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Interviews, essays and commentary published by The Dance Current.

Friday, February 27, 2009

In Process with Peter Quanz: Part 2

Interview with Peter Quanz
by Selma Odom

Photo of Peter Quanz by Sian Richards; Choreographic notes courtesy of Quanz

Peter Quanz has just embarked on orchestra and tech rehearsals with The National Ballet of Canada for In Colour, which opens March 4th.

Remembering their work last summer in Russia, Quanz reflects on his collaboration with composer Anton Lubchenko and mentor Elena Tchernichova to find the concept and meaning of the new ballet:

When we fought over how to divide this work, whatever structure it was going to be, we realized that if we were going to have different segments we wanted to have one linking theme. We talked about a variety of different things and finally settled on colour because it was something that he could use in terms of an aural sense but I could also use in a visual sense, that could show off many different dancers in different ways and that could give different moods.

He decided the musical structure – I had nothing to do with that – but we talked about what kind of journey there would be through the ballet. If you’re going to start off with colour, do you randomly jump into the colour wheel, or where do you start?

We decided to start with white, with white light being the combination of all colours, and have that be refracted into all the different colours, and at the end of the ballet end up with an apotheosis where using white light again we will put the dancers in silhouette, turning them black, so we have a journey through the whole piece. That is the type of structural conversation we had.

We talked about how many colours there are, what their relationships are, how to end the piece. If we were going to end the piece in black, how do we avoid it being depressing? How do we finish with a black ending onstage but with a celebratory feeling? We were all united in thinking that it needed to end on a very high note.

In the main pas de deux of the ballet I have a ballerina who dies at the end, and in the apotheosis she comes back as if she’s entering from another world – to help teach people, to bring them with her, to collect them and bring all the colours together. And so even though they’re turning black and dying and disappearing, there’s a transcendence that is really beautiful. That type of discussion, that philosophy helped unite us.

Anton is very religious. Certainly when I was there I went to church almost every day to light candles for various people here or my problems in Russia. I also come from a religious background. I come from a Mennonite background where dancing is not encouraged. I grew up with people telling me that they were praying for my soul that I wouldn’t go to hell for dancing. But for them it was a matter of education. When they realized there was a difference between dancing as an art form and dancing in a strip club, then it made a difference. For the premiere, half my church is going to be coming. It will be the first time they’ll ever be in the opera house, the first time they’ll ever see ballet.

I’m giving them something that has some qualities that will tie in to my religious background and Anton’s religious background that will also help them feel that it’s something that makes sense for them, without it being overly Christian, hammering down. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about trying to find a way for us to learn to improve our humanity, for us to work together, for us to see our differences, and realize that, yes, they’re there and they will always be there, but we can get along.

The structure of this piece has helped me develop a clear message that is personal for me. It may not read for anybody else, but it gives me a backbone to hold on to, and that’s all grown out of the people involved, the situation that we’re in, the way that we collaborate and the difference in cultures that we’re in.

The scenes that you’ve talked about so far – the pas de deux, the apotheosis – are keys to the ballet. Are there colours for other scenes?

To begin the ballet, I want to reflect light off their hands into their faces, so that they don’t stand in the spotlight, but they put their hands into it – ten dancers on stage – and that lights up their faces for the first time in the piece, and that’s the cue for the music to start. They dance by turning their bodies in different ways, keeping their hands in the light. They pivot around that light and reflect it in different ways, transforming the light into a physical, tangible object as opposed to an object that just influences the environment that we’re in.

So light is a partner.

Yes. We can’t have colour without environment, without light. Our understanding of any one object is always based on what is surrounding it. I’m trying to create situations where the lighting in the ballet is like a mirror to us as dancers and as an audience to understand the movement on stage and the images that are projected.

After this white section, the dancers are going to split and I have the red section. All the corps de ballet dancers are in grey. I have seven corps men at that point with the red lady. The first time we’re going to see any colour in the ballet is them hurling her in the air out of this tight circle of men. They just throw her up and there’s this shock of red flying in the air and then she gets swallowed up in the group again.

We progress on to yellow, and it’s a jester-like movement that makes fun of everybody around, and then we have a beautiful pas de deux with a purple man and pink lady, in which she dies at the end after a major crisis in their relationship. After that I have three ladies in chartreuse that I see as three fates. After she’s died, they laugh as hyenas on stage and they go on to dance with the boy in blue, who’s another jester figure trying to tempt fate and dance with them.

Then we have the green lady who commands this vast army of grey people that absently follow her commands, following along without looking as to what’s happening. Suddenly everything rises from the depths and we have all the colours on stage again. It’s like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty in the prologue. Then we go into the apotheosis, where the girl who died comes back, in a white dress instead of a pink one.

Let’s talk about the movement and how you’re developing it with these dancers. You’re working with how many in total?

There are twenty-seven dancers in the ballet, which is pretty big. My largest cast has been thirty-two, but twenty-seven for this stage, the Four Seasons Centre, and for the National Ballet, is a pretty large cast. Basically the whole company will be involved by the time you get double and triple casting. So I have nine soloists and principals, nine corps de ballet women and nine corps de ballet men.

I believe that numbers are very important in the shape of the ballet, that numbers have meaning, that they have values and that they will create different frequencies on stage based on the number of people you have there. I’m excited about having those three sections of nine. I think that’s a really thrilling number.

Do you work on your own body?

Some choreographers work on their own bodies and choreograph what feels good for them. I was not a great dancer – I was an okay dancer, but not a great one. I’ve never developed my own sense of personal movement to the point where I’ll only do things that look good on me. I’m good at tailoring things to other people. Even though I may be planning something out by myself, it’s with them in mind. It’s not me making it on myself and then transferring. It’s me making it for them and then making sure it fits. With principals, I will also work on my own beforehand, but a lot of that is to work out images, the musical structure or some basic ideas. Then I’ll go in the studio and I’ll flesh it out and adjust it for them.

How do you interact with the corps?

When you are running rehearsals with the corps de ballet, you notice very quickly which dancers lead the corps. These are sometimes dancers that are very gifted who for some reason or other have not been promoted to soloist but have been in the company awhile, and they take great pride in being in the corps. You rely on those people to shape things. For example, if I have a question – can you make it from this point to that point with this step? Do you have time? You know very quickly who to ask. That’s part of getting to know a company, figuring out how to play with the corps. It’s a very sensitive instrument, and you have to figure out its individual dynamics right away.

Unfortunately ballet, when it’s a large cast and a big hierarchy is not democratic, and if you listen to everybody’s voices all the time you don’t move forward. So you have to be very clear in who you’re going to listen to. With the corps it’s more of a psychology than a complete collaboration as you’d have with the soloists. I love working with the corps de ballet. I look forward to their rehearsals almost more than anything else, and I take great pleasure in seeing them take pride in their work.

Sometimes my corps work can overbalance what I’ve done for the principals. Because I enjoy it so much I sometimes get into that more than I do working with the principals. I don’t know why, I just relate well to them. And so in this piece, in addition to the emotional quality, it’s a challenge for me to show off those nine soloists in very individual, clear ways and keep addressing that balance between corps and principals.

When you’re working on movement alone, how do you hold on to what you are doing? Do you write notes? Do you videotape?

I don’t videotape. I have a notebook, and when I’m preparing a piece I go through and I break the music down into a variety of sections so that every time there’s a change in music, every time there’s a new instrument coming in, I have that mapped out. I figure out who’s on stage, but then I write out all the patterns involved. Any traffic issues I’ll have worked out on paper. I move pennies around on the floor. That way I can have a clear idea of where they are on the stage. The steps are easy to remember.

When I’m preparing anything that’s a big structural formation or progression, I look at the spacing first. I work out where they’re going on stage, how much time they have to move, and after I’ve done that I work out the steps. The steps are the last thing to go into a ballet, for me. If you don’t have the architecture, you can’t put in the detail.

Tell me about the design and lighting.

I have two designers working on this piece. One of them is Christopher Dennis, resident lighting designer of the National Ballet of Canada, and this is the first time I’m working with him. He has a great reputation for his lighting. I’m very excited about working with him and trying to find new technologies and ways that we can achieve what we’re looking for – to take a very simple set and make it look different in as many ways as possible.

The set and costume designer is Michael Gianfrancesco, who went to high school with me. We were put back in touch by a friend. Now he works in theatre and opera. When I approached him to do this work, I gave him the theme of colours. We talked about environment and I told him about the journey, and we decided to make a very simple space. We’re hanging white legs in front of the black box but just slightly back so there’s white with a black border all the way around.

For the apotheosis, I wanted the ballerina to come back from another world. There needed to be a progression, a transformation, and so the requirements of what we wanted to happen for that, how we wanted the stage to move and be adjusted scenically, dictated how we were to shape the back of the stage, so we kind of built it backwards from that point.

He found this incredible fabric from a German scenic company that’s a poly-combo-something, thirteen letters long. It is material that has a whole bunch of semicircles cut into it so when it’s stretched it creates holes the light can pass through. It allows me to put people behind it and kind of see them. We’re using panels of that at the back of the stage, which also gives me the possibility of entrances mid-stage and gives a way to parachute a dancer on stage without much warning. It gives me a lot of flexibility at the same time allowing space for this transformation for the apotheosis.

I’m relying on Christopher Dennis to pull versatility from the set. The lighting is going to make the setting more functional than it would be if you had a three-dimensional object there. And since I’m trying to show that light is the environment that we’re in and that influences our understanding of the object, I think it’s a very good parallel to the whole underlying feeling of this piece.

What will the dancers wear?

In the beginning in the white section they’re wearing very simple tight costumes but they change out of those very quickly after the first minute and forty-two seconds and go into their coloured costumes. All the women are in one costume, or one shape of costume, bodice and skirt, and the men are in another shape, pants and shirt, but they’re in contrasting colours. So the corps are all in grey, and each of the soloists will be in their individual colour. For the corps I needed something that could act as a transition, as a unifying comment, a way of moving between things.

You told me an important source has been the book
Chroma by Derek Jarman. I looked it up at the library. It’s a fascinating meditation on the diversity of colour in nature, art, literature, history. He quotes Kandinsky and many other artists. How did you find it?

My sister, Katie, who did her undergrad at York in the film program, graduated at the top of the class with a specialty in sound. Derek Jarman made a film called Blue when he had gone blind – he played with the idea of a film about sound. She gave me this book, she had me read it. She’s now at Laurier doing her PhD in film.

What is most challenging or scary about choreographing
In Colour?

Some of this music is absolutely terrifying. The score was written in the middle of the war between Russia and Georgia last summer, and I was there and seeing how the media portrayed the war. In Russia it was very clear who was the aggressor, and in the States it was very clear who was the aggressor, and they weren’t the same. I saw the same file photos being used in both countries, both places, but being portrayed as being the opposing sides. To be in the middle of that and to see how information was changed was really quite interesting.

One thing I realized last night as I was reading a little bit on Kandinsky and his understanding of green – that green is a passive, calm, motionless colour, very serene – I thought, that’s interesting, because I’ve decided to put green in the most warlike section of the ballet. It made me realize that our understanding of the perception of colour changes over time.

I think with camouflage, with how people dress – I associate war with green, with jealousy, but as I was talking with my sister about this I realized that almost every single one of these colours is associated with conflict or fight in some front. Red used to be about war, its blood, but at the same time now it’s the fight against AIDS. Pink is the fight against breast cancer. Green is jealousy, it’s aggressive. Yellow is a provocation. My realization was that the parts of this ballet are seeing colour through conflict.

That gave me a way to understand the tension and power in this music. It’s highly volatile music. It’s very big, written by a young composer who has huge ideas and huge energy. And you sense that. You feel that youth, but at the same time an incredible maturity in him and the two are at odds with each other. This realization helped me to figure out partly how to step into that. I’m terrified of some of these sections. That’s good, because when I’m not scared of a piece of music, I don’t create interesting movement.~

Selma Odom [guest writer] teaches dance history at York University. Her research focusses on teachers and transmission in dance and music. She has published hundreds of articles and reviews since the 1960s and co-edited the anthology Canadian Dance: Visions and Stories (2004).

*A profile of Peter Quanz by Selma Odom appears in the March 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In Process with Peter Quanz: Part 1

Interview with Peter Quanz
by Selma Odom

Photos of Peter Quanz and National Ballet dancers Elena Lobsanova and Noah Long by Sian Richards

Peter Quanz is currently in rehearsal for his new ballet In Colour, with a score by composer Anton Lubchenko.

The studios of The National Ballet of Canada are a beehive of activity with the full company rehearsing works by Peter Quanz, Sabrina Matthews and Crystal Pite for the Innovation program, March 4th through 8th in Toronto. Quanz’s involvement began in discussions with Artistic Director Karen Kain after his premiere for the company’s Choreographic Workshop in September 2006. He explains:

I was told that it would be an evening with three new ballets by Canadian choreographers, the first of this kind ever in The National Ballet’s history, the first time they ever commissioned three new works, the first time by three new Canadian choreographers, and I think a major step in Canadian dance history in terms of the ballet companies.

The premise of this whole project is that we’ve each been given the same budget, and we can choose how to use that budget according to what we’d like to do for our own ballets.

While I was in Russia working with the Kirov Ballet I was introduced to a young Russian composer. His name is Anton Lubchenko. When I met him he was twenty-two, and he was sent to my studio by the Secretary of the theatre, Marta Petrovna. She’s decorated by Putin – so quite a powerful secretary. She sent me this composer partly at her thought and partly at the inspiration of former dancer-ballet mistress Elena Tchernichova, who has been a mentor and coach of mine.

They both felt a young composer should be paired up with a young choreographer – that the choreographer would develop by having access to new music and the composer would develop by being challenged with having to work with dance rhythms and a more theatrical sense of music than would be done in the concert hall.

I think this has been a very fruitful collaboration for the two of us. This is the second project that we’re working on but the first one to hit completion. We’ve been developing a full-length ballet, an original two-act work that is still in process. Timelines in Russia are strange things, so that’s why it hasn’t been up yet, but we’re working on it, and when I realized that project was going to take more time to develop, I thought, now that I have money from The National Ballet and I can commission the music, it makes sense to continue this collaboration with Anton, in order to give him experience working with me, give him his North American debut and also bring something of my experience in Russia to a Canadian audience.

So you began your collaboration in St. Petersburg in 2007?

We started before my premiere in July 2007 – that’s when I was doing Aria Suspended to Stravinsky’s Symphony in C – but I was back in Russia for much of October and November of that year and then I was back in February of 2008 and again in the summer for another two and a half months. I spent eight months total in Russia in the last year and a half.

Part of the reason it has taken so much time is that Anton doesn’t speak English, or he’s learning for this project but he doesn’t speak much, and I’ve had to learn Russian from my first day there, and so our communication is sometimes slow. But in doing so, it’s really forced us to listen to each other, to spend time doing silly things, or walking around the city or just getting to know each other as people, which has greatly influenced the choreography. I can see in the music the parts that he would enjoy playing on the piano. I can visualize how he would hold his body as he’s playing, and that in turn is going to shape some of my movement.

What is his way of composing – does he improvise? How does he share his music with you?

Well, he does several things. I mean there’s what he considers the serious music and what he considers his music for fun. Together with Elena, we would sit in her apartment, with the kettle always on the boil and eating cookies and just having a wonderful time. Eventually she bought a piano and had it hauled up to her fourth-floor apartment so that he could play for us. So now there’s this baby grand, well mid-sized grand piano, and it’s just for him. And we would spend all night every night.

He would play different types of music – sometimes Tchaikovsky, sometimes Stravinsky, sometimes Schubert. He’d give us concerts every night, and then he would launch into these twenty-minute jazz like sessions where he’d kind of bash through all kinds of different well known popular classical pieces and rearrange them slightly and make musical jokes. That’s the type of improvisation he does. These sessions would last all night and Elena would be fretting that the poor neighbours couldn’t sleep, and we’d get the odd shouts from the courtyard, but it’s music, it’s beautiful.

It sounds like a bonus for the neighbours! They probably didn’t mind all that much – well, maybe on a hot night with the windows open.

But in terms of his actual composition, he says he doesn’t sit down to write music. He hears it in his head and then sits down and writes it out. I remember very clearly when we were talking about the first theme for this ballet, which was the theme that we’re using for the very first section, the white section. It’s kind of an ostinato that is on the strings and it has other lines going through. He played one thing for us first, and it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, so I asked him to make a few changes.

He sat there maybe three minutes staring off into space, and then he got up to the piano and played the first theme exactly as he has written it. He went on to tell us what theme would come afterwards, how it would d
evelop. In those three minutes he didn’t only come up with a new theme, he could see the entire structure of the ballet. And he could race through it, forwards, backwards, any given speed – it was like a three-dimensional object that he could walk through. The thought process and the way that it just flowed out of him was the most divine expression I’ve ever seen.

He has musical reasons for arriving at his structure, I suppose, but what about composing for the theatre?

The National Ballet is understandably very concerned about the amount of rehearsal time that we have for these ballets. Three new ballets is a lot. To have three demanding choreographers running around, all using the same people, and trying to use the same resources is a challenge. And so even though Karen Kain wanted me to make a large classical ballet, she wanted me to do it on a minimum amount of rehearsal time, which is a huge challenge.

I thought if I am going to deliver that type of ballet, which I like to do and I’m good at and I enjoy, I should probably make a ballet that I can break into sections, where I can rehearse smaller groups of people. In my mind it was a theme and variations type work. When I mentioned that to Anton, he said, “Oh, no, theme and variation is horrible. You cannot do theme and variation in the year 2008. It does not work, no way. I write symphony.”

It’s one of those things where you can’t argue. It’s in two movements, but it’s called symphony in nine variations. When I went to break down what I was doing I realized that I didn’t always follow his breakdown of variations. Some of that differed, but that’s okay, I’m musical, too, and I can work within his structure. There have been some huge screaming matches, and also there have been slammed doors, Russian drama, but there’s also a real dedication to each other.

It was the three of us living together for more than a month several different times. He had his residence from the Conservatory, but it was far away and it was in the summer when the bridges over the Neva are raised at night so he couldn’t get home. It was three of us in an apartment all the time. It leads to some very high emotions, but one of the things that I’ve been working on is being more emotional in my choreography. I’m very clear on structure, but I need to show that I can also be more human, and perhaps this allowed me to open up that way a bit more. His music has provided me a wonderful vehicle and challenge.

In this process there have been points where I’ve had an idea where this project is going movement-wise before hearing the music, and when I heard the music, they fit. I don’t know why or how that could be, but it was like we were given the same information. I don’t want to turn that into too much of a mystical comment, but I believe there’s some kind of force behind it.~

Selma Odom [guest writer] teaches dance history at York University. Her research focusses on teachers and transmission in dance and music. She has published hundreds of articles and reviews since the 1960s and co-edited the anthology Canadian Dance: Visions and Stories (2004).

*A profile of Peter Quanz by Selma Odom appears in the March 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.

Learn more >>

For an introduction to Anton Lubchenko, his music and the city of St. Petersburg circa 2006, see April Man by filmmaker Dmitriy Lavrinenko:

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Monday, February 23, 2009


March 2009
Interview with Yasmina Ramzy
by Megan Andrews

Photo of Yasmina Ramzy by Sussi Dorrell

Yasmina Ramzy is a dancer/choreographer and the founder and artistic director of Arabesque Dance Company and Orchestra, Arabesque Academy, and the International Bellydance Conference of Canada.

Your work involves an amalgamation or fusion of many different kinds of Middle Eastern dance. How do you distinguish or characterize “bellydancing” and the different styles of Middle Eastern dance or dances?

I am familiar with and teach fourteen different styles of Middle Eastern dance, three of which are under the category of bellydance and the other eleven are folkloric or spiritual trance dances, such as the Zaar Exorcism ritual or the Whirling Dervish. Each style has a character, a musical style and a realm of movement. Within each realm, there are limitless ways of expression. Some of the architecture or physical movement is shared between some of the styles but the nuances are very different. Bellydance, in particular, has borrowed from many of the folkloric styles but is presented with a different character and nuance.

What artistic values underlie your vision as a choreographer and artistic director?

Although I do not make an obvious point of it, all of my messages are in essence spiritual. In other words, I am always striving to open the hearts of audiences with powerful emotion. The kind of emotion that reminds us of the miracle that the universe exists and that we are blessed with the pleasure of enjoying its experience. There is something profound in the multitude of subtle layers and weaving interconnections of Arabic dance, music and poetry that I feel is a key to this experience.

Some people believe that bellydancing reinforces the characterization of “women as sexualized spectacle”. Others consider bellydancing an empowering, feminist practice. How do you address these opposing views?

Both can be true depending upon the view of the bellydancer and the view of the spectator. From ages fourteen through twenty-one, before I was a bellydancer, I lived in a Buddhist centre with celebate monks and nuns. I was always taught that sex is a very holy expression of the miracle of the universe and an expression of infinite love. I feel that bellydance is the perfect vehicle for this message. Many women who study bellydance find it very empowering because the archetypal movement and nuance they are tapping into ends up rewiring their view of their own womanhood and its importance. People who may be more in tune with the last 2000 years of sexual denial will experience bellydance as a negative thing. By the same token, bellydance is fast becoming globally popular, because it is a way of overcoming this inner oppression.

In your work, you place an emphasis not only on dancing style and technique but also on musical understanding, folklore and history. Do you consider your company a kind of cultural ambassador?

My last production called Asala was a thank-you kiss to the Arabic community for giving me my artform and nurturing me. I created a two-hour presentation featuring many of the folkloric styles of dance I had learned over the years. I wanted to inspire and pass on my knowledge to a future generation and thus free myself to go beyond and find my personal voice. My school Arabesque Academy continues to give a solid foundation in tradition while encouraging creativity. Lately I am experimenting with traditional Arabic musical poetry, which is always about love – a profound love in which the desire for the Beloved is the same as the desire to be one with God or the Goddess.

When you create a new production, what kind of audience are you primarily considering?

The choreographies that come together to make a production come out of a need to express something, not with any particular audience in mind. I think all the members of Arabesque Dance Company and Orchestra want to stir up the hearts of all kinds of audiences.

How is your new production
Egypt different from past full-evening productions?

Egypt has a little bit of all the different directions I have expressed through my art over the years. It is my way of summing everything up and deciding which is the direction to pursue more deeply for the next part of the journey. I am starting to see that bringing the differences together might be creating a whole new way of expression that can include them all, the Goddess worship, the folklore, the sensual and playful bellydancer and the deep and profound poet.

Contemporary choreographer Robert Desrosiers is a choreographic advisor on this project. How are you and he working together on the production? What new discoveries have you made through this working relationship?

I knew many, many years ago that Robert and I used diametrically opposed ways of moving but we both expressed essentially the same message. When we met in person, we found we had too much in common. Working with him is euphoric. He is such a fountain of creativity. We found it was impossible for him to choreograph on my dancers because they cannot move like him, but when he describes a feeling or vision, I can translate it to our movement. We hope to do more in the future perhaps with half the dancers trained for his movement and the other half trained by me. The juxtaposition of opposite movement approaches side-by0side could be either impossible or fascinating.

In the last few years, you have initiated a successful international bellydance conference. What prompted you to develop this project and how is it affecting the bellydancing community internationally? Is there a conference in 2009?

I had attended and was greatly inspired by a similar conference at the Orange County University in California. This, coupled with the frustration that there is so much talent across Canada but it is little acknowledged, were factors to propel me to take on this huge task. Canadians were always looking south of border when very often, it was Canadians who were ahead of the rest. The conference was a way to put Canada on the bellydance map and instill pride in Canadian artists. Most of all, I enjoyed bringing together so many inspiring artists and scholars from all over the world in one place at the same time, debating and discussing the pertinent issues with one another. We need to skip 2009 to recoup and regroup. We hope one day to take the conference to a different Canadian city each year. We are currently working on the line-up for 2010.

*An excerpted version of this interview appears in the March 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.

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