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.
Learn more >>