Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Montreal Prima Bissonnette Sees Future in Saint-Sauveur Arts Fest

In the ephemeral world of dance, forty-two-year-old Anik Bissonnette is a rarity

Dance by its very nature is ephemeral, and so too is a dancer’s career. To reach midlife and still be dancing at top form is no small feat. Montreal ballerina Anik Bissonnette, forty-two, is one such rarity. While she is still a principal dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Bissonnette is beginning to play more of a behind-the-scenes role. This year she takes over as the artistic director of the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur, bringing with her twenty-five years of experience as a performer. This is some consolation for her fans, but her inevitable retirement from the stage is difficult to accept.


Recently, Jarret McNeill, one of Maisonneuve’s bloggers, wrote a paean to American Ballet Theatre’s Alessandra Ferri. His account of seeing the forty-one-year-old Ferri—for only the first time, unfortunately—reminded me that falling in love with a ballerina is a poignant experience. Fans of movie stars have it easy: all it takes is a trip to the local Cineplex or video store. The lot of balletomanes, though, is a hard one. A DVD of your idol (if one even exists) never fully replicates the joy of a talent seen live onstage. Getting that dance fix requires a chunk of change for theatre seats (and sometimes for travel to distant cities) as well as an ability to savour every moment of every performance. What is here today may be gone next season because of an injury, a new director or the tribulations of life.

Like McNeill, I too have had ballet crushes. My first was on American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, but since moving to Canada, I have fallen hard for the National Ballet of Canada’s
Greta Hodgkinson and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ Geneviève Guérard. My first Canadian love, though, was Montreal’s own Anik Bissonnette.

I first saw a Bissonnette performance some years ago on video. Despite the fuzziness of the tape, her remarkable fluidity of movement, pure line and quiet intensity shone through and stuck with me. When I eventually moved to Montreal, seeing her perform was first on my cultural to-do list. But, I wondered, would she still be dancing after all these years? Happily, the answer was yes, so I splurged on some expensive tickets and hoped for the best. I left the theatre that evening with a few doubts about the ballet I’d just seen but none about Bissonnette.

Quite simply, Anik Bissonnette is one of the best ballerinas that Canada has ever produced. “She was born to be a ballerina,” notes dance historian Vincent Warren. “We [Montrealers] have been lucky to have her. If she had danced anywhere else, she would have received the same recognition.”

A life in the arts seems to have been Bissonnette’s destiny from a young age. Her mother was the director of publications at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and her father, whom she credits for teaching her about the stage, was a television producer. At the age of ten, she began lessons at Les Grands’ school (accompanied by her twin sister, Sophie, who also became a professional dancer), but Bissonnette soon decided that ballet was too stifling. “After six months, I thought, ‘This is so hard.’ I disliked the tights, leotards and pulled-back hair. It was the seventies, the disco era, and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal had just started up. I loved going into [Ballets Jazz’s] classroom with thirty people dressed wildly. I could wear whatever I wanted, a big T-shirt even—it was so much fun! But Eddy Toussaint [one of Ballets Jazz’s founders] told me that I must train in classical ballet.” So Bissonnette returned to her studies and, under the guidance of ballet instructor Camilla Malashenko, finally fell in love with the art that has defined her life

In the meantime, Toussaint had started his eponymous Compagnie de Danse (later renamed Ballet de Montréal Eddy Toussaint). Before Bissonnette joined the company, he was mainly inspired by his male dancers, especially Louis Robitaille, then the company’s star and now artistic director of Les Ballets Jazz. After Bissonnette joined the company in 1979, Toussaint also began to look to her for inspiration. He remembers his former muse as ambitious, talented and hardworking, but emphasizes that she was daring and willing to try the unexpected: “Anik would do anything you asked, no matter how unclassical. She was always a bit of a rebel . . . The best moments of my life were coaching her. Discuss something once with her and she knew what to do. She was like a sponge. She had an intelligent responsiveness.”

While Bissonnette was still a student, Toussaint recalls asking her, “Where do you want to go? Béjart? Neumeier?” She replied, “I want you to do a pas de deux for me with [Robitaille].” The result was “A Simple Moment” (1980); Bissonnette and Robitaille’s performance of the piece at the International Ballet Competition in Helsinki won Toussaint a gold medal for choreography. It also marked the beginning of an internationally celebrated partnership between the two dancers that would last for well over a decade (and would for a time include marriage). Their unique rapport also inspired the great choreographer James Kudelka, now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, to create several striking pas de deux for the pair.

Although Bissonnette’s partnership with Robitaille was central to her career, she continued to develop as a solo artist. Following the demise of Toussaint’s company, Bissonnette considered her options and finally decided to stay in her hometown. At that time, she says, “I wanted to dance in Europe, especially for Jirí Kylián, but I was afraid to leave Montreal. I ended up doing [Kylián’s] ballets at Les Grands, so maybe I was meant to stay here.”

Since joining Les Grands in 1989, Bissonnette has run the gamut, delivering critically acclaimed performances in the classics, the dramatic ballets of Antony Tudor, the contemporary works of William Forsythe and many others. For her, picking a favourite work is like “choosing your favourite movie. The best movie is always the last.” Giselle is especially dear because of the dramatic challenges that its heroine offers; Swan Lake is a source of pride just for having got through the darn thing; and Balanchine’s works, like Agon and Episodes, astonish her with their musicality and offer her the chance to “learn from them every day, even after performing them many times.”

Indeed, for Bissonnette, the process of learning counts more than performance itself. “The stage is nerve-wracking,” she says. What is most important is “being in the studio with choreographers, dancers, just the whole atmosphere.” As an example, she points to rehearsals this past spring for Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, during which she worked with a coach from New York City Ballet. “Kathleen Tracey and people like her—that’s why I’m dancing. So knowledgeable, so intelligent in their approach to dance. Meeting such people and working with them in the studio makes dance worthwhile for me.”

No wonder retirement from the stage holds little appeal. “It is hard for me to stop dancing—not just in my body, but in my head. Mentally and physically, I am not well if I do not dance. But now that I am forty-two, I have to think about it.” The artistic directorship of the Saint-Sauveur festival allows her to continue to contribute to the Montreal dance scene by offering emerging artists a stage and by giving audiences the chance to see performers they may otherwise miss. “It is a good time now,” she says about starting her new job. “My generation of friends are now artistic directors of companies around the world.”

One of Bissonnette’s goals is to bring more classically based companies to Saint-Sauveur. While deeply appreciative of Montreal’s vibrant contemporary dance community, Bissonnette feels that, even with Les Grands, the city could use a few more pointe shoes treading the boards. This year, the eighth edition of the festival will feature the very classical, Russian-flavoured Ballet Internationale and the cutting-edge Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Margie Gillis, a legend of the Montreal contemporary dance scene, will mark her thirtieth anniversary as a dancer/choreographer with a special performance. Le Jeune Ballet du Québec and the International Choreography Competition—chaired this year by Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet—will showcase new talent. In addition to dance, the festival will host the Chicago Children’s Choir, internationally renowned baritone Gino Quilico, reggae band Kaliroots, Cuban singer Yousy Barbara Ruiz and Montreal’s leading underground hip hop group, Butta Babees.

Bissonnette hopes that in the years to come the Festival des Arts will eventually rival Alberta’s Banff Centre in scope. Saint-Sauveur is a resort town just like Banff, but in addition to a summer festival, the Banff Centre has activities year-round as well as a permanent theatre and facilities. Bissonnette says ambitiously, “The West will have Banff and the East will have Saint-Sauveur.” That’s music to the ears of performing arts lovers in general and Montreal dance fans in particular.

Though her new job is keeping her busy, Bissonnette hasn’t hung up her toe shoes quite yet. Her next performance is with the Gala des Étoiles, on September 9 at Place des Arts, where she will be joined by ballet superstars from around the world. Catch her while you can. Ballerinas of her stature come all too infrequently.

The Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur runs July 30 through August 8.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.