When choreographer Peter Quanz arrived in Ulan-Ude, capital city of the Russian state of Buryatia, in the depths of winter to work with the local ballet company, the dancers asked him if he’d ever been anywhere that cold before. He said “Yes, Winnipeg.”
But that was the only familiar thing about Buryatia, a Russian state bordering Mongolia that boasts a rich mix of ethnic culture and a classically trained ballet troupe.
Quanz spent 11 weeks in the city, working with Buryatian National Ballet and crafting a dance he hoped would reflect the traditions of the region. The work he created, titled Dzambuling, helped him earn the State Medal in Literature and the Arts, which the state president plans to present to him on Feb. 11.
Quanz, born in Baden, Ont., and based in Winnipeg, is the first North American to be given the honour.
Quanz told CBC News he was commissioned by Anton Lubchenko, a young Russian conductor and composer who was artistic director of the Ulan-Ude theatre, to create a ballet that could be performed to mark 250 years of state culture.
Lubchenko, who Quanz had hired to create music for a new work for the National Ballet of Canada in 2009, composed a work that combined traditional Buryatian throat singing, percussion and string instruments.
“When the dancers first heard it, they were horrified because they thought I was coming in to make a folk dance and the music had sounds they recognized, but not in a formula they could recognize,” Quanz told CBC News.
“I had to spend a lot of time talking to them to say, "Why would you bring in a Canadian to teach you a dance you already know. I can’t do that. I can look at who you are by this very intensive immersion and ask questions and hear you tell stories and I can edit that into something that relates to you, but is seen from an outsider’s perspective.'”
Quanz said he needed a very intensive immersion in the local culture to even begin creating the ballet. He discovered Ulan-Ude is the largest centre of Buddhism in Russia, but also has a tradition of nomadic tribes, shamanism, aboriginal doctrines and Christianity.
One of the most powerful images that moved him was a painting by a local artist of a woman with deer antlers on her head. The deer-headed woman became an observer figure in the half-hour piece Dzambuling and turned out to have resonance as a symbol of both creativity and the origins of human life.
“It became a real symbol of the journey through the world we created based on the Buddhist Samsara,” he said.
Quanz said the dancers of the company were a key to the success of the dance, because their stories helped shape the ballet.
The Buryatian National Ballet has 45 classically trained dancers, from many different ethnic backgrounds. Quanz estimates they perform at the same level of technical excellence as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, for whom he has choreographed works such as Luminous.
“My best choreography happens when I sit on the floor and I look at [the dancers] and see where their bodies tend to be going and try to figure out ways to make that work in an unusual or interesting way, as well as if there is a story or plot or atmosphere, trying to create that through steps,” he said.
That’s exactly what he did with the Buryatian dancers, listening to their stories and reactions to the music, working in his imperfect Russian.
In October 2011, the ballet company performed his work at the Mariinsky Theatre in Moscow, where they have not performed since before the fall of communism, to a sell-out crowd. The program was devoted to Quanz’s work, with a second more traditional classical ballet he created for the troupe, Souvenir de Bach on the bill along with In Tandem, a work he created for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Dzambuling was performed in Ulan-Ude at the same time as a major Buddhist conference, so that many spiritual leaders were able to see the performance. And Buryatian State President Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn was impressed enough to award Quanz the state medal for artistic achievement.
Quanz says he’ll miss his award ceremony, as he’d prefer to go back for a longer period and renew the ties he formed with a unique group of people amid the rigours of a Russian winter.
“As a cultural experience, it was deeper and more exotic than anything I’ve ever experienced,” he said.
Quanz is an alumni of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and was the first Canadian to create choreography for Saint Petersburg's Kirov Ballet. He has also collaborated with the American Ballet Theatre, Britain's Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Cuba.
He is currently creating the fourth Winnipeg season of his dance company, Q Dance, which will premiere’s new works, including works by Quanz.