"Les grands ballets" literally means "the big ballets." Ivan Cavallari, the new artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (GBC), admits he was mystified to find the phrase attached to a company that was neither big, nor especially committed to classical ballet.
"It was basically a half-pointe company," he says, of the 35-dancer troupe he agreed in 2016 to take over when Gradimir Pankov's 18-year term ended in June, 2017. "There was no pointe-shoe work here for the past six years, apart from The Nutcracker," which is now in its annual December run.
Half-pointe, in which dancers rise onto the ball of the foot, is common in contemporary ballet and useful in the classics. Dancing en pointe, in a special shoe designed to transfer the weight onto the toes, is mainly a classical technique, though used with great panache by modern choreographers such as William Forsythe.
"You're losing something when you're not en pointe every day," says the Italian-born Cavallari, in his office in the company's new quarters at Espace Danse, opposite Montreal's Place des Arts. He's talking both about the technical range available to the dancers and about the kind of repertoire the company could handle.
The move away from dancing en pointe was part of a deliberate plan by Pankov to make GBC "something other than a classical company," Cavallari says. Montreal has a robust contemporary-dance scene, and many choreographers around the world make new works for ballet dancers, so it may have seemed that Pankov was taking the company where the action was.
Montrealers, however, still wanted to see classical ballet. To satisfy that hunger, GBC regularly presents guest companies doing full-length classics, such as Perm Opera Ballet's Swan Lake last season, and the National Ballet of Ukraine's Cinderella, coming in May.
Delegating the classics to others, however, had an embarrassing result: The visitors' shows regularly sold better than GBC's own programs. Even worse, Cavallari says, "the public became confused." What kind of ballet company shies away from Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty? Aside from The Nutcracker, GBC had given up the one dance form that Montreal's many other companies couldn't provide.
Pankov was given a fond and emotional farewell after his final program in June. By choosing Cavallari, however, the GBC board signed on to a hard turn away from the vision Pankov had championed.
Cavallari was on the scene as Pankov's designated successor for all of last season. While he too paid tribute to the departing director, he lost no time launching his changes when he took over in July.
"The girls were en pointe from Day 1," he says. His first program, presented in October, featured Uwe Scholz's neo-classical take on Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, for which all the women wore pointe shoes. Guest teachers were brought in to help the company work more proficiently from a higher position on the foot – or as Cavallari says, "to establish the vertical of the body." Starting next season, there will be fewer visiting companies on the GBC calendar.
Not everyone stayed for the changes. Four or five left before the changes took effect, says Cavallari, who replaced them with dancers hired from abroad. He also expanded the company from 35 dancers to 42, partly settling his issue about a "big" company that seemed small by classical standards. He hopes eventually to increase the number of dancers to 50, which would make it even easier to populate a strong corps de ballet for classical works.
A larger ensemble means a bigger annual budget. Cavallari's changes, and the increased costs of functioning in Espace Danse, will increase the operating budget by 15 per cent over three years, to $17.1-million in 2018-19, executive director Alain Dancyger says.
Dancyger says he has been promised more operating funds by the Quebec government, and hopes for a similar increase from the Canada Council. He also expects to gain revenue from corporate events held in the company's new digs. GBC has expanded its public educational programs by adding community classes and open classes and rehearsals, all of which could bring more people to the table and – perhaps – make sponsorships easier to get.
"Now that we are more visible downtown, with an enlarged mission," Dancyger says, "we will have more points of contact with the public." GBC has raised $19-million for its share of converting the 1923 Wilder Building into the home it shares with three other companies – an impressive sum in a city that's no easy place to raise cash for the arts. Dancyger hopes the experience gained during that first-ever, major pitch to the public (which still needs $3.4-million to reach its target) will help the company's fundraising in the future.
GBC isn't going completely classical. Cavallari's opening program also included Edward Clug's Stabat Mater, a contemporary work with few obvious links to classical technique. Cavallari would like to revive for GBC a project with Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite that was discussed but not executed while he was artistic director of Ballet de l'Opéra National du Rhin in France. New works are essential, he says, especially for when the company tours, and touring is definitely on his agenda.
"You want to create a very strong family, and that's something that can happen on the road," he says. "When dancers get that feeling of unity, they perform better and transmit better." To that end, it's more important to find works that develop and show off the company, he says. In the same spirit, he will work more closely with L'École supérieure de ballet du Québec, with the long-term view of bringing more graduates into the company.
"The school can only profit if our repertoire is rich," he says, circling back to his plan to rebuild the company's classical base. "Why work with the students if you don't have a corps de ballet [they can enter]?"
In the end, he says, GBC will truly live up to its name when its goals and technical reach are as big as they can be. "You need to have dancers who are capable of doing everything."
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens's production of The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 30 (grandsballets.com/en).