By: Stephan Bonfield, Calgary Herald
Published on: June 12, 2015
During a recent Alberta Ballet May-fundraiser at the Christine Klassen Gallery, Alberta Ballet II Artistic Coordinator and Director Aram Manukyan looked on with the studied gaze of a proud mentor as he watched his young charges Heather and Rachel Thomson, Emerging Artist members of Alberta Ballet II while they performed Cluster, an excerpted duet from a beautiful choreography by School of Alberta Ballet Artistic Director and event host Edmund Stripe.
Displaying a clear and lovely sense of duet mechanics, feeding off one another, it certainly helps that the dancers are identical twins, and that only added to the visual power of their performance.
They seemed to cluster perfectly, dancing with an uncommon poise in close quarters to the audience, much as the rest of the company would in the other two excerpts to follow. In each case, Mr. Manukyan liked what he saw. So did the gathered crowd as they looked on with complete appreciation, spellbound by the young, talented duo as they struck various aesthetically pleasing ballet poses along the gallery’s walkway.
The excerpt was a fine example of what proved to be a lovely but all too brief evening exposé of Bright Young Things, a mini-program designed to be a teaser of the upcoming Cenovus-sponsored Alberta Ballet II Emerging Artists tour, commencing next Monday.
The tour will bring ballet to elementary schools during a weeklong sojourn to Bonnyville and Cold Lake, introducing still more children in rural communities to the art of dance, and providing a rare perspective on what a day in the life of a dancer is like.
Alberta Ballet II is an innovative project begun by Alberta Ballet in June 2014, created to attract top-level dancers who are on the verge of successful professional careers. In addition to working with the Alberta Ballet company onstage in several productions, the Emerging Artists’ upcoming tour is also typical of Alberta Ballet’s education and outreach mandate.
Alberta Ballet has reached out to more schools and farther afield from its urban bases in Calgary and Edmonton than any other arts organization in our province.
“I feel that we should take our craft and who we are — Alberta Ballet — all over the province because we carry the name,” said Mr. Manukyan. “We are ambassadors of our art form and our hope is that our province can be proud of us in how we represent our craft here and internationally.”
For Alberta Ballet’s second company, known as ABII, the opportunity to perform is paramount.
“With the generous support of Cenovus Energy, the School of Alberta Ballet is delighted to introduce our school, our artists and our art form to new audiences. These tours also provide valuable performance and life experiences for our dancers,” said Edmund Stripe, Artistic Director, and the founder of the touring programs prior to the arrival of the Emerging Artists.
The experiences that the dancers come away with can be enormously enriching. Performing a lecture-demonstration, the emerging artists will show how they prepare for a performance through their warm-ups and exercises, but alongside the demonstrations the student will learn some ballet history, and how the aesthetics of dance have changed with the times.
But, as Mr. Manukyan described it, often it’s the Question and Answer session that provides the most surprise — and rewards for all involved.
“The Q and A is often interesting because of the amazing questions these kids come up with because of the lecture,” he said. “Because we go so far into the outlying community, it’s often the first time some of the students have seen ballet. Even a school principal told us he had never seen a live ballet in his life. There are often some really rewarding moments.”
And that often leaves the dancers with the sense that they have achieved something important and special after their tour ends.
“You feel you’ve done something amazing,” Mr. Manukyan continued. “You feel like you have afforded them something so very different to see, from the dancing and the costumes to exposure to what the stage hands experience. Our presentations allow them to see the art form at its fullest from all its angles.
But really, the final goal is to grow art lovers, ones who know how to appreciate the art.”
The good news is that next year, the program will expand from eight to 16 dancers, and frankly, I can think of no better place to experience a dance education at the elite level than to attend the School of Alberta Ballet where all-around education and dance training will contribute many future stars to Calgary’s already fertile dance landscape and to the national dance/ballet scene, and beyond.
One of the first graduates from the School of Alberta Ballet, Seira Iwamoto has been accepted as a company dancer for the upcoming season, a true success story that demonstrates that the conduit from school to professional level works well within Alberta Ballet’s larger vision of dancer training. Ms. Iwamoto came to the school in 2011 and next went to the Dutch National Academy. Then she returned a year later to ABII and now she’s a full-time professional dancer.
Under the leadership of Artistic Director Edmund Stripe, the School now has an annual enrolment of more than 500 students in its Open Division and Professional Division. Furthermore, the School of Alberta Ballet has an active community profile with free outreach and community programs reaching thousands of children every year.
Open Division consists of what could almost be described as recreational programming, ranging in ages from preschool as the earliest entry point, and up, with classes in everything from ballet to modern and jazz. Lessons are flexible, and depend upon what the registrant wishes to commit to in terms of numbers of classes and intensity. For example, training commitments can grow to become more intensive with up to three classes per week, with the more serious dancers taking ballet and modern, and for teens, eventually pointe classes.
In the Professional Division, the entry point begins later at the grades 4, 5 and 6 levels. The professional stream is much more serious and rigorous than the open stream, and the audition process is demanding. By grades 7 through 12, students receive private school academics and live in residence. Currently there are about 30-40 Professional Division students living in residence on Mount Royal University’s campus. Classes are held in downtown Calgary.
After grade 12 comes the professional graduate program, which consists of 1-2 years of dance for least 5-6 days per week, preparing students for a dance career. Professional graduates are required to maintain their skills and artistry, and must successfully audition every year to maintain a place in the program.
If they do so, the final logical step might be to apply to ABII and land a coveted job with full tuition paid, which helps to acquire many potential performance opportunities and get a dancing career underway.
Professional audition tours take place across Canada, the U.S. and even as far as Japan, much as they would in any other top-rated company. The international tour audition committees usually see dancers twice per year, either around October-November or February-March, and during their last tour they made stops in Quebec City, Vancouver, Halifax and Ottawa. In the upcoming season, the audition tour cities may change.
But even more promising news these days is the announcement that in September 2015-2016 there will be a dedicated contemporary dance stream for those dancers who elect to dedicate their careers to that ever-growing medium, a welcome and progressive change to Alberta Ballet’s school. The decision to add a contemporary dance stream reflects a modern day reality for all mainstage dance companies who nowadays cannot survive by performing exclusively in either classical or contemporary genres.
It’s a thrilling opportunity for those dancers with remarkable potential for movement types more attuned to contemporary dance idioms. And more important still, Alberta Ballet is the first school of its kind in Canada to offer such a stream in its professional division. Therefore, Alberta Ballet’s future auditions will change their search focus to scout for both classical and contemporary dancing talent.
Successful applicants in the fall and winter audition rounds are, in actuality, vying for a place in the annual summer school, which runs from the end of June into August (ages 9-13 from July 19-Aug 14; ages 13 + from June 29-July 25). During those summer weeks, applicants are examined, trained, and looked at very closely, all with hopes to enter a full-year program in September.
And it’s tough, because all students are required to audition every year for re-acceptance. Therefore consistent dedication to the craft is an essential virtue expected of every participant in the Professional Division.
But the rewards of hard work are high. Not only are there high academic and artistic standards, the bonus offerings of the program involve such diverse learning activities as aquatic training, to name one example. Very soon, the school will try to offer the Grade 12s classes in stagecraft, plus opportunities to work closely with Alberta Ballet’s technical crew in lighting and costume design, in addition to teaching other behind-the-scenes skills. The school offers a lot of new programs internally too, such as an ESL summer intensive program.
There are also summer dance classes and summer dance intensives available for the general public, quite separate from the Summer School itself.
Perhaps what is most exciting is just how much of the School’s trajectory has quickly coalesced in the last two to three years. With so many new programs and initiatives, the School of Alberta Ballet looks like an enviable place to be, and Alberta audiences and lovers of dance can feel it in every performance they see of these bright young artists too.