All of this inspired me to get to New York. I started working really, really hard – New York was very competitive. You had to earn attention, work hard, and then a teacher might pass you in class and say, “You're doing okay,” and that was like WOW! in a studio with sixty people all sweating and screaming for attention. It was a fantastic time.
CA: I'm curious; how did you first come to Canada?
AR: Also – I went to the Soviet Union to dance at the Georgia Opera House in Tbilisi, under the direction of Mikhail Lavrovsky. That was quite interesting because I was the only Latin American, the only Colombian – the other exchange participants were all American. We could not fly in from the U.S., so we had to come into Canada. That was my first view of Canada, in 1982. I had to spend two weeks in Montreal to get my visa from the Russian consulate and then fly from Montreal to Moscow.
I spent two wonderful weeks in Montreal. I came to the city fresh from New York into this laid-back Latin vibe and beautiful architecture – the people were nice, and I felt more at home. I thought, “This is an interesting town …” There was more dance than I expected – Les Grands Ballets, Eddy Toussaint, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, Jean-Pierre [Perreault] and all the independents. But off I went to Tbilisi and had the opportunity to see some incredible dancers – all of them were Baryshnikov types, doing fifteen or twenty tours parterre. I was a young man, and I loved the physicality of their dancing. I loved to fly; that was my strength. I could jump and hold it. I wanted to be Nijinsky … the notion of levitation really attracted me, and the drama of the ballets – having a narrative line to follow, having rules and structures to follow, telling the story, basically. I was very engaged with the ballet and the opera. We learned a lot and saw how hard the Russian artists' lives were too.
We also went to Moscow – to the Bolshoi Theatre. We visited the school and met young dancers. We had the opportunity to see the company at work and attended performances of Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and other classics. Then we went to Leningrad to see the ballet school there, and again, all the training with the kids.
During this process I realized, “My God, there are thousands of great dancers, thousands, and only a few of them will get a job, and everyone is trying for that job – they all want to dance with the Bolshoi Ballet.” At the same time, I saw a little company in Leningrad, at the Maly Theatre. I think they are still in existence.
They were the first contemporary company in Leningrad. They had these giant men! It all seemed quite surreal – the dance work from that era, walking around the city … everything was like in the 1950s, the stores had nothing, food was hard to find sometimes. Though of course they wanted to impress us with the greatness of Russia! They put us up in a czar's hotel – I had a huge room, a grand piano in one corner, Persian rugs. I was not American, still, they wanted to impress Americans with their lavish treatment – food, champagne, caviar – they did everything possible. But then, I was looking at the other reality of how people lived and how dancers struggled – the same as everywhere.
It was a fantastic experience and afterward I returned to New York and started working harder with these new realities in mind. Then I went back to Colombia, and became father to my beautiful daughter Natalia. I continued to work, but then, the personal relationship didn't work out. I had Montreal in my head all the time. I had a good friend in Montreal, who was working at the Colombian embassy there; he was also a mime and had studied with Marcel Marceau. He suggested we do some work together.
So I went back to New York again and continued my training and started commuting on weekends to Montreal. I looked for a dance job there – I needed my training, my daily practice. I looked at Eddy Toussaint, at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and, at the end, Les Grands invited me to study with the company. I did for a time, but eventually, M. Seilliers [Daniel Seilliers] said, “Well, Alejandro, we train our people for eight years – we can't not hire them; they're our priority.” I considered that fair; I just wanted to train, to keep my technique up.
I met great people in Montreal. There were lots of great Chilean musicians there, and I started working with them. I'd met a friend, an accomplished musician, and his group, who played indigenous music, was supposed to do a special for Radio Canada television. He had asked me if I played the drums. I said, “Yeah, sure,” and he invited me to come along. The percussionist never showed up, so I played with them – there I was on Radio Canada! For a time, I was making my living as a musician, making a better living as a musician than I could as a dancer. But I continued my daily practice. Finally, I got a challenge that pushed me toward full involvement with dance, and musician friends said, “Are you a musician or a dancer? Are you going to be with us or not? We need to straighten this out.”
CA: Can you speak about your first years as a dancer in Canada?
AR: From there I did a few auditions. I auditioned for Karen Jamieson in Montreal. She said, “Alejandro, I'm doing another audition in Toronto and I'd like to see you there.” I was already started on my journey as a choreographer. I told her I wanted to be choreographing, not just have a career as a dancer, and she said all her company members choreographed; it was a collaborative situation. There was another offer in Montreal, and what was going on in Montreal then was also very interesting. My friends said, “Hey, go to Vancouver; it's like Florida!” Of course it snowed all the time in Montreal – hard for guys from South America. I loved the snow, myself, but decided to go to Vancouver.
I liked Karen's theatricality. That was what seduced me – and the way she used music – I felt an affinity with my background in dance, theatre and opera. I saw her piece Roadshow – and thought, “This is interesting.” I decided to try Karen's work – it felt like the right thing to do. It was 1985, and we were preparing for the 1986 Expo. We did a number of her pieces: Roadshow, Rainforest, Sisyphus – I loved that work. Dancing her work was an opportunity to apply my acting skills too. Under her direction, and wonderful guidance, it was a kind of collective creation – and she was the creator, overall. This was a way of working – collaboratively generating material, with the choreographer finding ways to organize it, and to which you contribute and respect the vision of the choreographer.
That was a fine time, but I also had the urge to create and was making little pieces here and there. I found there were great composers in Vancouver. Salvador Ferreras, who was working with Karen Jamieson, is Puerto Rican. We did a piece together about New York, exploring Santería – based on rituals, rooster fights in the basements of New York buildings. It was surreal – about culture being created underground, physically, literally, underground.
I carried on … Karen was doing fantastic work, and I respected her so much. I was studying with Grant [Strate] – what a beautiful master and teacher. I owe him a lot. I saw in him a teacher who trained you for the stage – it wasn't just everyday practice; his teaching was about presence, about commanding the space. I also trained with Goh Ballet. It was interesting – I was coming more from the Russian technique, with big jumps, sustaining elevation. I found a way to apply this to my activity and study, blending movement and acting. It felt like opera, in a way. Dancers of our era knew what we had to do, and sometimes no one said anything, but you'd find a way to carry on, apply understanding of line and theatricality. Sometimes someone would say, “Hey, you're doing it right, or you're doing it wrong …” But usually we would just figure out a narrative and theatrical throughline to realize the ideas of the choreographer. Sometimes you'd surprise the choreographer and sometimes you'd surprise yourself. In Vancouver, I also worked with butoh dancers from Japan – a fantastic experience. Then something significant happened for me and I decided to part from Karen's company. To me it was important to finish what I'd started, and I said, “Don't worry, I will honour what I've committed to; I will pass my roles to whoever comes to the company.” She was supportive, very nice about that.
CA: What was the next phase of your work?
AR: We had performed at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa. I was dancing with another Vancouver company – I was doing a lot of dancing then, working with independents in the city. At the Festival I saw these two Aboriginal men in front of the Beacon Arms Hotel, where dancers used to stay, near the National Arts Centre. I crossed paths with them several times, these two tall, very handsome men. We checked one another out from a distance. One night, we were just jamming; I was playing drums. Everyone was having a beer and chilling out from the festival. One of these guys and I started talking … it was amazing. We both said we'd created dance pieces. I'd never seen his work, and he'd never seen me dance – but he said, “I want to invite you to dance with me in Toronto.” That was René Highway.
I thought the piece sounded really good. I said, “You know what? I'm in. I don't know you, I don't know your work, but I like the way you think because that's the way I'm going.”
So – basically I left Karen's company in 1987 to come to work with René in Toronto. I met Tomson Highway and then Raoul Trujillo from New York, who was working with Alwin Nikolai and then later on American Indian Dance Theatre; he was still in his dancing years. We did this new piece of René's – New Song, New Dance. We performed in a theatre for a month – unusual in Toronto – and packed the house every single night for four weeks.
The way we worked together was fantastic. I came from the South, Raoul from New Mexico, René from Canada. We had a lot of parallel issues. We wanted to bring something of history and spirituality into the base of our work. We wanted to create something rooted in our understanding.
Here I was in Toronto, working with René and thinking, “This is it.” Tomson was just writing his first scripts – we worked together, made food together. René had a teepee in his backyard on Spadina – a terrace, really, on the second floor. That was a thinking place. We would go in there and discuss dance. He was always ahead of his time in his work.
I continued to work and collaborate with René and Tomson, moving more into theatre and acting at times – Sage was another piece with them. Then I did The Sun of Ayash with Raoul Trujillo. It was all in Cree. I had to learn the Cree language for that play. It was very demanding – acting, dancing, flying for an hour like a monkey! Again, it was a wonderful success, running for a month of full houses.
Then I started to choreograph my own work and to meet other choreographers. One of them was Marie-Josée Chartier, who invited me to do a piece – The Men's Club. I met Peter Chin there. We performed in a gallery. That was one of her first works, I think. Then Peter invited me to do his first work, I believe, which was kind of operatic. I loved that … Then I started working with everyone in Toronto. I had worked with Jean-Pierre Perreault on Highway 86 at Expo. We connected and later Jean-Pierre invited me to work with him. Such a fantastic choreographer – I loved his generosity and intensity. Everyone he brought in to work with him was a fine artist. When you went into rehearsal, there was no wasting time; it was a fantastic process, very concentrated. (next page)