It’s Sunday morning, and behind the soaring brick walls of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, up several flights of stairs and into the studios of Ballet Victoria, the resonant tones of the church’s organ come drifting through the walls, filling the space with music.
“It’s like living with the phantom of the opera,” laughs Paul Destrooper as he pulls out a chair for me in his office. The music fades as the service next door gets underway, and I ask him about his time with Ballet Victoria.
Paul has been executive and artistic director for the last 11 of the company’s 16 years, joining the ranks in 2007 when he was offered the position while dancing with Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland. An award-winning graduate of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Paul was born in Montreal and grew up in Switzerland, but always had a soft spot for Victoria. He actually completed his BA in literature at UVic when he was younger before dance “distracted” him.
After providing those few details about himself, he enthusiastically moves the direction of the conversation, spotlighting instead the community initiatives the company has undertaken since he took the reins.
“We do a lot for the community,” he says. “We’re a not-for-profit and we’re also a charitable organization, and we try to make our art form accessible to everyone.”
Producing shows in a proper theatre skyrockets the costs, which is in part necessarily passed on into ticket prices, he says. So to help get around that and give more people the opportunity to experience ballet, Ballet Victoria runs Tea for Tutu. A free, 45-minute ballet performance at the adjacent Kirk Hall, Tea for Tutu offers seniors, parents, kids and anyone else a preview at an upcoming performance, plus the opportunity to discuss it afterwards over complimentary tea and baked goods.
“They get to talk about the performance with each other and with the dancers. We bring seniors in from different residences. It’s also open to single parents and homeschooled kids, so there’s literally three generations in there,” says Paul.
Ballet Victoria also runs several school outreach programs, with Paul and other dancers and instructors travelling to schools to share the benefits of dance with children from kindergarten all the way up to high school, offering it as an alternative to sport and a way to keep both mind and body healthy.
“Dance is being used in therapy to slow down brain diseases,” adds Paul, which makes complete sense to me. To dance, no matter the style, you need spatial awareness, coordination in your limbs, the ability to move in space around other people, the ability to memorize the music and so much more. It’s a phenomenal mental and physical workout. (I can personally attest to this. Earlier in the spring I took a beginner’s ballet class, and I’ve never felt both so graceful and uncoordinated at the same time.)
To that end, Paul is currently working with a friend in Toronto to create a class for people with Parkinson’s disease, in the hopes of using dance to help slow the progression of symptoms for participants. Hopefully, he says, it will be up and running by the next season.
One of the new and important components of Ballet Victoria is the Conservatory, which offers a variety of classes taught by the company’s most seasoned professional dancers. Talented teachers with years of performing experience generously pass on their technique, skills and passion to their students, says Paul. Unique in British Columbia, Ballet Victoria’s main stage productions still focus on classical ballet technique and pointe work, he adds, which require an enormous amount of technical skill and strength for both female and male dancers.
But it quickly becomes clear that Paul works to inject a little “21st-century flavour” into the company’s personality as well. Diving into the “artistic” portion of his direction in the upcoming October production of Frankenstein — the start of the new season — Paul has taken story strands from Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, the tragic love story ballet Giselle and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and woven them together into a show that’s heartbreaking, satirical and beautiful, and even includes a space-opera-inspired fight scene. (I won’t spill the details here, but for anyone who was watching movies in the ‘70s, it’ll be a fun surprise.)
|Ballet Victoria’s artistic director Paul Destrooper. Don Denton photography.
He also puts on Ballet Rocks, a production that pairs classical ballet with rock music, and mixes classical and modern music.
“Like Mozart and Pink Floyd. They go great together,” he says with a grin.
As much as possible (and as much as budgets allow), he strives to work with live musicians, whether it’s a full orchestra or a single musician.
“It adds dimension to the performerance,” he says. “There has to be communication between the musician and the dancers, and you can get to a level when the music and dance are symbiotic.”
“When it’s live, you have the added interpretation of the musician, and the audience gets caught in the middle of it,” he says, becoming more animated as he speaks. “Normally the orchestra is in the pit, but when we do Carmina Burana, they’re behind us on stage with the full choir, so the music, it physically comes through you. It’s incredible!”
“There’s something primeval about dance,” he says, elaborating: men would dance to prepare for war, the rhythm and grace of it going hand in hand with horseback riding or fencing. Even going back thousands of years to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, they would dance around the fire to prepare themselves for the hunt. “You warm up your body, you meet in unison, then you go out to meet the challenge.”
Today, to see a performance is to experience another person’s emotion, their soul that they’re giving to the dance. And dance as an art form has grown to include a wealth of cultures and perspectives.
“I think we move people just as deeply with our movement and expression as a poet could do, or a playwright or a musician,” says Paul. “Everything we do is beautiful, and powerful. Ballet has a traditional, stereotypical flavour, and I think people have been slow to realize that even classical ballet has evolved, and that it truly can appeal to all. I think everything we do at Ballet Victoria — thanks to the immense talent and passion of the dancers — will surprise and inspire people.”
-Story by Angela Cowan