Heinar Piller is the Stage Director and Co-creator of Synopsis for Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™. He is the founding Artistic Director of the Grand Theatre Company in London, Ontario, a former Artistic Director of Neptune Theatre in Halifax, and former Chair of Performing Arts for George Brown College. Heinar has directed or produced over 200 productions, including two musical versions of Anne of Green Gables. CBJ brings you behind the ballet in this interview with Heinar to learn more about his history with the company, dramatic coaching work with CBJ dancers, and hopes for the production.
How did your relationship with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen begin?
That goes way back to when I was Chair of Performing Arts at George Brown. Lois Smith, who was the first prima ballerina of the National Ballet, had started the dance program here at George Brown. When she was ready to retire, the Dean came to me and said, “Well you’re the Chair of Performing Arts, do something!” I knew nothing about teaching ballet, but I had met Bengt who had just left the National Ballet to form his own company. They had no home, so I suggested to Bengt that he come under our roof to use our studios and offices, but also run the School of Dance. That was 30 years ago. It was one of the best decisions the college made. He has built it into a very substantial dance training program, and the company works out of our studios. So that’s how our relationship started, and I’ve been in touch with him ever since. I retired and left George Brown, but Bengt and I have continued to work on most of the ballets he has mounted.
What past work have you done with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen?
I come from a theatre background and train actors. The George Brown Theatre School is very respected. Our graduates work all over the place: Stratford, Shaw, and films. The story ballets that Bengt was mounting, such as The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, and Cinderella, all had to be told by actors. Dancers are trained to use their bodies beautifully in total harmony with the music, but the fact that they have to become characters that tell the story is not something that comes easy. My work with the dancers has been to coach them to be aware of who they are, where they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Over the years, most of the dancers I worked with were young and just starting out their careers. They were wonderful sponges. They just soaked everything up, and that’s why I think Canada’s Ballet Jörgen is so successful. They perform with heart and soul. The dancers connect with the audience and love telling the stories.
“Every moment you’re on stage, ask yourself: “Who am I? Where am I? When is it? What do I want? Why do I want it?”
Describe how you work with the dancers to help them become their characters for Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™.
Anne of Green Gables will be a particular challenge for the simple reason that Anne, in the book and the musical, is a very chatty verbal person. She goes into extraordinary language pirouettes, and dance doesn’t have that. We can’t speak; we don’t sing. So, it becomes doubly important to find out exactly what the dancers are saying through body language and what they’re doing. I keep teaching the five “Ws”. Every moment you’re on stage, ask yourself: “Who am I? Where am I? When is it? What do I want? Why do I want it?” The moment you answer all those questions, you can’t miss. The dancers are very good at that.
What types of decisions were involved in the creation of the synopsis for Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet™?
The decisions were partially guided by the restriction I just mentioned. It’s easier in a musical because there are words. We don’t have that in ballet, so we had to partially simplify the actions and concentrate on the absolute important points: Anne’s rejected because she’s not a boy; she can eventually stay in Avonlea; she has a love and hate affair with Gilbert. What ballet can do that no other medium can is to dance Anne’s fantasies and her love for nature. When she sees a cherry blossom tree and decides to name it the Snow Queen, we can make the flowers come alive on stage. There’s one scene where they have a stodgy teacher named Mr. Phillips who doesn’t understand kids. Then Miss Stacy arrives, and she lifts them up and takes them into the forest to explore butterflies and frogs. We can bring this all to life on stage through dance. Hopefully that will allow us to put our own stamp on this version of Anne.
“What ballet can do that no other medium can is to dance Anne’s fantasies and her love for nature.”
What other responsibilities do you have as Stage Director?
I work closely with Bengt, not only in rehearsal breathing life into the characters, but also on the whole production concept. We work closely with Sue, our designer. As we developed the synopsis, Sue became an integral part in deciding how to visually portray the emotions or effects we wanted to create in the dancers. I’ll be involved with the lighting and all the elements that come together to make a production, particularly the music. The music is from Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™, but because we need much more music that the musical has in its present form, we had to expand and add things. Alexander Levkovich, our orchestrator, had to compose and reframe certain melodies and make them his own. I was very much a part of shaping the musical score. We’re still tinkering with it. As we’re staging, we’ll suddenly discover we need a sound effect, like a cymbal crash or a rachet going off when somebody trips. We’re adding those things, but once it’s recorded by the orchestra, we can’t change it. We’re feverishly working on that.
What are your hopes for the production?
It’s scary because it’s a big project, and of course they’ll be huge expectations from everybody, from the public to the people owning the copyrights. Hopefully all of these people will say we’ve done a good job and the audience will love Anne as they do in the musical and various dramatic versions of Anne of Green Gables. She’s always a beloved figure, a Canadian icon really. There’s a lot at stake and Bengt and I are nervous, but at the same time we love the challenge.
Written by Victoria Campbell Windle, CBJ Communications Contributor.
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