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Interview with Peter Quanz:

A Canadian at the Mariinsky

by Catherine Pawlick

June 2007 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia

After viewing his local Shakespeare Theatre at the age of 9, Peter Quanz resolutely announced his intention to become a choreographer, and he hasn’t looked back since. In fact, recent successes have culminated in perhaps every choreographer’s dream: an invitation from Maestro Gergiev to create a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. 

On July 7, Quanz’s “Suspended Aria” premiered during St. Petersburg’s “White Nights Festival”. I spoke to Quanz on the occasion of his premiere.

What launched your choreographic career?

The great thing about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School is that they always encouraged choreography. I created my first ballet at 16, and at graduation I received a grant which I used to go to Hamburg to see Neumeier, Stuttgart, Dutch National and Netherlands Dance Theatre. All four companies have strong choreographic traditions, so I saw a wide repertoire very quickly. I returned to Stuttgart and created a ballet for the Noverre Evening – the same evening that launched the careers of Forsythe, Kylian and Neumeier. The ballet was a success, and Reid (Anderson) created a position in the company for me, which was very generous of him and showed great foresight. I stayed there for nearly three years.

After that I worked in England with David Bintley and Monica Mason, and then created works in New York, including one for ABT called Kaleidescope in 2005. I created four big pieces in six months, in four different countries. One of them was a full-length ballet called Charles Kreuzfahrt set to an original Cole Porter Score for Germany’s Chemnitz Ballet company. Right now, I’m booked through 2010.

How did the Mariinsky project come about?
  Elena Tchernichova watched my work at ABT. She said she had not seen the company dance that well in some time, and if I could do that for ABT, they need me at the Mariinsky. She spoke with Maestro Gergiev, and he phoned me on March 20 of this year. It was a very fast project.

Was the musical choice yours?

Maestro Gergiev asked that I use a Stravinsky score, and it had to be half an hour long for full orchestra. So I looked at the repertoire that fit those requirements. It was very important to me that the score be free of previous association with other ballets or with Balanchine. Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in C’ caught my eye and I knew instantly that it was the one. It was the fastest musical decision I’ve ever made. Everything in this project has appeared at precisely the right time and has somehow worked. That doesn’t always happen.

What in particular about the score intrigued you?

While Stravinsky was writing the first two movements of the score, his eldest daughter, wife, and mother died of tuberculosis. Three funerals within six months. He contracted tuberculosis himself, spent five months in a sanitarium and thought he would die. Writing this score helped him survive, it became his refuge. The first movement is heavy but has a light melody. The second movement he called an aria, and it’s so beautiful, so lyrical, it’s a song, his cry to escape his personal sorrows. So I took his word and used it as the title for the ballet.

Can you explain the ballet’s characters?

Since Stravinsky had lost three relationships, I decided to use one ballerina and show three relationships with her, as though you’re looking at a sculpture from three different angles. We see the ballerina as a three-dimensional personality: a thinking, intelligent, emancipated woman. As Balanchine said, ‘Ballet is woman,’ and that’s especially true here in the Mariinsky.

Tell us about your choreographic process.

Most of the choreography has been done here in the grand foyer of the Theatre itself, or up on the third floor by the studios. I work in the morning before going into the studio, because there’s nothing worse than facing 30 dancers with their hands on their hips and not having an idea. So I prepare very thoroughly. Of course these dancers expect to learn the entire coordination – the arms, head and body – at the same time. Whereas with American dancers I would first do the legs and then add the arms. You can work in pieces that way and therefore build a step more easily. Mariinsky dancers move with a more harmonic understanding, so it’s a tradeoff. If the actual creation is a little bit more distanced, the end result is more cohesive.

 

How have the Mariinsky dancers assimilated your style?

All of the dancers here come from the same school, which can be a blessing. So when I ask for a glissade assemblé, I know they will all close their arms the same way. But if I don’t want their arms to close, it’s a revolution! So it has been a challenge to agree that the style should be different, to be comfortable within Stravinsky’s score and still have movement be possible at Gergiev’s tempo.

But now that we’ve come to the end of the project, the dancers do not want me to touch the same steps that they fought against just six weeks ago. Although it was difficult for them to understand my style at first, now they defend it tooth and nail.

How has the rehearsal experience inside the Mariinsky been?

They have given me all the time I can handle. I’ve never rehearsed so much in my life. Sometimes I have ten hours a day with no break at all. I’ll be here at 7 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night. I lost an inch and a half off my waist in a month. As Vasiev’s assistant says, I’ve been “on ‘the Kirov Diet’.” I’ve learned a few Russian words but I haven’t had any time to see the city. And there hasn’t been time to learn much more than the phrase eesho raz, asking the dancers to repeat something ‘one more time’.

How would you categorize your style?

Many people say that my work reminds them of Balanchine. That’s an easy but simple comparison. I’m using great music, an abstract way of moving, and I’m very good with the corps de ballet, it’s one my strengths. Those are all things that I have in common with Balanchine. But my work is not as angular as Balanchine, there’s a lot more circular use of port de bras and the body, there’s a different musicality and fluidity in the movement.

What’s the future of classical choreography? Is there one?

Today we talk so much about losing classical style, we need to stop trying to hold on to exactly what the language is, but understand that classicism is more importantly based on aesthetic principles, structure, and craftsmanship: how we pull design, music, and movement together. And within that you have your own individual language, but it’s the architecture that signifies classical work or the quality of the ballet. Balanchine died in 1983, and we haven’t had a major classical choreographer since then, but I don’t see that as a reason for the art form to stop producing. Now is the time to invest in technically strong dancers and create new works that expand their technique and personality, but with the point of view of 2007.

How does it feel to work inside the Mariinsky?

I’m the first Canadian to ever make a new work for the Mariinsky Theatre, this is my first trip to Russia and it is a big responsibility, but it’s also a tremendous honor and one I will remember for the rest of my life. It has deeply influenced the artist I am and the artist that I will become. I’ve had a great time working here; it is very special to me.

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