Choreographer Peter Quanz and composer Anton Lubchenko reflected on the production of In Colour after its last performance by The National Ballet of Canada in March. Their mentor Elena Tchernichova summarized the conversation in English and Russian. Following her career as Kirov dancer and international ballet mistress-coach, she has offered her outside eye to Quanz in the development of his work since 2007. As she explained toward the end of the interview, “Now it’s more interesting to see new creations and new talents.”
Thanks to Irene Seay for interpreting the Russian on the recorded interview.
What were your experiences this past week?
I mainly attended rehearsals and the performances. In my time here I only had one day off which I spent with Peter’s family at Niagara Falls. Niagara made a tremendous impression on me – this is what I saw in Canada in the way of “theatre”. I watched Peter’s work with the dancers and the work of the conductors with the orchestra. The observation was a great experience because it is always important to see how a work of theatre art comes together, not just the role that music plays, but how all the elements are born.
There’s a point when you have to give up, you have to let other people take over and run the ballet. That’s the job of the ballet masters, and it’s interesting to see how much ownership Lindsay Fischer took of the ballet – Rex [Harrington] also supported the soloists—and to see how once we got on the stage how the dancers stopped coming to me with questions and they went instead to the ballet masters. I think that’s a very good process because it allows me to step out and separate myself from what’s onstage. I know all the problems, all the variations on each moment of the ballet, but it doesn’t matter because that doesn’t exist. What exists is what’s onstage at that moment. By the time the dancers get to the stage it’s time for me to step out.
What did you think of the audience response?
I don’t really want to sing my own praises, but it seemed to me that it was very warmly received. My understanding is that some people in the audience saw it on several occasions. And the warmth with which it was received seemed to grow from one performance to the next over the run of the show.
On the opening night I was watching the audience, and going into the pas de deux and throughout most of the ballet they were so quiet and silent. There are different qualities of silence. There’s the silence where they’re getting bored and nodding off to sleep and they start coughing, or there’s the silence where you feel that everybody’s holding their breath and sitting slightly forward in their seats. On the opening night that’s what I saw, that’s what I felt. There was a great energy coming from the audience that was feeding the dancers on stage, and to me that was the biggest compliment.
[Later in the week] some of the soloists danced so beautifully that the audience applauded in the middle of the piece. This did not interfere with the music at all. It just conveyed an additional excitement to it.
People have responded very well – including Anton – to the end of the Yellow variation, where the women are doing mechanical movement in a group of nine and the men come in and do their muscle boy poses. I set that up in a moment of being tired and having a quirky sense of humour and being a bit flippant, and it’s come out as something that people love. When you are relaxed or tired or pushed a little bit past where you feel comfortable, you sometimes let your guard down and allow something that is personal and human to come into the ballet, into the creation. It’s the same thing for the beginning of Chartreuse. For that rehearsal, it was at the end of the day, I was exhausted, I’d had some difficult calls, I didn’t know what to do and I walked in with absolutely no idea. And they just inspired something that for me is one of the highlights of the ballet – for a minute and a half long section that really defines itself. There are other sections that I laboured over with the corps de ballet moving from one position to another that I’m not happy with. Just before the finale when all the different soloists in their varied colours come in, the corps moves from the centre over into a diagonal on the side. It always looks sloppy – I have to change the pattern of it. There are things like that that just never clarified themselves and that on a second staging I would adjust.
In the corps movement I saw surprises that were fascinating. One is the supported arabesques where all the women are upside down and another is when the women are lifted and carried feet first. I found both arrangements take classical ideas into a different dimension. The women with the feet first are like armaments and victims – it’s an image I’ve never seen before. Where did that come from?
Well, this music sounds like a machine gun in some ways. In my mind, in my story, I wanted it to be like a battle. And so as they’re coming in, it’s two armies facing each other, and they’re merging, they’re coming together, and it’s a double image. On one hand, the women when they’re lifted are like bloody bodies. They’re being carried out, and the other way they’re turned into the gun and I’m using that image in both ways. And then they get pulled to the back and turned into this army of mindless followers that are just randomly shaking their heads and following whatever the ballerina says. And so I am telling a story there because I needed to find a reason for the dramatic build in his music.
With the arabesque I feel that people understand a vertical image better than a horizontal image. In a major city like Toronto or New York or Hong Kong, we have all these skyscrapers where it’s a vertical repetition for ninety-some floors, and we find that appealing, it’s visually attractive. But if you take that skyscraper and turn it on its side that horizontal repetition would become boring. Because I’m interested at that point to have a very strong powerful image – we’ve just finished this huge fugue and then suddenly all the music is together – I wanted a very strong vertical energy so I put them in penchée to lift the energy up.
In the pas de deux I especially admired the ending when she hangs by her knee.
When I first heard the variation for the pink ballerina, I thought Anton has written a soliloquy for Ophelia, and Ophelia drowns. And whether it’s a real drowning, if it’s like Virginia Woolf or it’s just this ballerina drowning in her own emotions, she goes up and she’s swirling in a whirlpool, reaching up for air and at the very end giving up and sinking down.
I was also intrigued by the choice of instruments for the pas de deux.
At the beginning of the adagio, the theme is started by the French horn and then it’s picked up by the violins and then all the strings. It’s obvious that if this is a love pas de deux, in the tradition of classical romantic music for ballet, the lyricism is captured by the strings. After the [ballerina’s] variation with little bells, the love theme is carried by just one clarinet echoed by a hymn of mourning by the piano. Peter interpreted this as the echoes of first love. The main musical idea I was expressing was through this theme that I transposed as a hymn of love at the end of the ballet.
What is the future of In Colour?
After the first three years I can stage it for any company in the world. The National Ballet will be able to continue performing the ballet as long as they wish, and Anton is now able to program this music with any orchestra separate from the ballet. It’s a big risk to make a new work. It’s a lot easier to buy an existing ballet that you know is going to be a success. But then you don’t develop unique repertoire.
I feel that I’ve made a tremendous step forward with this work, that it’s been an exciting project and that it’s my best work so far. I feel that it’s emotional, that I achieved a lot of the goals that I set out to do and then surprised myself in other ways. I think Anton has produced a very interesting score and I’ve been thrilled to be part of that. I’m thrilled with the design that Michael Gianfrancesco has produced, and to have taken a risk on a designer who has not worked for ballet before was a major deal. I had a lot of satisfaction from working with Christopher Dennis. So I’ve enjoyed my team.
Anton and I certainly are interested to collaborate further in the future. It’s important that we established this relationship. We have a good understanding of each other now, and this is the time to start considering bigger projects and especially narrative work. I think that’s an area of repertoire that needs to be developed, that we need to tell new stories in dance.
Will you be involved in the next work?
Well, who knows what the future gives to us, but of course I’m not giving up on these two boys.
A profile of Peter Quanz by Selma Odom appears in the March 2009 print issue of The Dance Current.