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Reid Anderson
Reid Anderson

Dance

Keeping a legacy alive is a labour of love for Reid Anderson Add to ...

"This company never stops partying," says Reid Anderson. "We're festival people. It's always galas and more galas."

As artistic director of Germany's Stuttgart Ballet, the 61-year-old Canadian and his dance troupe certainly have good reason to celebrate: This year marks the 50th anniversary of a company acclaimed for both its repertoire (which runs the gamut from experimental dance to Russian classical ballet) and its legendary dancers (who have gone on to posts around the world).

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But while Anderson has been voted "director of the year" by Dance Europe magazine - in the last 14 years, he's commissioned 76 original works from 29 choreographers, including heavy hitters such as Wayne McGregor, Christian Spuck and Marco Goecke - he insists that he's simply taking care of a legacy.

That legacy started back in 1961, when choreographer John Cranko became artistic director of what was then the State Opera Ballet Company of Baden-Wurttemberg.

Although tucked away in an industrial city near the Black Forest of southern Germany (Stuttgart is home to Mercedes Benz, Porsche and Bosch), Cranko believed he could transform his dancers into a world-class company - and in the short 12-year tenure before he died at the too-young age of 45, he did just that.

He also transformed Anderson's life, who keeps a handkerchief at the ready to dry his eyes at the mention of his beloved mentor's name.

Born in New Westminster, B.C., Anderson was set to leave for advanced training at London's Royal Ballet School in 1967 when he caught the National Ballet's production of Cranko's Romeo and Juliet on CBC-TV. It was the first time he'd heard of John Cranko and he was transfixed by the choreography.

Fast-forward two years and Anderson is an unhappy member of the Royal Opera Ballet in London, where he's carrying spears in Aida. But at his school Christmas party, his friends dare him to ask the formidable ballet teacher Barbara Fewster to dance.

"While we were on the dance floor, she asked me what I wanted as a career, and I told her I wanted to be in a real ballet company," he recalls. "She casually mentioned that her friend John Cranko was looking for boys. My parents had to wire me the airfare so I could go to Stuttgart to audition."

It turned out that Cranko's company was about to perform two weeks at New York's 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera House, and he needed more dancers. The great impresario Sol Hurok had heard about "the ballet miracle" that was happening in Stuttgart, and arranged the tour - and Anderson was included in the company.

"We performed Onegin," Anderson says. "At the beginning of the evening, we were nobodies from nowhere, but by the end of opening night, the audience was screaming and we were famous. In New York, we were billed as the Stuttgart Ballet and the name stuck."

Anderson went on to 17 years as a Stuttgart dancer, teacher and coach, before branching out as an artistic director, first with Ballet British Columbia in 1987, and then, in 1989, with the National. He took over Stuttgart in 1996.

At the time of his departure from the National, there were rumours that Anderson had always considered his Canadian sojourn as a way station to Stuttgart. But he categorically denies this.

"I was never planning to come back," he says of Stuttgart. "I was happy in Toronto, even though I had to fundraise all the time, and never had money for new works. The tipping point came when the new Conservative government in Ontario cut the National's budget by 25 per cent. Overnight we lost $500,000. I left Canada to protest these funding cuts.

"I had been approached by Stuttgart earlier about becoming artistic director, but told them I wasn't interested. This time, I phoned them, and within a day, the job was mine."

In Stuttgart, Anderson is part of a quartet of intendants which includes the heads of the ballet, opera and theatre companies, as well as a general director. The four make all the decisions concerning the state theatre complex - programming for the 1,400-seat Opera House, 800-seat Playhouse, and 200-seat Chamber Theatre and their management - and share a budget (and even a private car and driver). Their funding comes from two main sources: half from the state of Baden-Wurttemberg and half from the city of Stuttgart.

And while there is a creeping belt-tightening in Germany because of government cuts during the current global downturn, Anderson still feels he has a sweet deal: His company of 70 dancers is funded 75 per cent by the government, compared to only 25 per cent government funding at the National Ballet.

This means "things can unfold as I want," says Anderson. "I'm my own boss. The arts are revered here. We are appreciated because we give the city a high profile."

If the government supports his ballet company, though, one of things Anderson loves about working in Germany is the lack of cultural nationalism. For example, Stuttgart Ballet has only four German dancers. The rest come from 27 countries - including six Canadians.

"I'll take anyone who's a good dancer," says Anderson. "I don't look at anyone's passport. Germans support talent because they want quality."

And Stuttgart does attract fine dancers, with half coming from the John Cranko School, the company's acclaimed professional training wing. The names of former Stuttgart dancers who have gone on to become choreography stars include Jiri Kylian (Netherlands Dance Theatre), John Neumeier (Hamburg Ballet) and William Forsythe (Frankfurt Ballet and Ballet Forsythe).

"I know it sounds corny, but I adore this company. It's a family, a spiritual home," says Anderson. "These hallways and studios hold something special. It's a labour of love for me and not a job. I still think of Stuttgart as John's company. I see myself as a caretaker, taking care of the Cranko legacy."

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