Alberta Ballet invents new vision of a horror classic at Banff Centre

Aug 27 2019

Reposted from the Edmonton Journal. ROGER LEVESQUE. Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maitre. Courtesy Gerard Yunker.


It’s the middle of a sunny midsummer afternoon at that oasis of creative energy the Banff Centre. In a huge upstairs dance studio, Jean Grand-Maitre counts off time for a dozen principal dancers of Alberta Ballet. Two weeks into the company’s residency at this artistic retreat they’re setting down fresh moves for a forthcoming production, an exciting “horror ballet” adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old novel Frankenstein set to debut around Halloween.

There are many angles to this adventure, starting with the inventive mind of artistic director Grand-Maitre and his instincts for picking and shaping great material. Then there are the dozen svelt, 20-something bodies, exceptional dancers eager to collaborate in the unfolding development of his storyteller’s vision, clothed in a random assortment of workout tights, tops and socks.

It’s one cell in a beehive of activity at this unique mountain setting with ties to so many artists.

But at this hour it’s impossible to ignore the dancers, now clothed in shimmering yellow-orange lab coats, circling around a long prop table, set to be a medical school operating table that will have a makeshift corpse on top. It seems amazing that they don’t bump into each other, these frantic whirling dervishes, high priests of science caught up in a ritual to raise the dead.

As the choreographer instructs from his chair, brief moments or clips of action are played out again and again and again until you lose count, until they get it right. Sometimes the moves change.

“Men, I just changed the last step.” He explains in choreographer’s terms, asking for another of this, another of that, then, joking, “I feel like I’m ordering from a chef in the kitchen. Hold the lettuce!”

A specific detailed moment is instantly replayed with a new variation on what you’ve seen before.

All this becomes even more mesmerizing the moment someone taps the sound system and a highly-charged soundtrack of rhythmic string music pours out to inspire the moves.

Before it’s over the choreographer has another surprise:

“Now we’re going to re-create The Last Supper,” he says. “The Leonardo Da Vinci painting.”

Suddenly he’s assigning dancers to take places as the 12 apostles around the operating table and the way this oddly hip Biblical reference plays out in the larger ballet could be spectacular.

Just imagine when the scene takes on an extra 10 or 12 dancers, an effective set design and lighting cues, the corpse itself, and a lot of polish. I’m on the edge of my seat just thinking about it.

Adapting the novel

Frankenstein, perhaps the first science fiction novel, was written when Mary Shelley was just 18. For a book of around 200 pages it packs a surprisingly convoluted story, much of it told in letters, featuring numerous characters and over 20 locations.

“To do the whole story would have taken four hours,” Grand-Maitre explains, “so I had to cut and simplify things to get my libretto down to two acts.”

For the first time ever an Alberta Ballet production will have projected surtitles to delineate events and a video screen that flashes through the creature’s memories. But the biggest change is that Grand-Maitre has swapped time periods, gothic for modern day. The medical college is set at Harvard Medical School and the upper-class Frankenstein family lives at a Florida resort called Mar-a-Lago. The choreographer insists that this time-warp will fashion a Frankenstein to remember.

All this takes on greater relevance when you consider how the fictional science of Frankenstein mirrors developments in the contemporary world, the repercussions of stem cell research or cloning.

“What happens if you develop science without considering its implications for humanity?”

Grand-Maitre is always looking for ways to broaden the appeal of Alberta Ballet’s shows, and creating Dracula a few years back wet his appetite for horror. He was attracted to Frankenstein two years ago after reading an essay about the novel by film director Guillermo Del Toro.

“It touched me because (Del Toro) suggested (Frankenstein’s creature) was the most beautiful and moving of all monsters because he’s born without wanting to be. He’s an innocent who eats berries and nuts and can’t kill a squirrel. He wants to be good until he becomes a monster later.”

Something in the air

Maybe there’s something in that mountain air but everyone agrees the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity is a special place. Grand-Maitre first got there as a participant in Alberta Ballet’s residency in 1991, and connections he made there led to his career as a choreographer. After starting out abroad he made it back in 2003 as AB’s artistic director to workshop Romeo & Juliet, a collaboration with the Centre. Since then most of the company’s hit portrait ballets have been incubated there.

“Art meets nature here in a profound way. There’s something about making art is a busy city that’s very distracting. When you come here you finish work, you go eat, you go to bed, almost like a monastery. It’s a mystical sanctuary. I love reading about the legends Indigenous people talk about. I walk all day and get inspired and then I choreograph. It forces you to live a new routine.”

The ballet’s residency included other activities too. A project called Designing For Dance saw professional costume designers from several continents serve as mentors to designer-cutters from theatres across Canada, creating innovative costumes from scratch to fit specific dancers in the company, who finally wore them in an hour-long presentation that drew amazed smiles for some of the most outlandish designs. That’s the kind of cross-disciplinary project you find at the Banff Centre.

With a budget of $70 million it’s the largest post-graduate institution in Canada. Instead of students and teachers, it’s based on participants and mentors, professional masters in their field.

Some 4,000 artists visit the 42-acre campus on Tunnel Mountain each year in disciplines ranging from jazz and classical music, opera, dance, visual art, literary arts, indigenous arts and more.

The Centre’s vice-president for arts and leadership, Howard Jang, underlines one unusual aspect:

“We are an advanced education institution that doesn’t give degrees or certificates, so why do people come here? They are here to advance their career.”

For instance, the head of Banff Centre’s dance program is Ballet BC’s director Emily Molnar, and New York dance master Mark Morris is one of the latest choreographers to work there this year.

“Experienced artists come here looking for creative renewal. It’s a place of rigorous reflection.”

Making the monster move

Everyone who hears about Alberta Ballet’s Frankenstein wonders how the monster will move, probably because of Boris Karloff’s iconic stilted movements in the 1931 movie version of Frankenstein.

“When you read the book it’s very different,” notes Grand-Maitre. “He’s like a discombobulated panther whose parts won’t work together. So the monster will evolve in his dance vocabulary just as his mind evolves, but it’s interesting to explore that.”

For 24-year-old Australian-born Zacharie Dun it’s an irresistible challenge.

“I never guessed that I would be exploring a role like this so early in my career, but Jean said he needed the weirdest dancer in the company. One of the great things about working with Jean is that he trusts his dancers a lot. Even in rehearsals, it’s not so much about the move but the intention behind it. It’s a complex character and to define that in movement will be a very big challenge, but it’s also the way you act and convey a role. Not so much, ‘my leg could have been higher’ but ‘what did I feel?’.”

Dun’s training at the Australian Ballet School included acting classes, and he’s been able to draw on that over the three years he’s been with Alberta Ballet.

“Jean has a very specific vision for the character. When he first comes to life everything is going to be very contorted, but as the story goes on the monster puts connections together. His movements will be more sophisticated but he will still twitch or be figuring something out. It’s a role I can help to create myself. That’s kind of the dream for a dancer.”

Another rehearsal for Dun’s creature and dancer Kelly McKinlay as Dr. Victor Frankenstein underlines the teamwork involved when a tense pas de deux turns into virtual combat. This is Dun’s first residency at Banff.

“It’s a calming thing, just a great place to focus on creating, and it kind of breaks your routine so it really makes people open to what you can create together.”

Between Banff and their return to studios in Calgary, the company will spend portions of eight more weeks perfecting Frankenstein, gradually adding extra dancers, sets, lighting and costumes, front and rear projection screens. And Grand-Maitre will subtract something too.

“I like to paint with a big brush,” he says, “and keep taking stuff away until it’s just right.”

Alberta Ballet’s production of Frankenstein plays Calgary Oct. 23 to 26. See Alberta Ballet’s production of Frankenstein in Edmonton from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2

For ticket details see