Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada: From the World Stage to Stories of Home

Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada founder and CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin (Image: submitted)

MONCTON – When Susan Chalmers-Gauvin met Ukrainian-born dance choreographer Igor Dobrovolskiy for coffee nearly 16 years ago, neither expected that within a short time they’d establish an international level calibre professional ballet company in New Brunswick.

Chalmers-Gauvin brought her background policy development and program evaluation and her Atlantic Canadian pride to the table, combining it with Dobrovolskiy’s creative talent as a choreographer to found the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada.

Chalmers-Gauvin says while New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada had award-winning artists in every other discipline, professional dance had never been developed here.

“What I found was that we had many professional companies, over 80 I think at the time, across Canada and not a single one in Atlantic Canada,” she says. “It begged the question ‘why not.’ Why isn’t this possible here? Why can’t we have a professional standard ballet company exist in Atlantic Canada?”

After discovering failed attempts to establish professional ballet companies out of Halifax and Newfoundland, Chalmers-Gauvin realized that because of the smaller populations in Atlantic Canada, they would have to take a completely different approach than the traditional one.

“It’s a completely different model. We put together a board of business people and in that first year we got 60 applications to work with our company from all over the world,” she says. “We flew in dancers from Ukraine, Moldova, Japan, Belarus and Canada and we put on a world premiere in May.”

“Igor and I had coffee in June, by September we had the company seed funded and financed. By January we had a brand new studio put in place and by May we put on a world premiere with dancers from all over the world who had moved to New Brunswick and the company took off.”

Dancers Sergiy Diyanov, Yuriko Diyanova and Eldiyar Daniyarov perform at an Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada gala (Image: submitted)

Chalmers-Gauvin says since she and Dobrovolskiy had no preconceived notions of how a dance company should be established here, as her background was in other fields and he was a new immigrant, they came at the development of the company from outside convention. She says that had they tried to do things the traditional way, they would never have gotten the company off the ground.

The pair looked into means of financing that were not standard for a professional dance company and developed a plan that would address the tiny New Brunswick market and allow them to give their dancers competitive salaries.

“We needed to export and sell our production in Europe and the US and across Canada,” she says. “We started the company in 2001. By 2003 we were selling our productions across Canada. By 2006 we were selling our productions in Europe.”

“All of the ballet companies in Canada that exist… they have a big home season and they’re presenting to thousands and thousands of people in very large theatres under very big ticket prices. We don’t have that option here so our model had to be different. Our model had to take into account the size of our market. We had to access funding from unconventional sources and we had to be focused on exporting from day one.”

Chalmers-Gauvin says despite the need to completely rework how a professional dance company the size of the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada operates, there is great value to being set up in New Brunswick. The company has become a part of the community, breaking down barriers of how people view ballet and art and its value in the community.

The company has done a number of community projects including one in 2010 that addressed violence against women, honouring 23 women murdered at the hands of their partners. Chalmers-Gauvin says the company partnered with women’s organizations in 44 communities across Canada to put on performances of the piece and include educational components to not only spread the stories of these women but spread awareness of the issue as a whole.

“It had such an impact on us as an organization that we decided that every year we would do something in the community that matters, that our community cares about that’s important,” she says.

Since then, the company has told stories of outmigration of youth and interpreted visions of downtown Moncton through direct collaboration with the community. Chalmers-Gauvin says they are currently working creatively to develop a work that will reflect the feelings of a community that is both grappling with young people leaving and wanting to be welcoming of newcomers. She says immigration is an issue that’s especially important to them as a company made up of 23 full-time employees with 11 countries represented

“We’re a very diverse organization so this particular work Igor is doing on themes of home and immigration and living in two worlds is very meaningful for him and for us as a company. We’ve been a diverse company since we opened our doors,” she says.

“If this ballet company, this type of art form can live and grow and be at an international standard in New Brunswick, that’s a statement about possibilities in our province. We’re really proud of that as an organization. We’ve achieved that and that we do that from New Brunswick.”