By Philip Szporer
It’s a brutal, bone-chilling, windy Montréal afternoon. As a gust literally blows me indoors, Gradimir Pankov, artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (Les Grands), greets me with a friendly smile and open arms. Pankov has a reputation for being straightforward and charming, and no doubt those well-honed skills have served him in his significant and defining run at the job. After we settle in, he exudes both warmth and insecurity about what he might say regarding his ten years at the helm of the storied and revered ballet company founded in 1957 by Ludmilla Chiriaeff. Asked what specific character trait it takes to be artistic director of the troupe, he measures his response. “You have to have the desire to bring people together,” he replies.
Editor’s Note: In The Dance Current May 2010 print magazine, we published a profile of Gradimir Pankov, artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, by Philip Szporer. Szporer’s lengthy interview with Pankov included discussions of Pankov’s experiences in Europe before coming to Canada, his perspectives on working with choreographers and introducing new work to audiences, as well as his views on dancers’ training and development. We decided to publish this additional material below, to give readers a deeper acquaintance with the charming and thoughtful artistic director of one of Canada’s longstanding ballet companies. The seventy-two-year-old Pankov has been with Les Grands now for ten years. According to Szporer: “Sources close to the company tell me Pankov has been asked to stay for the next five years, at least. And [Pankov] says, modestly, when asked the question directly, ‘If I’m healthy, it’s my biggest pleasure to work.’”
Before Les Grands
When asked for a glimpse at the real Gradimir, he says, “I always say I’m a country boy.” Dance first made an impression on him when he attended a performance in his native Skopia by the American Ballet Theatre, with Erik Bruhn in a 1955 production of Les Sylphides. “It was beautiful. Poetry and movement made me passionate about dance.”
A regional swimming champion in his youth, Pankov quickly decided to pursue training in Russian-styled classical dance, music and dance pedagogy at the Skopia Conservatory. A year later, at age eighteen, he joined the Macedonian National Ballet. By 1967, he was dancing in Germany, at the Nuremberg Ballet as well as Karlsruhe and Wuppertal, and the Theater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich and Nationaltheater Mannheim.
When, at age forty, his dancing life ended due to an injury, he became ballet master and associate director of Ballet of Dortmund Municipal Theatre. In 1980, Czech-born choreographer Jirí Kylián invited him to join Nederlands Dans Theater both as a teacher and as artistic director of what was about to become NDT II, the company’s junior dance troupe. While there, his meeting with Mats Ek, then artistic director of the Cullberg Ballet, developed into a long-standing professional and personal relationship.
From 1981 through 1984, Pankov directed the National Ballet of Finland in Helsinki. Ek, after seeing his work in Helsinki, then offered Pankov the artistic leadership at the Cullberg. He was also asked to teach and direct Ek choreographies to other companies, including Cain and Abel at Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, where he eventually took the reins as artistic director. It was in Geneva that Pankov forged other significant relationships: he invited Kylián, Ek and Christopher Bruce to create work and commissioned dances from a new generation of choreographers, including Ohad Naharin and Kim Brandstrup. He also organized choreography workshops, where innovation would flourish, and Genève dancers Didy Veldman and Stijn Celis were introduced to the world of choreography.
In 1996, Pankov left the Ballet de Genève, devoting himself to teaching for various companies, eventually moving to American Ballet Theatre in New York. Though he was happy to settle into a calmer routine, when Les Grands came calling, it was the city and the company’s eclecticism that lured him.
In his own view, Pankov has been “very careful” in nurturing how a choreographer’s work will look on Les Grands. He says he “didn’t dare” program Ek’s far from ethereal Sleeping Beauty without preparing audiences first with other works by the Swedish choreographer: Solo for Two (a lyrical melancholy love duet to the music of Arvo Pärt), and Appartement (a surrealist ballet that employs everyday items like a vacuum cleaner, a television and a bidet).
When Pankov recruits a Veldman or a Celis, two choreographers whom he’s groomed at Les Grands, he says, “We support and develop talent, and see those relationships through the long-term.” Case in point, Veldman’s first work for the company, Carmen. Pankov talks about his method of introducing new talent and new ways of moving to the company’s audiences. “It was a teaser – to give [the public] the title and the familiar music, but introduce contemporary steps, make it relevant and find the bridge from the classics to a new theatrical dance.” The compelling and acclaimed Noces, Celis’ first piece for the company is a certified hit, “always showing with a better result,” Pankov reports.
Choreographer Peter Quanz, the young talent who is gaining major recognition internationally and premiered Kaleidoscope, his first work for the company, last season, bows to Pankov’s instincts. “On my first day of rehearsal with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Gradimir called me to his office and clearly told me how he expected his ensemble of dancers to be treated. He stated that they were tuned to understand and explore what any choreographer might ask of them and that a light approach was sufficient for great results. He was right and he subtly showed me his love for his dancers.”
Quanz says it was “a genuine pleasure to work for Gradimir and to serve his creative ensemble. He was frequently present in rehearsals and listened carefully to my ideas before going on to enrich what was already planted. In challenging moments, Gradimir listened like a wise father and then proved to be a solid support.” Quanz counts himself “fortunate” to have worked with Pankov. “He has a rich knowledge of diverse choreographic traditions and can reveal parallels and distinctions between them, yet his mind is open to finding something new and young in the tradition of ballet or in the most recent movement idiom.”
Over the years, the seventy-two-year-old Pankov has learned how to gauge “quality, attitude and behaviour” on the part of the company dancers. His corps de ballet is generally brimming with talent. Dropping names, he mentions the glorious Mariko Kida (now with the Cullberg Ballet). “She started here, dancing a beautiful Juliet in [Maillot’s] Romeo and Juliet,” he says. He’s currently cherishing some gems in his ranks, including corps de ballet member and Guangzhou Ballet–trained dancer Xuan Cheng, who has performed with La La La Human Steps. Pankov waves his arms, and remarks, “People say, ‘why not give her a better contract?’ Well, I insist they start with the corps. You develop an ability to cope. This I learned in the theatre, through the good, and bad, behaviour of colleagues.”
Directorial shifts are never easy. Difficult is just one word to describe the atmosphere when a director leaves, and the new appointee arrives contemplating how to give another push to the company. When Pankov came to Les Grands, replacing Lawrence Rhodes (currently head of the Juilliard School’s dance division), the company was a very different place: with beloved dancers such as Anik Bissonnette, who stayed with the company for seventeen years, and Geneviève Guérard among others, as marquee names and personalities. Pankov remembers the challenges of the time. “[There were] so many injuries, and [I had] to replace [star performers] with members of the corps de ballet. And the [young dancers] mixed in so well, and I was not cancelling performances.” A belief of the company ever since: any dancer can rise in the ranks regardless of their hired position.
Now, a new generation of dancers graces the stage. (The company currently employs thirty-four dancers.) “I try to have different personalities,” Pankov says, explaining that he takes into account “how they look, how they behave. Some are very lyrical, some I call ‘anti-dance’, but they all have beautiful personalities on stage.” And he’s rigorous with them, starting with their daily routine. “Professional dancers need some twenty minutes before class to do warm-up,” he comments, and he insists on giving classes. “It gives me a big chance to know them, to [see] how they react to my corrections.”
What he looks for in a dancer is simple: “Dancers, like actors, can put every and any skin on their body.” At the time of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, demi-soloist Alisia Pobega told me, “Gradimir keeps us in check … He looks for the versatile dancer, because the repertoire is so vast. Fundamentally what’s required is to be quite strong with a classical base, but open enough in spirit to embrace all kinds of dance.” Pankov, almost in response, says of a dancer’s physique, “If you don’t have lines, you can’t break them. If you are broken, there is nothing more to break.”
Ella Baff, executive director of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, has been influential in opening doors for Les Grands on the world stage. She appreciates the versatility of the company. “They have all the attributes of a first-rank international company: strong dancers who can handle a wide range of repertoire, not just technically of course, but with integrity and personality.”
Pankov insists that what he delivers is “not about classical or contemporary repertory. People like to see and appreciate good performance.” Credit his age and experience, perhaps. Regardless, Pankov’s gambit is working.
TAG: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal presents Stijn Celis’ Le sacre du printemps and a Jirí Kylián double bill at the upcoming Venice Biennale festival from May 27th through 29th, Venice.
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