Dancer, choreographer, educator, arts activist–Grant Strate has crammed a few lifetimes' worth of work into his 80 years. He was there as a dancer when the National Ballet of Canada was formed in 1951, and later became its resident choreographer; started the dance department at York University in 1970; helmed Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts from 1980 to 1989; and helped bring Vancouver's Scotiabank Dance Centre into being. But what he's proudest of is that he's taught several generations of dance artists to think for themselves, sometimes with unexpected consequences.
As, for instance, when he first met Wen Wei Wang, now a respected local choreographer. Twenty years ago, however, Wang was a humble member of the Chinese army's dance-training program, in Vancouver to study at the Lorita Leung Dance Academy.
"He was taking classes with me–and he didn't speak a word of English, while I didn't speak a word of Chinese," Strate recalls, reached at his Vancouver home. "But Lorita Leung asked me if I would choreograph a solo for him, which I did. It was a very hard solo, and he was wonderful. And the first word he ever expressed in English was to me, I think, when I finished this brutally hard piece. I asked him to do it again for the fourth time, and he said, 'No!'"
Wang didn't say no when it came time to honour his mentor, however: he'll be one of the featured artists when the Dance Centre stages Strate Variations #80: 80 Years to Celebrate, on Saturday (December 15). The $150-a-ticket gala will also feature performances by Peter Bingham, Goh Ballet, Mascall Dance, the Arts Umbrella Dance Company, and emerging choreographers Caroline Liffmann and Jill Henis.
Henis, who took private lessons under Strate as a teenager, describes her mentor in glowing terms. "He's a pillar," she says in a telephone interview. "He's incredibly revered and looked up to."
Her own brief, solo contribution to Strate Variations is further indication of this respect. "My Ode", the choreographer reveals, is "a little bit of a love poem" engendered by Strate's generosity as an educator. "In terms of the bigger picture, he makes you ask yourself where you fit in the world," she explains. "And he doesn't answer that for you, but the way he presents himself and what he demands of you as a student help you answer that question for yourself. And that's probably the biggest thing: ultimately, he helps you discover your own path."
Michael Crabb, the veteran arts journalist and broadcaster who'll host the Dance Centre gala, is another instance of someone who found himself with Strate's aid. His long career as a dance critic didn't really get under way until his older colleague asked him to edit the journal of the Dance in Canada Association, which Strate helped start in 1973.
"Grant opened up a whole area of life to me that I wouldn't have known otherwise," Crabb contends, on the line from his Toronto office. "Editing that magazine was wonderfully educative, and I like to think it made a contribution at the time.
"Grant has been a great animator and enabler of other peoples' talent–sometimes I think to the sacrifice of his own," he continues. "I think at heart Grant might have preferred to focus on his own art as a choreographer, but he discovered that he had this great talent for administration, for organization, for mentoring, and this was his great gift. I think that's why people tend to speak of him as a father figure, because he has indeed been a father figure to countless dance artists across the country."
Strate frames his own contributions in considerably more modest terms. All he has sought to do as a teacher, he says, is give his students the tools they need to make their own discoveries.
"There are some things I often say, and one is that I think in every class you teach, students should be reminded why they want to dance in the first place," he explains. "It should not all be academe; there should also be pleasure. I think also that in teaching, the best information is that which is discovered. So a teacher should set up a situation where their students must solve the problem, although they can help them do it. The responsibility is both ways: it's not to paste learning on them; it's to bring it out of them."
Perhaps the best compliment ever paid to Strate's training was inadvertent. As the Cardston, Alberta–born dance veteran explains, over the last 20 years he's been spending more and more time in China, drawn by a dance culture that combines rigorous training with deeply philosophical undertones.
"The thing that came out in the ballet classes that I was teaching [in China] was that they had somehow mixed the Russian method with their own, and it looked like calligraphy to me," he says. "It was more gentle, it was more poetic, it was more beautiful. I liked what they had evolved."
Not everyone liked what Strate was teaching, however. After the initial performance by his Beijing Dance Academy students, the facility's president asked his Canadian guest out to lunch. "With a translator, of course," Strate notes. "And he said, 'You know, it was very nice, but young people are not supposed to think like that.'"
He laughs, adding that the dance bureaucrat was undoubtedly concerned about keeping the academy's state funding flowing. His own track record as an administrator shows that Strate mastered that art long ago, but his organizational skills have never kept him from helping young dancers to question received wisdom–or themselves.