“I want to make Theatre Calgary a world-class place,” says Dennis Garnhum. These are bold words, but history suggests this energetic 40-year-old master of the stage can back them up. Garnhum, who was born in London, Ontario, spent the three years prior to coming to Calgary directing plays in New York. He’s also directed with numerous Canadian theatre companies, and at the prestigious Shaw and Stratford festivals. These days he’s the artistic director for Calgary’s largest theatre company, and in his words, he’s “paid to dream.”
Jean Grand-Maître has been around long enough to realize a few of his dreams. Under his artistic directorship, Alberta Ballet is becoming one of the most ambitious and talked-about companies in North America. A passionate advocate for the arts in his adopted city and province, the 44-year-old ex-Montrealer likes to point out, “There’s a lot more culture in Alberta than easterners think.”
Meanwhile, 40-year-old Roberto Minczuk is the recently appointed music director for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) and he hails all the way from São Paulo, Brazil. The urbane maestro is touted as one of the great emerging talents of a generation, having worked under the legendary Kurt Masur and conducted at orchestras in New York, Rio de Janeiro and London. Like Garnhum and Grand-Maître, Minczuk has one ambition: to take his newly adopted city to the top ranks of the performing arts world.
As leaders of three of Calgary’s premier arts companies, Minczuk, Grand-Maître and Garnhum are young, ambitious hired guns who are in a unique position to steer the city’s performing arts agenda forward into the 21st century. We asked them to talk about their reasons for coming to our city and what they see for the future of performing arts in Calgary.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO COME TO CALGARY?
“I feel I am at the right place at the right time,” says Roberto Minczuk of his decision in 2005 to take on the role of music director of the CPO. For Minczuk, Calgary is an exciting place with an orchestra that is playing at a very high level. He first came here in January 2005 as a guest conductor, and felt an instant chemistry with the musicians. “The orchestra, for the quality that it has, should be a lot more known, not only in Canada, but internationally,” he notes, “What attracted me to the orchestra was the very real possibility of developing this relationship and really going to the next level.”
After living in New York for three years and establishing a reputation as a top-notch director, Dennis Garnhum was looking for new challenges. When the job of artistic director at Theatre Calgary came up in 2005, he jumped on it. “When this position came available, I took a really good look at the city and realized it was in an extraordinary phase. If there was ever a place and a time in which the arts could grow significantly, and help shape the future of a city, I think the time is now and this is the city.”
Jean Grand-Maître also came because of the city’s potential, which he likens to his hometown decades ago. “My artist friends out east say Calgary today reminds them of Montreal when it was awakening and everything was possible,” he says, adding, “A lot of them are a little envious.” Grand-Maître came to Calgary in 2002, because he was tired of the jet-set nomadic life of an international choreographer where he would work with companies in far-flung places like Paris and Stuttgart for six to eight weeks and then move on. For Grand-Maître, Calgary offered a well-trained, professional company and a city on the move.
HOW DO WE COMPARE IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?
“When I moved here, I was a little bit worried about what I would find,” notes Grand-Maître, alluding to the city’s (non)reputation as a world cultural destination.
“Once I moved here, I realized just how much culture there really was,” says Grand-Maître.
Garnhum echoes this observation. “I don’t think people realize how much talent and art is created in this city. I think we’re the cultural secret of the country.”
All three men are impressed by the level of artistic activity and home-grown talent that can be found here. They cite, for example, Calgary Opera—one of the few opera companies in the world still commissioning and performing new operas, like its hit Filumena. Then there are companies like One Yellow Rabbit run by Michael Green and Blake Brooker, Theatre Junction run by Mark Lawes, and Alberta Theatre Projects run by Bob White—all with a focus on promoting innovative contemporary performing arts.
“The pioneer spirit really does come into play in Calgary,” says Garnhum, “There doesn’t seem to be any dead-weights here.”
HOW CAN WE GET TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
Minczuk believes that for Calgary to become a true cultural destination with a self-sustaining, world-class performing-arts scene, the city’s various arts companies are going to need more support.
“We need to invest more and more in culture,” says Minczuk, who cautions that a city cannot hope to achieve greatness on economic strength alone. He cites an example: “Last month, I was speaking with a friend of mine who has been commissioned by the government of Dubai to come up with a Dubai version of the Lincoln Centre. There’s so much money being made there, but they are not only interested in luxury. They understand that you need cultural sophistication to make a city complete.”
Grand-Maître, an outspoken critic of government funding cuts to the arts takes things further. “It’s quite shameful right now, what’s going on. When you look at it, I think we’re behind Prince Edward Island [Canada’s smallest province] for arts funding. That’s an inequality that has to change.” He notes that the provincial government hasn’t always been good at supporting the local arts, either financially or symbolically. For example, key political figures were largely absent at Alberta Ballet’s 40th Anniversary Gala last year, but managed to fill up a front row at the opening of Cirque du Soleil.
“That’s a Quebec arts organization! It’s kind of infuriating.”
But he hastens to add that he is optimistic—he is starting to hear positive rumblings.“I think the government is realizing it’s time to portray more than cowboys and oil.”
WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT TO SEE?
As leaders of three of Calgary’s largest performing arts companies, each director plans to add to their mainstream content works that are daring, innovative and even controversial.
As an example, last year, Alberta Ballet collaborated with international rock legend (and Alberta-born) Joni Mitchell, creating a new, contemporary ballet called The Fiddle and the Drum. The ballet, a dark yet beautiful meditation on issues of war and the environment has paid strong dividends. In addition to critical acclaim, this winter, a television performance of the ballet will air nationally on Bravo! Television. And later this season, the company introduces audiences to two new pieces choreographed by Grand-Maître: Dangerous Liaisons and Mozart’s Requiem.
For Roberto Minczuk and the CPO, programming is about balancing classic and contemporary repertoire. This year, there’ll be plenty of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven to go around for classics fans. But the season will also include less-known contemporary and neo-classical works, such as the newly composed, Grammy Award-winning Ainadamar by Osvaldo Golijov.
The idea of daring repertoire is exactly what drew Garnhum to Calgary. Acknowledging that he had been hired as an outsider to “shake things up,” Garnhum took a major step in this direction, launching Theatre Calgary’s 2007-8 season with an ambitious undertaking: a world premiere. Based on of the award-winning Timothy Findley novel, The Wars, Garnhum wrote and directed a stage adaptation of the sprawling World War I epic, involving 16 actors, five designers and a crew of 15. “This is huge for a new Canadian play,” notes Garnhum, “But we’re doing it. This is how we dare to put ourselves front.”
WHAT LEGACY WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEAVE BEHIND?
Dennis Garnhum has a few plans for Theatre Calgary. He’d like to do more new plays like The Wars and establish a second stage for more intimate productions. Ultimately, what Garnhum would like to do is change Calgary’s cultural status from a national secret to a well-known fact. “My goal is, in the future, when I say I work at Theatre Calgary, people will know exactly what I’m talking about,” says Garnhum.
Minczuk has similar ambitions. Part of his goal for the CPO is to make it “the pride of the city.” This means more recordings, more tours, more top-rank guest soloists and more packed houses. For the exacting musical taskmaster, this also means a legacy of excellence. “I’m always going for perfection, for getting everything absolutely right. I think you cannot go wrong with that.”
And for Grand-Maître, besides leaving behind a healthy ballet company and ballet school for future generations, his primary goal is to inspire people through art: to remind them of their passions, ideas and thoughts—their fundamental humanity too often forgotten in busy, business-oriented cities like Calgary. “If I can have inspired people to live their humanity even a little bit more than before, then I would be very proud of what I had done.”Dennis Garnhum, Artistic Director for Theatre Calgary
Born: London, Ontario, 1967
Where he’s worked: New York for three seasons, and across Canada, including the prestigious Stratford and Shaw Festivals.
Favourite play: The Wars
Favourite stage actor: Christian Goutsis, Judi Dench
Favourite Calgary restaurant: Divino
Favourite hangout spot: The Hyatt Sandstone Lounge.
If he hadn’t gone into theatre: Architect
What he likes about Calgary: “The energy of the city—I’ve never been part of a city that is all about possibility.”Jean Grand-Maître Artistic Director for Alberta Ballet
Born: Hull, Quebec, 1963
Where he’s worked: Lived and worked in Montreal for 22 years; as an independent choreographer, created commissioned works for important European companies like Teatro alla Scala and the Paris Opera Ballet.
Favourite ballet: Swan Lake
Best dancer ever: Fred Astaire
Favourite Calgary restaurant: Fleur de Sel
Favourite hangout spot: The Auburn Saloon
If he hadn’t gone into theatre: Pianist
What he likes about Calgary: “Its libido. Calgary has amazing energy. The people here like to risk, they are entrepreneurial, they have confidence, and they’re optimistic.”Roberto Minczuk Music Director for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra
Born: São Paulo Brazil, 1967
Where he’s worked: Has conducted major orchestras in Europe and South and North America, including the London Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa.
Favourite composer: Johann Sebastian Bach
Favourite non-classical music: Bossa Nova
Favourite Calgary restaurants: Teatro, Centini, Catch and Rouge
Favourite hangout spot: The Calgary Tower [Panorama Restaurant]
If he hadn’t gone into theatre: Architect or theologian
What he likes about Calgary: “The great restaurants—music and good food are such a good combination. I love the fact that we’re near the mountains of course—and I love the Flames [Calgary’s hockey team].”What’s On: Alberta Ballet
Dec 19 to 23: The Nutcracker
Jubilee Auditorium, call 245-4222 or visit www.albertaballet.com
Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (highlights)
Nov 1: The Brilliance of Mozart and Haydn
Nov 30, Dec 1: Don Messer’s Jubilee with Frank Leahy
Dec 7-9: Handel’s Messiah (sing-a-long on the 9th)
Dec 18: A Colin James Christmas
Performances at the Jack Singer Concert Hall, Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts; call 571-0849 or visit www.cpo-live.com.
Oct 16 to Nov 4: Vigil
Nov 23 to Dec 23: A Christmas Carol
Max Bell Theatre, Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, call 294-7447 or visit www.theatrecalgary.com—Andrew Mah