Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
“Anne has as many shades as a rainbow, and every shade is the prettiest while it lasts.”
When she wrote these simple words to describe her best-known character, L.M. Montgomery could hardly have imagined they would also apply to the variegated incarnations that her now-classic novel Anne of Green Gables would undergo after its publication in 1908. Since that date, Anne fans around the world have seen their beloved heroine immortalized in countless new editions of the novels; in movies, television shows and serialized cartoons; in musicals, and even in a graphic novel. As one of those fans, I can rhyme them all off at a head-spinning gallop.
So after 111 years, are there any new “shades” of Anne left?
As it happens, there are. One day this past spring, I came across a snippet of news at once random and significant – Montgomery’s creation, which I’ve adored for ages, is getting another new life, thanks to Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, as Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™! The news felt serendipitous and essential, and prompted me to wonder why it had taken so long for a full-length ballet of Anne to arrive? “Beats me,” admits Artistic Director and CEO Bengt Jörgen, the choreographer of the full-length ballet readying for its world premiere on September 28 in Halifax. “All I can say is that it’s time.”
The production’s developmental journey began 3 years ago, during which time Jörgen has been negotiating the complex Intellectual Property rights to produce the ballet. Even before starting that process, he had been contemplating a full-length ballet version for several years. More broadly, Canada’s Ballet Jörgen has focused for a decade on telling Canadian stories and re-creating the great classics in Canadian contexts. “With a strong foundation in Atlantic Canada, we have been thinking of bringing an Atlantic Canadian story to life. Anne of Green Gables just seemed to be the perfect literary work for us and our unique way of telling stories through dance.”
What can audiences expect of Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™? First, this is a ballet born from both the original novel and 1965’s Anne of Green Gables – The Musical®, which is also based on the novel. For Jörgen, a particular challenge with turning this story into a ballet is that any musical version – including any new ballet score – must legally be based on the long-running musical written and composed by Don Harron and Norman Campbell, with lyrics by Elaine Campbell and Mavor Moore. Initially, Jörgen was skeptical about the project’s viability, as the actual music in the musical simply isn’t long enough for a full-length ballet. He was also unsure how to adapt it to a synopsis that would be meaningfully different from the musical. However, as the creative team looked closely at it, and began the process of orchestrating the musical into an extended full symphonic score, it became clear that, “rather than a problem, it was a fantastic gift.” They found that “the orchestration is extraordinarily beautiful, expressive and dramatically succinct – the music is inspiring us to want to dance this story every day we are in the studio.”
After finalizing all the rights to proceed with the work and determining how to tackle the music, Jörgen spent a year working with his creative team, Orchestrator Alexander Levkovich and Costume, Prop and Set Designer Sue LePage, to develop the synopsis and make sure it worked with the orchestration. During this time, he also had to raise money to produce the ballet, which is completely funded by private donations. This process was a success: “I am deeply grateful to several individuals, foundations, and corporations that share my belief that making Canadian stories accessible through dance across Canada and beyond is important.”
During this year of preparation, the set and costume designs were also finalized. In the first week of May, Jörgen could finally get started on creating the choreography and testing the music in the studio: “We spent six weeks fine-tuning the score and creating core scenes before we made the official recording of the ballet score with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in early July.” July also brought costume fittings and props. And “the set is being completed as we do this interview. We are now in the home stretch of finishing the choreography, including showcasing sections in preview to get feedback from audiences about how we are doing in telling the story.”
By mid-September, the company will go into full production, create the lighting design, and bring the set, costumes and choreography together on the stage. “We will then have one more week in the studio to fine-tune things before we head to Halifax for the World Premiere with Symphony Nova Scotia.”
Anne fans (and I count myself an ardent one) are fiercely protective of the story. It is an integral part of our Canadian heritage, and speaks to us in a language all its own. Each of us has a unique reason for reading it: entertainment, nostalgia, perhaps even solace. (For me, Anne is the literary equivalent of grilled cheese: the ultimate in comfort books.) So Anne fans will draw relief and anticipation from the fact that the full-length ballet is the product of a quintessential Canadian ballet company. Every year, the company performs in Prince Edward Island – near Cavendish, where Anne of Green Gables is set. So cast members are more familiar with the story and the world it inhabits than any other dance company could be. Both of the Annes who have been cast to date have deeply personal relationships with the story, and have always wanted to dance the role of Anne Shirley. One happens to have natural red hair, while the other will dye her hair red. And Jörgen is unequivocal in his praise for the talent of his company dancers. He deems them “extraordinary artists with a passion for sharing dance both on and off stage – they are not only great dancers, but fantastic dramatic artists. Most have worked together for years. Like all of us involved in this project, it is as if they have all worked to get to this point – to create and dance Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™.” It is a happy confluence of inevitabilities, then, that the world premiere of Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™ coincides with Jörgen’s deserved appointment to the Order of Canada this month.
Despite this honour and Canada’s Ballet Jörgen’s other awards and acclaim, Jörgen remains unfailingly modest and down-to-earth. Reflecting on the ballet’s developmental journey, he marvels at how “wonderfully inspiring” and profoundly unifying the process of creation has been: “it is as if [the cast] already know where we are going before we start. This has become a very personal work for all of us working on the ballet, more so than any other production I have ever been involved in.” Despite his long career as a dancer, he readily concedes that “this work far outstrips my capabilities. The dancers in the company are well beyond anything I could ever imagine accomplishing on stage as a dancer. Yet there is no question that as a still dancing (albeit as a character artist) artistic director and choreographer, my relationship to both the works I create and the artists in the company are closely tied to my experience as a dancer. I would certainly want to be able to dance in this work myself if I was 30 years younger. For now, I hope the artists will both enjoy and grow with the ballet.” Indeed, Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™ is poised for a 2-year tour, so “if it is not both fun and challenging for the dancers, they will get bored with the ballet, and the experience for all will suffer”.
Jörgen’s aspirations for his company are clear, but what is his hope for the audience? Quite simply, he hopes that “Anne – The Ballet will inspire and charm people, helping more people see classical dance as a relevant part of their lives.” Yet with that hope comes a “great fear” that he and his company may “miss the mark” and not meet people’s high expectations of what Anne should be as a ballet. According to Jörgen, everyone who has seen the previews has come to them with strong opinions about who Anne Shirley is, and what is most important to her character . . . yet not even two have the exact same thoughts on the subject. “It is clear people who know the story have a very personal relationship with the main character – one that brokers few compromises. Our challenge will be to create an Anne Shirley who will meet so many diverse expectations.”
Speaking for lifelong Anne devotees, I believe that Jörgen need not worry. In the incomparably visionary hands of Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, a company that shares the story’s Canadian identity and values, Anne has found a true kindred spirit. The countdown to the Halifax premiere is on.
Anne has as many shades as a rainbow, and we await this newest one with the keenest delights of anticipation.
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What: Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™, Original choreography by Bengt Jörgen, C.M.| Based on Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™ | Music composed by Norman Campbell |Ballet Score Arranged by Alexander Lekovich | Costume, Prop and Set Designer Sue LePage
Performed by Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, featuring Hannah Mae Cruddas as Anne Shirley
World Premiere date: September 28, 2019, Halifax, NS with Symphony Nova Scotia
Info and Tickets: canadasballetjorgen.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019