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Ballet Edmonton is embarking on a tour in 2023 that includes stops in Ontario and British Columbia and a commissioned piece by Dance Victoria and the Victoria Symphony. One of the tour’s Ontario stops is at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall in Ottawa. For a relatively small company to perform in a hall of that size, when many larger companies don’t get that opportunity, is a milestone achievement.
The tour includes a mixed repertoire program that features two new pieces by artistic director Wen Wei Wang, Persistence of Memory and Swan, and a new piece entitled Valei-me by a Brazilian-born emerging creator, Diego Ramalho. The evening in Southam Hall will also include a new creation by Canadian Dorotea Saykaly.
“I think it’s quite exciting for the company. We’re new, we’re young. We’re really focused on Canadian artists, young artists, and we’re not bringing the famous choreographers.… Why don’t [we] take the chance on new voices?” said Wang.
In 2015, Ballet Edmonton, known at the time as City Ballet, was remounting segments of classic works and doing a little bit of new work. Executive director Sheri Somerville had just been hired and was still easing into her new position. After a few years, it became clear that there was an abundance of classical ballet in Alberta and that the company would benefit from changing their creative path; they decided to fill a provincial void by pivoting to new contemporary ballet work.
With this new direction in mind, the company went in search of an artistic director and was impressed by Wang, a Chinese Canadian choreographer, dancer and teacher.
At first Wang wasn’t interested in the job. He talked with a dance community member who told him that his work was well-suited for the company and he would have the opportunity to create change and build something for the community.
Initially, the company was going to bring him to Edmonton to create work for them. After several conversations with him, it became clear that he could lead the company.
“So, Wen Wei came and then we really started to shape the visual of the company, the aesthetic, the kind of dancers we were after,” Somerville said.
“We want to challenge our audience as artists,” Wang said.
With Wang at the helm, Ballet Edmonton started to change its structure. They began paying their dancers professional rates and securing grant funding. Before Wang, the company was not obtaining project or operating funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.
“I realized that I was building the foundation of the company, not just the artists,” Wang said.
Within three years, the Canada Council for the Arts welcomed Ballet Edmonton to apply for operating funding. Usually, a company has to wait five years before they are asked to apply.
The company also began focusing on attracting talented dancers and making sure women were well represented, wanting to ensure that the female voice was a part of every season. They also wanted to ensure that performances were affordable, making ticket prices between $25 to $40 and making sure audiences knew that these events were approachable.
“You come and see us however you are.… We really enjoy being in the community and welcoming people and making sure that you can always come to the ballet no matter what. It’s a place of community,” Somerville said.
Ballet Edmonton aims to spread opportunities into low-income communities, offering scholarships and free intensive ballet classes.
“There’s a lot of talk about diversity in ballet, but how are we going to hire Indigenous dancers if [we] don’t see them in ballet class at all these schools, so we thought, let’s go into the system.… Let’s give free ballet classes, but to those kids [living on a lower income], and let’s spark joy and spark some interest.” Somerville explained.
Ballet Edmonton’s original plan had been to start its upcoming touring in 2020: to Calgary for the Fluid Festival and Harbin, China, Edmonton’s unofficial sister city. The pandemic lockdowns meant that the tour had to be cancelled, which wound up being a blessing in disguise.
“It gave us two more years to get stronger. I don’t think we were quite ready two years ago,” Wang said.
The company is growing but there are still challenges. They plan to grow their administration team and hire a stage manager, a production manager and a costume designer. Wang doesn’t want to grow too fast without being able to compensate the artists fairly.
“If you want to push the company, keep moving forward, you have to work double to raise the money,” Wang said.
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