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Alberta Ballet: fighting spirit of the West.

In the royal family of Canadian classical dance, Alberta Ballet is a lady-in-waiting. The acknowledged kings and queens are National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, Ballet British Columbia in Vancouver, and Royal Winnipeg Ballet. More oftne than not, A.B., a company that began life as Edmonton Ballet in 1960--it became Alberta Ballet Company in 1966--is dismissed as a prairie also-ran. In the great independent spirit of the west, however, the feisty Calgary-based company under artistic director Ali Pourfarrokh is embarking on an aggressive campaign to take its rightful place among the crowned heads, and--more to the point--is succeeding.

A.B. has languished in the shadows of her sister companies for several reasons. Founder Ruth Carse held it to a fairly restricted mandate; it mounted seasons in Edmonton and Calgary and toured extensively throughout its home province and neighboring Saskatchewan. Significantly, the first national tour did not take place until 1985 under Carse's successor, Brydon Paige, who became artistic director in 1976. His choice of repertoire was also problematic; the sixteen-member company was defined by Paige's restaging of full-length classics and classical snippets performed to taped music.

While the company did produce a body of original work, such as ballets by resident choreographer Lambros Lambrou, the watered-down classical repertoire was clearly the cash cow. It was, however, a body of work that could not travel widely, particularly to sophisticated urban centers. This image of a regional company lingers today. While Ballet British Columbia, with fourteen dancers and a shorter history, receives a whopping $250,000 from the Canada Council for this fiscal year, Alberta Ballet gets a mere $70,000 grant--a fraction of the company's $3.6-million budget.

The company was also held back by Paige's insistence upon showcasing its tiny, five-foot-tall prima ballerina, Mariane Beausejour. The shortest dancer in the present company would have been the tallest dancer under Paige. Pourfarrokh jokes that the wardrobe he inherited when he took over in 1988 is now used by students at the company school. Barbara Moore, the only A.B. dancer from pre-Pourfarrokh days, recalls, "Everything centered around Mariane. Talented dancers were stuck in the corps de ballet, and there was a big turnover. We also had the reputation of being a training ground for Les Grands [Ballets Canadiens], which is where Brydon had come from. Kids would get hired out of Les Grands' school, get seasoned, then go back to Montreal." Alberta-born Moore has flourished under the new regime. Pourfarrokh has utilized her brilliant dramatic flair in such roles as the sizzling temptress in Giuseppe Carbone's Carmen and the haunted, tragic heroine in Birgit Cullberg's Miss Julie.

The unsung heroes of the A.B. makeover are the board of directors who, by hiring Pourfarrokh instead of choreographer Lambrou, the heir apparent, rejected the status quo to build an international profile. In their new artistic director they saw a man who would lead the company out of regional obscurity. Born in Teheran and New York--trained, Pourfarrokh danced with the Joffrey and Harkness ballets and American Ballet Theatre. He was associate director of Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theater before taking over Iranian National Ballet. The Islamic revolution made Pourfarrokh an exile, and after a stint with Germany's Essen Ballet, he returned to the United States to found the Dance Theatre of Long Island and the North Shore School of Dance. Four years later, he found himself in Edmonton, then A.B.'s home city. "I was invited to see the company, and immediately sensed the potential," says Pourfarrokh. "I was tired of administrative responsibilities and felt that under a sympathetic board I could spend more creative time in the studio and be artistically happy."

Pourfarrokh faced the challenge of a company bloodied by internecine struggles between Paige and Lambrou and unsettled by a soon-to-be-completed merger with the struggling Calgary City Ballet, which involved moving A.B.'s operations to that city. Lambrou and loyalists such as Beausejour decamped to Austin City Ballet, and Pourfarrokh's first season was spent scrambling to find dancers and create choreography. In fact, in his first two years with A.B., Pourfarrokh contributed a staggering nine pieces to the repertoire. Only Paige's Nutcracker, a perennial money-maker, was salvaged from the mess. A further unpleasantness was the bitter divorce between the company and the Alberta Ballet School, which has remained in Edmonton.

The move to Calgary brought with it many advantages. A.B. exchanged the vacant school building that had been home in Edmonton for spacious headquarters at the Nat Christie Centre, a beautifully renovated former railway station inherited from Calgary City Ballet. The merger also raised the complement of dancers to eighteen; with two permanent apprentices, A.B. can field a company of twenty. Calgary, the corporate center of the oil and cattle industries, is considered a far more dynamic city than Edmonton, the bureaucrat-heavy provincial capital.

Today's A.B. is a radically different company. Pourfarrokh has mandated a no-star system; the company performs as an ensemble in pieces suited to its size. He introduced to Canada such choreographers as Dan Siretta (Indian Summer) and Domy Reiter-Soffer (Equus), as well as Carbone. He attracted cross-Canada media attention after the success of Peter Pucci's Lifted by Love, set to the music of superstar singer and Alberta native k. d. lang.

The encouragement of Canadian choreographers is also important. Talented Crystal Pite, a Ballet British Columbia dancer and one of the few women ballet choreographers in the country, produced In a Time of Darkness, a stunning antiwar ballet, while rising star Mark Godden, formerly of Royal Winnipeg Ballet and now of Les Grands, will be mounting a new work this season. Calgary performance artist Denise Clarke created the delightfully quirky Feed Me. looking at dance from a dancer's point of view. Pourfarrokh has also remounted classic works by the deans of Canadian choreographers, Brian Macdonald (Time Out of Mind) and Fernand Nault (Liberte Temperee).

"We may have lost the tutu crowd," says Pourfarrokh, "but by doing works more of our time, both our subscription lists in Edmonton and Calgary have grown and single ticket sales are up." As proof, the subscription renewal rate for the 1995--96 season is the highest ever in the company's operating history. Pourfarrokh's own growing craft as a choreographer has also added to the company's luster. An admitted devotee of abstract themes and mood creation, his Journey (1993) and Butterfly Dream (1994) earned him rave reviews. To encourage choreography within the company, Pourfarrokh last season instituted the first annual choreographic workshop.

The growing respect A.B. commands in the dance community has made it easier for Pourfarrokh to hire the versatile dancers he needs for the eclectic repertoire. The present range of experience is from four to six years, and not everyone has classical training; Walter Wittich, for instance, is a modern dancer who also teaches company class once a week. "You can't be a pure bunhead in this company," he says. "You have to be open-minded to do this rep."

In fact, it was the potential of the dancers that drew ballet mistress Lou Fancher to A.B. in 1993 after a respected career in the American Midwest. Says Fancher, "Ali has a real skill in finding dancers. They don't have the best bodies, but they have unique bodies, and they can create great moments onstage with their uniqueness." Ballet master David LaHay, a former principal with Les Grands and a distinguished teacher and repetiteur, has strong roots in the Canadian dance establishment. He arrived last season after the demise of Ottawa Ballet and found a hardworking, talented company. "Word is getting out there that this is a good place to dance," he says, "and to dance in this company, you have to be a dynamite performer."

Executive director Greg Epton, thirty-two, and his team of Young Turk marketing and development whiz kids are part of A.B.'s success story. With 78 percent of the budget coming from ticket sales and fund-raising, and only 22 percent from government grants, the administrative side of A.B. has to be aggressive. For example, the revenue of The Nutcracker was doubled by treating it as a commercial property with an increased number of performances and premium ticket prices. A new logo has been designed to reflect the company's more contemporary image. A.B.'s sold-out City Centre project last season showcased the company in an intimate downtown theater, "bringing dance to Generation X" in the hope of luring them to the mainstage Jubilee Auditorium in the future. Says Epton, "I keep saying A.B.'s history is only seven years old because we've had to reinvent the wheel."

On Pourfarrokh's wish list for A.B. is a company of twenty-six to thirty versatile dancers, an exciting roster of works, and a national and international profile. For touring to small rural centers, he would like to create a second company with its own repertoire. Epton and board chairman Larry Clausen, on the other hand, see their job as holding Pourfarrokh in check and maintaining a balanced budget. In 1989, the provincial government cleared the debts of all major arts groups with the dire warning of no more bailouts. Alone among Canadian dance companies, A.B. has no deficit. When Pourfarrokh wanted to redo the threadbare fifteen-year-old Nutcracker, which generates one-third of A.B.'s budget, he had to wait until the upcoming season, when the $450,000 was in place. When the Canada Council touring office refused to fund A.B.'s 1995 tour to central Canada, the board canceled the dates rather than incur a $140,000 debt.

Nonetheless, the board has been instrumental in making several of Pourfarrokh's dreams take flight. The Alberta Ballet School of Dance opened in 1991, comprising both a professional training division to feed the company and classes for local children. To head the school, A.B. lured Alain Pauze from the school of Les Grands, where he was director of programs and head of development.

Live music was introduced in 1993 with the Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony. To inaugurate the historic event, the company mounted Jean-Paul Comelin's Requiem, set to Mozart's K. 626. The performance involved the artistry of some 150 dancers and musicians, including soloists and chorus. It was considered a milestone in the company's history.

What plays well in larger centers, however, may not be good fare for Medicine Hat or Moose Jaw. These small prairie towns, longtime supporters of A.B., want story ballets, dances on pointe, and women in dresses. Pourfarrokh has been challenged to find narrative pieces for a small dance company, and the likes of Miss Julie and Carmen are few. Lack of a story ballet for the 1994--95 season dictated his choreographic duty, and he set Sebastian, a tale of love and betrayal in Renaissance Venice, to the Gian-Carlo Menotti score. "We're training our audiences to understand that we're classically based and not classical," says Pourfarrokh, "but we can't grow beyond our support base and challenge ourselves out of existence."

There is a tremendous esprit de corps among the dancers and a strong loyalty to both the company and Pourfarrokh. Six-year veteran Alison McCreary says, "It's good to be somewhere where you're encouraged and believed in. Ali inspires us." And five-year veteran Dennis Lepsi declares, "This company should be higher ranked. People aren't aware of what we do here--the quality of our choreography, the versatility of the dancers."

Marc LeClerc, a star with Ballet British Columbia for six years, came to A.B. to join his wife, dancer Patricia Maybury. "Before coming, I was one who demeaned the company as a small-town troupe with no vision," he says. "We have an image problem; we have to create an identity. Lots of hype, that's what we need--to ring the ears of everybody with the name Alberta Ballet."

Pourfarrokh has a more philosophical but equally practical vision "Alberta Ballet reflects the Western mentality of rugged individualism. If we want to make it, we're going to have to do it on our own."
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Title Annotation:Ali Pourfarrokh is artistic director of the Canadian company
Author:Citron, Paula
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Previous Article:Channels for the desire to dance.
Next Article:Stanley Holden Dance Center.

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