Not only is the world coming to the Arts Umbrella Dance Company these days, the company’s members are going out into the world.
The program based on Granville Island is creating a buzz from The Hague to New York, with some of the planet’s hottest contemporary-dance troupes—Batsheva Dance Company, Nederlands Dans Theater, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal—recruiting from it now. This year’s apprentice and senior companies have drawn dancers from as far away as Spain, Lebanon, and Texas. And such acclaimed choreographers as Crystal Pite, James Kudelka, Stephen Shropshire, and Mauro Astolfi have created new works for the season-finale show.
So what exactly is going on? Simply put, the word is out: the dance world is increasingly mad for artistic director Artemis Gordon’s unique, rigorous approach to dance training, and the fact that she’s producing anything but cookie-cutter ballerinas.
“There’s no iconography here—no tutus, no pink, no pictures of ballerinas; only pictures of kids that have been here,” says the energized Gordon with passion, gesturing out the door of her small Granville Island office to photos in the hallway. “Everybody comes to this with their own self, because we use who that person is. One of the tenets here is never try to do anyone else; do your best.”
That deeply individualized approach is never more obvious than in the studio. On this day, after our interview, Gordon is marshalling dozens of students—the first-year apprentice company and the graduating second-year senior company—in rehearsals for a staggering 15 works on the program, 12 of them new commissions. And in a run-through of former NDT dancer Lesley Telford’s yearning, fractured Multiples of “I”, you can see Gordon watching her dancers’ faces closely for intention. Coaching them with a mix of warmth and enthusiasm, she says of each movement, “You have to know why you’re doing it!”
“Arty said to us once, ‘This education is not about training dancers to be like one of the corps,’ ” offers dancer Ria Girard on a break with some of her young colleagues. “She’s training us to be a soloist. Everyone has their own identity, and she really embraces that—to find oneself as an individual and as an artist.”
That philosophy may be one of the reasons Arts Umbrella is also producing such remarkable male dancers. Out of last year’s alumni, Paxton Ricketts headed to NDT II, Alexander Andison went to the Juilliard School, and Christoph von Riedemann made an impression at Ballet B.C. And judging from rehearsals for the season finale, there’s a charismatic new crew ready to follow. One factor is that Gordon started a program specifically for young boys—with the first class producing the likes of Ballet B.C. standouts Alexander Burton and Scott Fowler.
But there’s another key to Gordon’s approach, says Jayson Syrette, a senior company member who’s been tapped to head to Rome’s Spellbound Contemporary Ballet: “There’s no ‘male’ choreography. I’m dancing and putting myself out there for the piece. It’s not gender-specific; it’s not segregated into the boys’ class and the girls’ class. We have one girl who can even lift some of the other girls better than the guys can!”
If Arts Umbrella is open about gender roles, it’s just as open about body types: it’s the rare professional training program that strays widely from strict ideas about dancer physiques.
It differs from classic ballet training in other ways, too: the uptight protocols and the hierarchy are noticeably absent. Not that students aren’t working their butts off. They train six days a week, expected to arrive half an hour early just to prepare for their 50-plus hours of classes, and take copious notes throughout.
“We have no rigidity in our culture. We really are a family,” Gordon explains. “A lot of people say, ‘How do you have discipline?’ I don’t discipline them; I teach them what discipline is and that only discipline will allow you to be extraordinary.”
Senior-company members Nicole Ward and Brooke Williamson, who both transferred from more traditional ballet programs, say it required a massive shift in their mindset. “What mostly was hard for me is you’re not treated as a student,” Ward says. “It’s been a lot more of a mental game. You have to own it.”
“It takes many years to master how to be in a rehearsal and be a valuable member and be valuable to your fellow dancers,” Gordon explains separately. “How to be a citizen in the world of dance, that will really bring dance forward. Because of that, our dancers can look you in the eye and talk.”
That sense of integrity also helps draw the calibre of choreographer Gordon is getting. She points out that bringing new works to the company is key to teaching students how to adapt quickly to new voices.
“Why do we do so many new creations? Because I don’t want the dancers to do something that’s already been done and then copy it,” Gordon says. “I want them to really apply a genuine physicality and make unique choices—instead of a copy of a copy of a copy.”
At the same time, she’s giving new choreographers an opportunity to develop their voice: on the season-finale program, alongside pieces by choreographers from as far away as the Netherlands and Italy, you’ll see new creations by Ballet B.C. dancers Connor Gnam (an Umbrella alumnus) and Peter Smida, as well as work by local choreographers Lina Fitzner and Amber Funk Barton (both alumni).
In all, the show’s mix of works will capture the school’s unique hybrid of ballet and contemporary styles. And more than anything else, it will be a chance for Vancouverites to see what all the fuss is about.
The Arts Umbrella Dance Company’s season finale is at the Vancouver Playhouse from Thursday to Saturday (May 21 to 23).