Graham McKelvie, now the Head of Contemporary Dance at The School of Alberta Ballet, is a distinguished alumnus of the School. We asked him to tell us about his background, how he became involved in dance, his time at the School, and his subsequent career. He gave us the following wonderful reminiscence.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a skater – a figure skater, to be precise. My mother got me involved in skating because it’s what everyone in Saskatchewan does in the winter, and kids need something to do!  I loved it; I made progress, and I participated in many competitions. Because of my skating, I did a lot off-ice training that involved dance. In a crazy twist of fate, Suzette Pompeii, who was to become Suzette Sherman, and with whom I would spend many years dancing in Toronto Dance Theatre, was one of my off-ice coaches. As I got closer to finishing high school, I became really involved in theatre; I saw more of a future there than in skating, and so I finally abandoned the ice for the stage. As we prepared ourselves for lives as actors, my friend Sue suggested that we all take a dance class, understanding that actors need to know how to use their bodies. So we all signed up for ballet classes at the Saskatoon School of Ballet. About six months after that, the National Ballet School came through town auditioning students, and I took the audition, really just for the hell of it. Lo and behold, they not only accepted me, they gave me a scholarship. So I left my little home on the prairies and packed myself and a steamer trunk of all my things onto a bus, all Billy Elliot style, (long before the movie was ever thought of), and made my way to Toronto.

After two years there, realizing that something more contemporary was what my heart wanted, I went to Montreal to study with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. My stay there was actually very short, because that was where I met David Earle, who was to become one of my life’s great inspirations. As soon as I started working with him, I knew that what he did was exactly what I wanted to do, and so I followed him back to Toronto and started my life with Toronto Dance Theatre.

Graham McKelvie in David Earle’s Sunrise

I spent two years in the School of TDT, and they were wonderful years, filled with meeting people and exploring the kind of movement that created so much passion in me, and enabled that process through which one loses one’s inhibitions. As it turned out, I didn’t even finish School; I was simply plucked up and taken into the company, and I started my professional life as a dancer. In those days, there were four choreographers in the company: David Earle, Trish Beatty, Peter Randazzo, and Christopher House, and as a welcome and challenging guest: James Kudelka.

People wonder if it is difficult being part of a company where you have a number of creators, but I always felt it was a welcome experience, even if the sensibilities of the creators were radically divergent. It was like exploring new and different worlds. That was of immeasurable value to me, and the awareness of this has always stayed with me: there are many ways of seeing existence, appreciating it, and understanding your place in it.

Laurence Lemieux and Graham McKelvie in Christopher House’s Barnyard © Cylla von Tiedemann

That was a very rich time in my life, filled with travels and personal adventures, loves and departures. Throughout the years, as it turned out, I stayed mostly within my Toronto Dance Theatre family. I worked often with David Earle in his own company, and I worked with Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie. CLC started out being almost entirely made up of dancers who had been with Toronto Dance Theatre, and we were dancing the works of our much-loved James Kudelka.

Other dance adventures over the years have included having a glorious time with the Four Horsemen Project. That work came from the imagination of the wonderful Kate Alton, with whom I went to the School, and then danced in TDT. That was a divinely crazy piece of theatre, and I enjoyed many travels whilst doing it. Working with Claudia Moore and everyone on Cloud 9 was also a treat, and is another part of the web that connects me with Toronto Dance Theatre.

I can’t even count how many outstanding memories I have of different performances, but cumulatively they have left this wonderful impression on my heart and soul of the beauty inside people. Witnessing your friends and colleagues pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits, watching them as they reveal inner secrets of the workings of their imagination and heart – this has turned me into the romantic I am, and ironically, in the end, always was….

At the top of Mount Fuji © Graham McKelvie

I went to Japan many times during my performing career. On one of my trips, Toru Shimazaki, a well-known Japanese choreographer, saw me perform in Tokyo, and decided I was a dancer he wanted to work with. Ironically, and unbeknownst to me, he had lived in Saskatoon, where I grew up, for two years, many years prior to my meeting him. On another note of strange serendipity, when I was a young child in grade school, at the behest of a teacher of mine, I learned how to play the Japanese national anthem on the piano, and I did so when we had Japanese visitors; to this day I have never forgotten the words!  So this curious relationship that I have had with Japan for my whole life finally came to fruition when I moved there at Toru’s request, to teach at the university where he had become the head of the dance department.

It was there that I more completely transitioned over to being a teacher and choreographer. My invitation to teach in Japan happened at the exact moment when I wanted it and needed it, and in any case, I had to find a path to develop into what I would become next. I was dancing in James Kudelka’s works right until I left for Japan, and then I was going somewhere I dearly loved, to do something I really wanted – to teach and choreograph. My time there was filled with wondrous sights, and I had an immediate connection with the people. All of my Japanese friends said that I was more Japanese than they were, and had seen more of Japan than they had.  At the very end of my stay there, I undertook to climb to the top of Mount Fuji, and it seemed symbolic of a kind of rebirth of myself, there at the top. I and my fellow trekkers had climbed up through the night, on often difficult and rocky paths and through blowing snow, so that we could make it to the summit before the rising sun, and so we could witness it, which we did. I remained at the summit, looking out over the countryside below me and the light reflecting off the tops of clouds, thinking upon the wonderful experience. Without question, I have been changed because of my time in Japan; it was instrumental in putting me on the path I am now on.

Graham McKelvie’s folded dialogue © Cylla von Tiedemann

So now I am mostly teaching and choreographing, and it is what I deeply want to do at this place in my life. In a way, for me, it is like telling stories, something that I seem to be becoming known for, and in any case something that I love doing. (And I have lots of stories at this point!) Perhaps it is my enduring fascination with humanity that was instilled in me from my time as a dancer with Toronto Dance Theatre that cultivated my interest in the workings of the body and has become a feature of my teaching.

My advice to dance students, and with an aim to keeping it concise and simple, would be in two parts: take a real interest in the glorious mechanics of the workings of your body; your body connects you to every living thing in the world.  It is also the enabler of your poetic voice. Part two would be this, and I say this with much love: get over yourself! Even a piece about you is not about you; it’s about how the audience sees the world anew through your eyes. It’s about revealing a hurt never before suspected, or an unexpected ecstatic love of something whose existence was formerly utterly unknown.  You are the enabler of people’s imagining. Therefore, every performance is an opportunity for wonder, or redemption, or emancipation.

When TDT performed David Earle’s Sacra Conversazione in Poland, shortly after the fall of the communist state, the people gave us a standing ovation that lasted for a real eternity. In the end, we were all just walking around on the stage, sometimes taking people’s hands, or waving, or accepting a flower. There were people laughing, and crying…. I’ve never felt so humbled in my life as I did at that moment, realizing that we were all that huddled mass of humanity that David so poignantly starts his masterwork with, and that there was no separation whatever between us. The line between audience and performer had been erased and we were of one experience.

Carry on, with love.

To find out more about Graham, visit his website.