A Brief History of Dance at Banff Centre

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Sacra Conversazione, choreographed by David Earle, 1984.

Banff Centre Dance programs have enjoyed the guidance of several outstanding and forward-looking members of the Canadian dance community. Alumni of the program can be found on the rosters of virtually every Canadian dance company and many others have become celebrated choreographers, directors and master teachers both in Canada and abroad.

Dance programs started in 1947 when Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet initiated a six-week summer program with a focus on ballet training. Through its initial years, the program expanded to include public presentations as part of the Banff Summer Festival as well as touring to cities across western Canada. In 1967, with the arrival of a theatre complex that included facilities for costume, wig and set construction, a more formal production-focused training program was offered in addition to the existing training program. During this time, dance productions were fully designed and realized at The Centre and performed with full orchestra. In 1972, under Arnold Spohr’s direction, the program was re-named Dance/Ballet and a higher level of excellence achieved through limiting enrollment, cross-county auditions and scholarships. 

In 1978 an award was also established to encourage the development of Canadian choreographers. The Clifford E. Lee Award continues to provide emerging choreographers with an opportunity to create, rehearse and stage a work in a company environment, to participate in the design process, culminating in a public performance. Alumni of this program include Judith Marcuse, Crystal Pite, Christopher House, David Earle, Wen Wei Wang, Gioconda Barbuto, D.A. Hoskins, Simone Orlando, Mark Godden and Donald Sales.

Brian MacDonald was appointed head of Dance programs in 1982, joined by Brydon Paige as Assistant Head and MacDonald’s wife, Annette av Paul, as head of training. 

It was MacDonald who added a Professional Dance Program to the curriculum and who also steered training away from a strictly ballet syllabus, providing young dancers with training in a variety of dance traditions.

In 2002, Annette av Paul succeeded Brian MacDonald as head of Dance programs, followed in 2008, by Lindsay Fischer. Fischer created a new 5-week Summer Dance program for dancers in the early stage of their careers, in partnership with Canada’s major ballet companies as well as Boston Ballet.

In 2014, internationally respected and critically acclaimed director, choreographer and dance artist Emily Molnar was appointed sessional Artistic Director of Dance. This new position was designed to guide and inform all Banff Centre dance initiatives throughout the year, in collaboration with the dance community, including programs, partnerships, commissions, residencies, workshop and other forms of professional development.

One of the most significant and unique aspects of dance at Banff Centre is its Residency Program. Since the early ‘90s, the Centre has been a vital creative hub for numerous companies and collectives and the development of dance works in a variety of traditions. Notable residencies have included: O Vertigo, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Joe Ink, PPS Danse, and Ballet Jorgen, Ballet BC (Fairie Queen, Orpheus, and Carmina Burana), Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Sylvan Emard Danse, BJM Danse, Alberta Ballet (Romeo & Juliet, Fiddle and the Drum, Love Lies Bleeding, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy), Red Sky Performance (Shimmer, Tono, Migration), Kaha:wi Dance Theatre (A Story Before Time), Royal Winnipeg Ballet (Wonderland), Kidd Pivot (Lost Action, Betroffenheit), Wen Wei Dance (365, Made in China), Beijing Modern Dance Company, Aszure Barton & Artists (Busk, Awaa).

Banff Centre’s Presenting Department is active in presenting touring dance companies, becoming an important venue for national and international companies touring the West. The Centre has hosted Toronto Dance Theatre, Grupo Corpo, Compagnie Kafig, Sampradaya Danceworks, 605 Collective, Montreal Danse, Bboyizm, Out Innerspace Dance Theatre, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, Holy Body Tattoo, National Ballet of Cuba, Heidi Strauss, Louise Lecavalier, Ballet Kelowna, Northwest Dance Projects, Ballet BC, among many others.