The long goodbye: Jean Grand-Maitre says ‘au revoir’ to 20 years at Alberta Ballet with The Memory Room

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Jean Grand-Maître has been giving his final bow some thought.

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It will happen Wednesday, when he’s joined by four dancers and pianist Kevin Chen at the end of The Memory Room, his intimate “au revoir to the world of dance” that will be performed at the GRAND in Calgary as part of One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo. It will officially mark the beginning of his retirement from him after spending 20 years as artistic director of Alberta Ballet.

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

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Granted, Grand-Maître’s retirement is a bit complicated. The Memory Room was not supposed to be his swan song by him. Originally it was going to be performed back in January but was postponed due to COVID. Phi, his elaborate multimedia portrait ballet set to the music of David Bowie, was meant to bring his final bow back in March at the Jubilee Auditorium. Also, he’s not actually leaving. At least not yet. As part of a transition period that began in 2020, Grand-Maître will be staying on as an artist-in-residence for Alberta Ballet into 2023, where he’ll teach at the school, fundraise, introduce shows and help advise new artistic director Christopher Anderson.

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

Still, he thinks The Memory Room is a much more fitting goodbye than Phi. It’s a simple production meant for a small room and set to live music performed by teenage-wunderkind pianist Kevin Chen. There will be four dancers performing to a score made up of compositions by Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Two of the dancers, Kelley McKinlay and Mariko Kondo, have been longtime collaborators with Grand-Maître at Alberta Ballet. The other two, Alexandra Hughes and Aaron Anker, are new to the company and Grand-Maître.

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This show hearkens back to Grand-Maître’s early years as a choreographer in his 20s, when he would create intimate, small-scale 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 the Grand-Maître’s own work by him during the past 20 years, tributes to classics such as Swan Lake and to artists he admires like Georgian-American choreographer George Balanchine.

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

So why leave now? Mostly, it was due to a growing sense that he’d accomplished what he set out to do in 2002, when he took the reins from Finnish dancer Mikko Nissinen. He’d always told himself 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 very much appreciated, if I feel that I’ve got to the end of it then it’s time for someone new to come in and pick up the baton,” Grand-Maître says.

His vision consisted of four seemingly straightforward pillars: “What can I do for the art form? What can I do for the company? What can I do for the audience? What can I do for the dancers? he says.

His approach as a curator, which had him offering a mix of bold new works and traditional fare, wasn’t all that different from his predecessor, but Nissinen was only here a few years, starting in 1998 before departing for Boston Ballet in 2001. Grand-Maître, on the other hand, is Alberta Ballet’s longest-serving artistic director and arguably the one who’s had the most significant impact in giving it an international reputation. Much of that was due to his introduction of portrait ballets, seven ambitious and boldly modern works that centered around 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’ve seemed a radical departure 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 of directors.

“They were wanting me to do ballets about hockey, ballets with Katy Perry,” he says. “They had so many ideas that I had to come up with 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 raised 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 got a bit of a late start. He was a martial-arts enthusiast who discovered as a teen that dance was a quick path to popularity in the late 1970s. He remembers watching the Solid Gold Dancers on TV and working out John Travolta’s dance moves from Saturday Night Fever. After he saw Alan Parker’s 1980 movie Fame, he informed his parents of him he wanted to become a dancer.

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His father initially attempted to barter him down to a more stable career as a physiotherapist, but Grand-Maitre was hooked. I have attended a summer camp dedicated to dance at Bishop’s University. Teachers saw great potential and he was proclaimed “The Most Promising Male Dancer” that year. After a brief stint at York University, I moved to Montreal’s L’École Supérieure de Dance du Québec to focus on ballet. While he danced with Ballet BC and Theater Ballet of Canada, he said his late start as a dancer – most begin before they are nine – prevented him from reaching the levels of technical prowess he wanted. So he turned his attention to choreography and carved out a career that would see him create works for companies around the globe.

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In the summer of 2023, Grand-Maitre will return to Quebec to be with his family. While he will miss the dancers and audiences and Alberta in general, he jokes that he will happily bestow the stress and tremendous sense of responsibility that comes with running an arts organization onto his successor.

But his reasons for stepping down run deeper and have only crystallized further in the past few years, he says.

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

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

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