Alberta Ballet pays tribute to Class Acts

Choreography inspired by music and stars of Hollywood’s golden age

Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire. Ginger Rogers. Eleanor Powell. These are some of the names that commanded Hollywood screens of the 1930s ’40s and early ’50s. And it is to these stars of the golden age that Alberta Ballet pays tribute with the world première of Class Acts .

Alberta Ballet artistic director and Class Acts choreographer Jean Grand-Maître says this project has been almost three years in the making. When the Joni Mitchell ballet that was to close Alberta Ballet’s 2013-14 season was postponed Grand-Maître decided to take Class Acts — A Tribute to Hollywood Musicals out of the drawer.

“I grew up watching the films of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. It was those movies that made me want to dance” says Grand-Maître. “We realized today that trying to learn their choreography and their style it was highly sophisticated.

“Even our most talented dancers dancers like Yukichi Hattori when studying the choreography of Fred Astaire we can’t keep up with (Astaire) for more than three bars of music…. It was a lesson in humility for this generation of dancers to see that in the ’40s they were creating works of great genius” he says.

For one thing Grand-Maître says the art of “step dancing” has been lost in contemporary choreography where the dance comes out of the steps and their rhythm. As such his dancers worked with ballroom experts to learn the waltz and foxtrot to help dissect and emulate the Astaires and the Kellys.

Grand-Maître says he looked for ways in which Alberta Ballet’s dancers and Hollywood’s dancing legends could “find each other halfway” taking choreography from some of Hollywood’s famous dances and giving them a balletic “torque.”

Despite these adaptations Grand-Maître says Class Acts is aiming for “authenticity” in the production. “We want to capture an era in Hollywood movie-making and in dance. It was a spectacular moment in history when so much magic came together.”

Grand-Maître says audiences can expect to see all the dance archetypes that characterized the Hollywood movie musical from romantic duets à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to solos with a female garbed in a top hat and tails reminiscent of Eleanor Powell and Anne Miller to lush Busby Berkeley ensemble numbers to yes even tap dancing.

In addition to the renowned Hollywood dancers of the era Class Acts pays tribute to some of the greatest musical artists of the time with original recordings by the likes of Frank Sinatra Billie Holiday Ella Fitzgerald Nat King Cole and Lena Horne.

“Many of these films were created during the Second World War. It was amazing that people faced adversity with such optimism courage class and style. I wanted to capture that with all these great jazz singers” says Grand-Maître.

A simple narrative ties the show together. Near the beginning of the ballet audiences meet a retired movie director (Stephen Hair) on an abandoned soundstage. For the first act the audience is transported back to his early days as a young Hollywood maverick witnessing his career and all the great characters he brought to life.

The second act takes place some 40 years later. The director remains obsessed with filming dance but the aesthetic has changed to more contemporary edgy choreography. The director however still sets this new choreography to the music of the jazz legends that inspired him in his younger years.

“The whole ballet is really about putting dance on celluloid” Grand-Maître says. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun choreographing.

“If you can’t smile while choreographing “Singin’ in the Rain” then nothing will make you smile.”