Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal – Interview with Matthew Cluff

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To conclude its 20th anniversary season, Dance Victoria presented Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal performing Minus One, choreographed by Ohad Naharin, the Artistic Director and Choreographer of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, on April 7 and 8, 2017 at the Royal Theatre. Minus One is an homage to dance and dancers, with all 33 dancers of the company becoming both interpreters and inventors of movement. Dancing to a propulsive soundtrack, they reveal their individual idiosyncrasies in solo and group works pieces. Edgy, theatrical and witty, Minus One incorporates autobiographical voice recordings of the dancers’ stories ranging from serious to humorous, and exposing the performers as real people.

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Naharin’s “Gaga technique” tries to capture the instinctual motions of the dancers, asking them to move with their internal sensations, rather than reacting to their reflections in a mirror. When training dancers in the Gaga method, he covers all mirrors, which are ubiquitous in dance studios. This practice is central to his choreography because Gaga requires dancers to listen to the scope of their sensations while still staying connected to the outside world. Natalie Portman trained with him to prepare for her role in Black Swan.

At the heart of the performance, he incorporated a delightful surprise, as the dancers descended into the audience and selected their dancing partners, whom they escorted back onto the stage to proceed into a medley of dance styles ranging from German Techno with DJ Marusha’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (1994) to well-known Ballroom and Mambo classics.

This performance also marks the return to Victoria’s stage of one of our favourite dancers, Matthew Cluff, a former lead dancer of Ballet Victoria. Matthew was very kind to take the time to answer my interview questions.

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K.S.: Last year you completed your final season as the lead dancer of Ballet Victoria and moved to Montreal to perform with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. How does it feel to be back on the stage of Victoria’s Royal Theatre with the new company? 

M.C.: It was an extremely special experience to be able to return to Victoria the year after I left – not only to visit, but also to perform with Les Grands while on tour. It was almost like being back at home, in a sense, because of the familiarity I have with the city, the theatre, and the people. It was also so humbling to dance for an audience filled with so many friends and family.

You have established quite a fan-base and following in Victoria. People are excited to see you perform here. Do you miss the West Coast? 

I do. The 3 years I spent here were absolutely fantastic for me. I met such amazing people; I had such incredible opportunities with Ballet Victoria; I have so many great memories from being here. I think that for anyone there will always be a sense of nostalgia for the great moments of one’s past. I am and will be forever grateful for what Victoria has given me, and I’m excited to be able to take that with me into the next step of my career.

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What were the biggest challenges adjusting to the new company and the new city? 

It’s always a big change when you move to a new city. For me, this move was like starting a brand-new life. I knew no one in Montreal; it was a new company, new city, new language! Luckily, I was able to make friends and find my place relatively quickly, but it’s always a bit nerve-wracking to go through at the start. In terms of challenges, the language gap is surely prominent, and I feel I’ve done adequately in working to improve my French skills throughout the year, but I know I still have a long way to go! With the company, there were two big challenges I had: (1) Getting comfortable with contemporary movement again and pushing my boundaries and limits for that. (2) Picking up multiple bits of choreography in a short amount of time. Many of the dancers in the company already knew or had done the choreography of the rep we did this year, so it was a bit of a catch-up year for me. For example, for The Nutcracker, I had to learn 8 different parts in about 2 weeks. That was a lot to take in and remember in a short period of time!

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How are you enjoying Montreal? What are your favourite things and places there? 

Montreal’s fun! The options for nightlife and entertainment are good. The people I’ve met are so kind and friendly! Out of everything I’ve done, my experiences at La Ronde (theme park) and Action 500 (go-karting / lazer tag) have probably been the most fun and memorable. I also went to a Canadiens’ hockey game and that was awesome. The city absolutely LOVES its hockey, so it was cool to experience that passion first hand!

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How was working with Ohad Naharin? How is he different from other choreographers? 

Ohad was only working directly with us for two days before his assistant took over for the remaining weeks. He was very calm and specific with his approach and it was great to be able to take some of his “Gaga” classes to expand my dance abilities and vocabulary throughout his time here. (The style of his movement is called “Gaga” but it has nothing to do with Lady Gaga.) Essentially, his class is like an improv class, but what you’re thinking about when curating the movements, as well as the impulse from where the movement comes from, is unique. It was a lot of fun and I sure felt more comfortable with improv and the movements of Minus One after those first two weeks with him and his assistant.

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You have danced many classical ballets, performed in a musical, and are now in a modern dance piece. Does expanding your dance vocabulary and repertoire help you as a dancer? Do you prefer to perfect one style or do you like to experiment? 

Absolutely, it helps! The competition in the arts scene is quite fierce, and the more diverse you are as an artist, the better! Because of that, it’s great that there was a bit more contemporary in the rep of the company this year to help round out that aspect of my dancing a bit more. Personally, between contemporary and classical, I think my preference would have to be classical, though. I love the constant striving for perfection and never-ending improvement that you can get with ballet, and the classical stuff satisfies that well. As a result, I’m quite excited to see where the new artistic director, Ivan Cavallari, will be taking the company over the next couple of years. And who knows – after my dance days, musicals or acting might be where I drift toward. Either way, I’m so grateful for all of the experiences I get and have gotten so far to develop my artistry across various areas.

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What is working with Gradimir Pankov like?

I haven’t had as much time with him as some of the other dancers have, but my experience with him has been very good. He certainly has a wealth of knowledge and experience behind him! It’s also quite special to be a part of his last season with the company before he retires.

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While you were in Victoria, what did you do in your free time?

I had quite the busy schedule while in Victoria! On Thursday, three of us left early from Nanaimo (our previous tour stop) for an all-day photo shoot around Victoria. That night, we played some Lazer Tag downtown with 22 members of our company – it was insane! Friday, I took company class at Ballet Victoria to see all of my good friends and former co-workers again before that day’s rehearsals and shows. Saturday, I played squash in the morning with a good friend of mine before the work day. Sunday, I stayed an extra day to spend time with my family, who had come in from both Prince George and the lower mainland to watch the shows. I also played some floor hockey in the evening again with some of my hockey buddies from when I was in Victoria before. Finally,on Monday, I played some early-morning squash again before heading back to Montreal. While it was quite a busy schedule for me during my time in Victoria (both in and outside of work), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. It was so lovely seeing everyone again and returning back home to the city that gave me so much.

Photos by John Hall

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