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Photo courtesy Alberta Ballet

‘I will not let this pandemic silence us’: Jean Grand-Maître on Alberta Ballet’s new dance film Ecclesia

By Cristina Paolozzi, June 30 2021—

Alberta Ballet and the Canadian National Brass Project have created a digital dance film titled Ecclesia set to premier July 1. Ecclesia is a performance meant to honour frontline workers who have worked hard to protect the community from COVID-19. 

Examining feelings of loneliness, seperation, fear, hope and resilience, Ecclesia features ballet dancers Kelley McKinlay, Mariko Kondo, Luna Sasaki and Garrett Groat performing to Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium arranged for brass.  

Alberta Ballet’s artistic director Jean Grand-Maître sat down with the Gauntlet to talk more about Ecclesia. 

Grand-Maître has been fascinated with dance his whole life. A self-described “dancer who became a choreographer who became an artistic director,” Grand-Maître’s experience in the dance world is unparalleled.

As a result of the injuries he sustained over the course of his dance career, he switched gears into choreography, working with a wide range of talent — from classically trained dancers to performers from Cirque du Soleil.

His work ultimately saw him accepting positions choreographing in Europe, however, in 2002, a spot opened for artistic directorship at Alberta Ballet and he has been with the company ever since.

After the success he found creating a ballet for the Nation Ballet of Canada called Frames of Mind, Grand-Maître saw the challenge of artistic direction as his next step.

“When suddenly I had accepted the position, some of my colleagues were saying, ‘Why don’t you continue choreographing in Europe?’ And I said, ‘I feel that there is something happening with [Alberta Ballet],’ which was at a very high level already,” said Grand-Maître. “But it also became about building an institution, a way to connect with the entire community — more than I would as a choreographer.”

When describing the performance, Grand-Maître sets the scene for his inspiration for Ecclesia.

“In February-March, the pandemic was at its height, the province had gone into more strict safety measures and I was driving my car on the way to the Ballet,” he said. “Suddenly I hear on the CBC a score for horns and brass — and the score just took me.”

Pulling over and stopping the car entirely, Grand-Maître listened to the full score of  Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, composed for 13 brass soloists.

“The interpretation was so sublime,” said Grand-Maître. “And I decided there that I should do a film with this music.”

Grand-Maître described that the arts, but especially dance, is not accommodating to social distancing. Dance requires connection and touch, something that other artistic mediums don’t necessarily need in order to continue.

Through the constant lockdowns and shift to online performances from many in the arts community, Grand-Maître’s statement is powerful — “I will not let this pandemic silence us.”

With this score in mind, Grand-Maître created a dance film which explored some of the frustrations many in the community could relate to after a year isolated from each other.

“Dancing, you touch each other, and you lift and you trust, and I knew it would be a long-haul when this pandemic started,” he said. “At one point I became so frustrated that we were silenced, that I designed a way to make this film completely safe.”

Thirteen of the best brass soloists from across the country came together to practice and perform this arrangement for Ecclesia. Grand-Maître organized this film so that the camera is in the middle of the performance, and the dancers face each cardinal direction — North, East, South and West.

“The camera just spins from itself, and the dancers never get near each other, nor does the cameraman,” he shared. “In this way, we can still do the ballet safely.” 

The ballet was filmed outside to allow more room between the dancers and the crew, while also symbolically representing the physical separation between people during the pandemic.  

 “That score captured what we need to hear right now, which is resilience, strength and compassion,” he said. “So, in that way, the score I felt was something so noble that it would bring the best of us out.”

Grand-Maître said that in preparation for this performance, he asked the dancers to identify the emotions they personally felt over the course of the pandemic.

“When I created the materials, the music, I did not want to give them the emotional context of the movement  — I did not want to impose,” he said. “So, together we created the movement, and then I told them to inhabit the emotions they went through and not tell me what it was.”

Grand-Maître guided the dancers to help embody the movement he created with the emotions the dancers presented, adding another layer of depth to the film. The camera angles are close and capture the face directly, so an expressive and powerful performance was crucial to extend the interpretation of pain and loss.

In the final scenes of the performance, Grand-Maître had the dancers come together and hold hands to create a circle, representing hope and reconciliation and coming back together after COVID-19.

As well, the musicians contributing to this project are from all across the country, contributing to this message of hope that stretches from coast to coast. 

“We’ve woven images of musicians playing outdoors, to dancers performing outdoors, and we created this short film which I hope captures something of what we’ve been through and how we hope for the future.”

Ecclesia will premier online on July 1 on Alberta Ballet’s website. For more information about Alberta Ballet and Ecclesia, check out the trailer for Ecclesia, or read more on their website here

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