dancers, Kelley McKinlay and Mariko Kondo, have long worked with Alberta Ballet’s Grand-Maître. The other two, Alexandra Hughes and Aaron Anker, are new to the company and Grand Master.

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This show recalls Grand-Maître’s early years as a choreographer in his twenties, when he created small-scale, intimate workshops for a revolving door of dancers in Toronto and Montreal. While much of The Memory Room consists of new choreography, it will also contain allusions to Grand-Maître’s own work over the past 20 years, homages to classics such as Swan Lake and artists he admires as Georgian-American choreographer George Balanchine.

“It’s almost like an intimate farewell in someone’s living room and I get to show off some of my favorite paintings over the years,” he says.

So why leave now? It’s mostly because he had a growing sense of having accomplished what he set out to do in 2002, when he took the reins from Finnish dancer Mikko Nissinen. He had always told himself that he would leave when he felt he had reached the end of his vision for the company.

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“Even if it’s been successful and much appreciated, if I feel like I’m done, it’s time for someone new to take over,” says Grand-Maître.

His vision consisted of four seemingly simple pillars: “What can I do for this art form? What can I do for the business? What can I do for the public? What can I do for the dancers? he says.

His approach as a curator, which allowed him to offer a mix of bold new works and traditional dishes, was not that different from his predecessor, but Nissinen was only there for a few years, from 1998 before to leave for the Boston Ballet in 2001. Grand-Maître, meanwhile, is Alberta Ballet’s longest-serving artistic director and arguably the one who has had the most impact in giving it an international reputation. This was largely due to its introduction of portrait ballets, seven ambitious and daringly modern works centered on the music of Joni Mitchell, kd lang, Gordon Lightfoot, the Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Elton John and David Bowie.

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This must have seemed like a sea change for those who like their ballet companies to be traditional. But while Grand-Maître says there may have been a few naysayers over the years, he was mostly encouraged to think outside the box by the company’s board.

“They wanted me to do ballets about hockey, ballets with Katy Perry,” he says. “They had so many ideas that I had to find something to stop them. I said ‘Well, how about Joni Mitchell?’ They said “Joni Mitchell, yes”. They were always supportive. They were portals to new audiences.

Grand-Maître was born in Hull, Quebec, but grew up in Aylmer, a former town on the north shore of the Ottawa River that has since become part of Gatineau. He was perhaps destined to become a choreographer. Even though his first love was dancing, he started a bit late. He was a martial arts enthusiast who discovered as a teenager that dancing was a fast path to popularity in the late 1970s. He remembers watching the Solid Gold Dancers on television and having worked on John Travolta’s dance moves in Saturday Night Fever. After seeing Alan Parker’s 1980 film Fame, he informed his parents that he wanted to become a dancer.

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His father initially tried to swap him for a more stable career as a physiotherapist, but Grand-Maître was hooked. He participated in a summer camp dedicated to dance at Bishop’s University. The teachers saw great potential and he was proclaimed “The Most Promising Male Dancer” that year. After a brief stint at York University, he moved to the École supérieure de danse du Québec in Montreal to focus on ballet. While dancing with Ballet BC and Theater Ballet of Canada, he said his late beginnings as a dancer – most start before the age of nine – kept him from reaching the levels of prowess techniques he wanted. So he turned to choreography and carved out a career that would see him create work for companies around the world.

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In the summer of 2023, Grand-Maître will return to Quebec to reunite with his family. Although he will miss the dancers, the public and Alberta in general, he jokes that he will be happy to pass on the stress and enormous sense of responsibility that comes with running an arts organization to his successor. .

But his reasons for quitting run deeper and have only crystallized more in recent years, he says.

“I could go on and on,” he says. “But I can feel that with everything going on in society – the pandemic, the war and fascism in the United States – all the things that are so threatening to what we believe to be a normal sense of order, that things will change in the arts as well. New artists must arrive. Emerging artists need to capture this moment in history. Old people like me have to leave the room for this new voice to come in, because the world is changing and the arts have to change. It will require a new vision, a young vision, a fresh vision.

The Memory Room will be presented on May 18 at the GRAND in Calgary and is already sold out.

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