In honour of their career achievements, six Canadian artists have been named laureates of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The 2013 class, to be honoured at a gala in Ottawa on June 1, include the violinist and teacher Andrew Dawes, the producer and singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois, the filmmaker Jean Pierre Lefebvre, the actress and teacher Viola Léger, the actor and arts advocate Eric Peterson, and the dancer, choreographer and artistic director Menaka Thakkar. Each laureate will receive a cash prize of $25,000 (contributed by the Canada Council for the Arts) and a commemorative medallion struck by the Royal Canadian Mint. Also receiving recognition are director-actress Sarah Polley, this year’s recipient of the National Arts Centre Award for her banner year in film, and Montreal arts booster Jean Pierre Desrosiers, the winner of the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. – BRAD WHEELER
6 to know: The 2013 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards laureates talk about the moments that shaped their careers
“It might have been the moment when my mom got me to study violin,” says Andrew Dawes with a laugh. The genial 73-year-old violinist – and new Governor-General's Performing Arts laureate – is trying to remember the most important pivotal moment of his professional life.
“Actually,” he says, “it was really in my early 20s, when I realized I wanted to be a chamber musician. I had been doing lots of competitions as a kid, preparing for a solo career. But I discovered I wanted to make music with other people, not be a hotshot soloist. That was the turning point.”
As it was for Canadian music. Because at that decisive moment, Dawes was in Mont Orford, Que., as part of the summer musical institute sponsored by the famed Jeunesses Musicales Canada. It was 1965, and the quartet he formed that summer – the Orford String Quartet – would remain together for the next 26 years. Dawes stayed with the group for the entire run as its first violinist, creating an international reputation for himself and the quartet that stands to this day.
He’s never regretted his decision to abandon the solo stage. Oh yes, he notes, “You can do whatever you want as a soloist , that’s true. With a quartet, you can’t just say, ‘I feel it that way,’ because you have three other people who tell you – we don’t! You have to come up with rational reasons for your choices. It’s a great discipline."
These days, Dawes is teaching, but not where you might expect. He left his position with the University of British Columbia a year or so ago. He now spends his time with young players at the Chamber Music Institute of the Vancouver Academy of Music, as well as with the Saint James Music Academy – which provides free lessons to kids in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – teaching them the joys of musical collaboration. – ROBERT HARRIS
On the international stage, Daniel Lanois is known for his production work with giants such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and U2. For the singer-songwriter and sound-sculptor, however, it all began in Hamilton, at Grant Avenue Studio, a converted 1917 house.
“The reason I got invited to work in Europe with U2 and Peter Gabriel is because of the work I did there,” he says. “I’m talking about a chapter of ambient music that I made with Brian Eno from 1979 to ‘83. In our own quiet way we made these beautiful instrumental records, one of which is called Apollo. I stand by it to this day. It was a very non-commercial time, and we got very deeply involved in the processing of sound.”
Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks was released in 1983 under Eno’s name, with credit given to Lanois and Eno’s brother Roger. “It was Eno’s vision, really,” recalls Lanois, who has released eight of his own albums, beginning with 1989’s Acadie. “I was a sidekick. But it really reinforced the values that I was then to operate by for a long time.”
According to Lanois, Apollo led directly to the collaboration with Gabriel on 1986’s platinum-selling album So . “If I had not done that ambient music chapter in Hamilton,” he says, “we would not have had Sledgehammer. It was the same thing with U2. They wanted to record Unforgettable Fire in a castle, and I had already been experimenting with renegade recording in the old Hamilton Library.”
Lanois plans to celebrate the occasion of his award by driving to Ottawa from Hamilton with his 80-year-old mother, the trip being a completion of a circle. “Everything I was doing in Hamilton led to my work abroad. We have to remember that there are stepping stones which lead to the visible work.” – BRAD WHEELER
Growing up in Indian Head, Sask. (population: roughly 1,700), Eric Peterson knew no actors. He knew no one who knew anyone who was an actor.
The son of practically minded parents – an entomologist father and a nurse – he knew no one who even worked in the arts.
It wasn’t until his girlfriend cajoled him into appearing in a college play whose name he can no longer remember that the idea of a career on stage even vaguely germinated: A professor liked his performance and encouraged him to take an acting course. And so he did, the following year.
There followed a long, uncertain apprenticeship in the theatre – five years in London working mainly backstage, a few more in Vancouver and, beginning in 1974, in Toronto, where he joined the collective that became Theatre Passe Muraille.
It was there, says Peterson, 66, that he experienced his seminal moment – the recognition that “I did not need to go off to Hollywood or London to be an authentic artist.”
Working with the likes of Paul Thompson, David Fox, Clare Coulter, Miles Potter and others, he realized that our own Canadian lives could be the stuff of genuine cultural expression, examining “what it was like to be a human being in this part of the world.”
It was less a personal career-changing moment than an epiphany. “It unleashed a creative energy in me. I felt, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can draw on my own experience and on my own Uncle Charlie and Aunt Alice, and not worry about how Laurence Olivier or Paul Newman was doing something.'"
Even after Peterson was firmly established as an actor – famous, in the Canadian way, for playing lawyer Leon Robinovitch in the TV series Street Legal – his father would skeptically inquire, "Yeah but what are you going to do next?"
Peterson was nonplussed. Paul Thompson had taught him that being an actor in Canada was “just as important as being a farmer or a lawyer, and that, having taken from the community, you then returned it, value added, as an artistic offering.” – MICHAEL POSNER
Jean Pierre Lefebvre
Jean Pierre Lefebvre, born in Montreal in 1941, began one of the most remarkable careers in Canadian film history in 1964. He was 23 years old. The film he was making was called Le révolutionnaire, and he approached the project with certain ideas in mind concerning what the film would be and how it would become that. He had in other words a movie in his head, right up until he actually started shooting. Then reality intervened.
Today, when he thinks back on that time, he considers it one of the most valuable learning experiences of his entire career.
Lefebvre has made more than 20 feature films since, and several shorts and documentaries. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and was the very first Canadian filmmaker to have a feature invited to the Cannes Film Festival, in 1967. He has ridden a career that has had its highs, lows, bumps and dips, but nothing compares to that first experience.
“During the shooting of my first feature, Le révolutionnaire, in ’64,” he says from his home in Montreal, “what I learned was that I could not reinvent reality but reality was reinventing me.”
He says it’s the most important artistic lesson he ever learned.
“To me that was the base of everything,” Lefebvre added. “I wasn’t looking for a style, but because it was winter, because it was cold, because everybody was freezing and the camera was freezing and because I had no money and only five days to shoot, I had no choice but to shoot long takes. After we edited the film we said, ’Gee whiz. Reality forced us to have a style.’ From that moment I realized that every film has to have its own form. That’s what led me to make so many different kinds of films. People would say, ’We never know where you’re going with your films. We never know what to expect. You change your style all the time.’
“I don’t have a style,” the director says. “Every film has a style of its own.” – GEOFF PEVERE
Menaka Thakkar first came to Canada from India in 1972 as a visiting performing artist. She stayed to become one of Canada’s most influential dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, institution builders and teachers. Thakkar, through Indian classical dance, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for multiculturalism in the arts.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Thakkar’s choice of the pivotal moment in an artistic career that spans over 50 years places her in the vanguard once again – and that is in the use of live-streaming performance technology. Says Thakkar: “I’m 72 years old, and there is limited time left to close the circle of my life’s work. I used to bring my art to the theatre and the studio. Now live-streaming opens up the world to me. It has given me a second career.”
Thakkar began to entertain the thought of live-streaming almost two years ago, and an Ontario Trillium Foundation grant helped launch the project. Thakkar points out that live-streaming of dance in Canada is virtually a new concept. So far her own company has had three trial runs, both in distance learning and performance.
Last August, Indian martial arts expert Anil Natyaveda instructed Thakkar’s dancers in body conditioning from his home base in Boston. Then in October, the ceremony and performance when Thakkar was awarded the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts was live-streamed from the Flato Markham Theatre to York University students.
Finally, in March, her company performance during the Kala Nidhi Festival was live-streamed from the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto to the aboriginal theatre company Debajehmujig on Manitoulin Island, and to Debajehmujig supporters at a theatre at Confederation College in Thunder Bay.
For Thakkar, interactive live-streaming helps her complete her dream of bringing classical Indian dance to new audiences. “I’m embracing the new technology,” she says. “I’m a pioneer in the fusion between live dance and cinema, between stage art and the instant editing of the pictures from three cameras.” – PAULA CITRON
She may have been born and raised in the American hamlet of Fitchburg, Mass., but that, insists actress Viola Léger, “is just geography.” She never nursed a shred of doubt about who she really was and where she truly belonged – her ancestral homeland of Acadia, in New Brunswick.
Her parents immersed her and her siblings in Acadian culture, forcing her to gain proficiency in French by ignoring them when they spoke English. When she was ready for university at 18, she refused to go to an English-speaking institution and set off for Moncton.
Her theatre career, now in its fifth decade, was something of an accident. She was teaching high school and using her free time to direct student productions of Shakespeare and Molière when her colleague, Acadian writer Antonine Maillet, produced a series of monologues that became La Sagouine, about a cleaning lady from the country.
For the launch of the play’s publication in 1971, Maillet suggested it might be fun if Léger performed part of it.
That was the turning point. “It was supposed to be a one-off,” she recalls. “But it made such an explosion that it changed my life. Two years later I left teaching and became an actress.”
Léger has lost count of the number of times she has performed La Sagouine. “I stopped counting at 2,500. I’ve taken it from coast to coast to coast.”
Indeed, she is still performing it and, in the days leading up to her Governor-General's Performing Arts award, was busy rehearsing for a scheduled summer performance.
In 2001, when she was 71, then prime minister Jean Chrétien appointed Léger to the Canadian Senate. She spent four years there before retiring. “I considered myself an ambassador of the arts community and I finished every speech with lines from a poem or play or novel.” – MICHAEL POSNER