September 26, 2016

Reflecting on the past Assemblée Internationale festivals

Every four years Canada's National Ballet School hosts the Assemblée Internationale, an international dance festival inviting professional ballet schools from around the world to participate. Here, Mavis Staines reflects on the previous festivals that took place in 2009 and 2013. 

Assemblée Internationale 2009

The inaugural ‘Assemblée Internationale’ (AI 09) celebrated the 50th anniversary of Canada’s National Ballet School. The underlying intent of the AI 09: to strengthen the bonds linking the international professional ballet education community by providing a rich, educational experience for all participants. Since there is nothing more powerfully unifying than the process of realising a creative project, the goal was to draw students together through artistic collaborations.  
Unique to the AI 09 were the number of participating schools (13 in total, including NBS) and the student choreographic component. In addition to each school preparing existing repertoire representative of their country’s balletic culture, Artistic Directors selected a student from their organisation identified as gifted in choreography, to create a work especially for this festival. Each of these works was captured on DVD and NBS assigned each visiting student a role to learn, in order for all creations to be performed by a blended international cast. Rehearsals for these blended casts brought the works to life even faster than we had dared hope; and the quality of the dancing reflected the extent to which the students inspired one another. Viewers experienced dance as a truly universal and unifying language, with most audience members unable to guess who was from which school. 

This shared creative process, in tandem with the nine, daily, blended ballet classes running concurrently and taught by either NBS Artistic faculty or visiting artists, created life-long bonds between the 97 visiting students and the 70 senior NBS students. Collaboration was clearly as powerful a stimulant as competition can be and the week concluded with participants eager to use their expanded network to ensure ballet became more accessible to a much broader public and to celebrate what they know to be an art form relevant and essential to the overall balance of today’s rapidly changing world.

Assemblée Internationale 2013

Living the week of the AI 09 reinforced for all participants, and observers, that quality of life IS defined through honouring an impassioned sense of purpose in tandem with nurturing a community to share these values. While there are myriad benefits to the world’s fascination with competitions, the AI model is uniquely different. The festival is designed to inspire individuals to push personal boundaries while also strengthening the ballet community as a whole. Equally compelling is how the philosophy and construct of events reflect the best of what it means to be Canadian - to generously facilitate creative collaboration. In a nutshell, all aspects of the AI 09 were repeated with several new, introduced components.

The number of participating organisations was expanded from the original twelve:
•    Canada’s National Ballet School
•    Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School
•    Codarts (Rotterdam) 
•    École de Danse de l'Opéra national de Paris
•    School of The Hamburg Ballet 
•    John Cranko School (Stuttgart, Germany) 
•    National Ballet Academy (Amsterdam, Holland) 
•    National Ballet School of Cuba 
•    Palucca Schule* (Dresden, Germany) 
•    The Royal Ballet School (London, England) 
•    The Royal Danish Ballet School 
•    The San Francisco Ballet School 

To a total of eighteen, thanks to allegiances with:
•    The Australian Ballet School
•    L’Ecole superieure de ballet du Quebec (Montreal) 
•    EESA/CPD l’institut del Teatre* (Barcelona) 
•    Houston Ballet  Academy 
•    The Juilliard School (NYC)
•    New Zealand School of Dance 

NBS students were even more involved in the planning of the AI 13 than they were in the AI 09. From the outset their over-riding priorities were to:

•    Illustrate that ballet is vibrant and relevant in today’s world, not an archaic, ‘recreationist’ art form. 
- While the marriage of virtual reality and live performance is increasingly common in theatre, opera, and contemporary dance, there is a perception that this relationship is unsuited to the classical ballet world. The AI 13 seemed the perfect platform for a project illustrating how, in fact, the opposite is true. I am deeply grateful to my NBS colleague, Shaun Amyot, and Michael Schumacher for their willingness to take this leap of faith.

•    Increase Ballet’s accessibility 
- As NBS students repeatedly explained how they are drawn into live theatre experiences through what they observe in social media, we were committed to finding every possible way to broadcast as many aspects of the AI 13 as possible. Thanks to immeasurable generosity from Ryerson University, Desire2Learn and HaiVision, AI classes and rehearsals (live and recorded) were broadcast throughout the day. Performance content also was shared, according to copyright agreements.

This commitment to increasing ballet’s accessibility is why the AI 13 concluded with a student‐centered conference focused on launching a “Creative Challenge”. With guidance from facilitator Deborah Bull, (Executive Director, King’s Cultural Institute, King’s College London) and Wayne McGregor, (Artistic Director Wayne McGregor/Random Dance) student participants were urged to:

•    Embrace the challenge of creating a piece of choreography to present in a non‐traditional performance venue (outside a proscenium theatre) in 2014, to mark the one year anniversary of the AI 13. 
•    Pioneer the use of key, on‐line tools to share globally their creative process and to broadcast their performances. 
•    Collaborate with artists from other disciplines such as composers, musicians, visual artists, computer animators, videographers. 

Personal highlights and especially meaningful outcomes from the festival included:

•    STREAM, the Live Streaming project was even more powerful and moving than anticipated
•    The proposal from the AI 13 Artistic Directors to use NBS’ webcasting technology for shared “Pedagogy Consultations”
•    Global interest in the webcasting opportunities
•    The student choreography, with blended casts, flowed so easily that next time round, the challenges can be highlighted; the exciting realisation that emerging artists are ready to push further beyond their current comfort zone
•    The students’ courage to think “outside the box” and embrace the Creative Challenge

My overriding belief is that each participant left the AI 13 enriched by the experience, with enduring network options and inspired by how dance makes the world a better place - whether through live performance, the use of technology, or a combination of the two. Equally important, I hope everyone involved in the planning and realization of this event knows how deeply grateful I am for their invaluable contributions and unwavering support. 

The realisation of the AI 13 is testament to a belief in dreaming big and the power of collaboration.