At the age of nine, John Canfield knew he wanted to pursue a career as a professional dancer. However, his first-ever performance could have deterred him from taking the stage for good.
Fourteen years later, Canfield is serving his third season with the Alberta Ballet in Calgary, Alta.
Canfield recalls his first ballet performance.
“I was probably around four or five at the time and we were doing the Little Mermaid. I was the only boy in this class in this little town in the middle of Virginia. We were mermaids and they actually put me in a skirt,” says Canfield.
Although they were just young kids doing simple step touches and plies, Canfield hated it.
“I was like, ‘I’m never doing ballet again because they put me in a skirt and nothing else,’ I didn’t even have a shirt on!”
Canfield’s mother prompted him to stay with ballet a little while longer, and the rest is history.
Canfield’s first performance could have easily deterred a young boy, especially when dance – and ballet in particular – comes with a bit of a gender stigma.
“A lot of people don’t understand dance really, it’s gotten much better in later years, there was a lot of fear in the beginning but you totally get over that.”
But Canfield says that public opinion of male dancers is changing for the better.
“I think for some people if you’ve never seen men in tights, it’s going to be weird, and you’re going to feel strange about it. But it is very much changing; we are a forward-thinking country.”
The road to a successful career in ballet does not come easy. It is only through hard work, dedication and a love for the art that the goal can be achieved.
At the age of 16, under his teacher’s suggestion, Canfield auditioned for the National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto. He got into a summer program and was later selected to do a year-round term with the school.
From there, Canfield ended up spending four years at the National Ballet School of Canada, graduating in 2014.
Upon graduation, Canfield found work with the Alberta Ballet.
“I’ve been tremendously lucky to have trained with such a great school and filter straight into a company in Canada that has such a good name and does a really interesting rep[etoire].”
Canfield adds, “Dance is a very intense job, so the fact that I’ve been able to find work and do what I love is amazing, it’s an amazing place really.”
The Alberta Ballet has performed three shows so far this season. Dangerous Liaisons choreographed by artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, The Nutcracker choreographed by Edmund Stripe and, most recently, Cinderella, choreographed by associate artistic director Christopher Anderson.
Canfield is no longer concerned about wearing a skirt on stage as in this season’s production of Cinderella Canfield played a number of roles, including the youngest stepsister, Drizella.
“I do quite a few things throughout, but my biggest role, I guess, is one of the stepsisters which is an absolutely hilarious experience. There’s a lot of different things you can bring to the ugly stepsisters.”
It is a tradition for the Alberta Ballet to cast men in those roles.
“For the particular role of the ugly stepsisters … men are obviously going to look a little obscure in the role of a women, I think that in itself, brings something different to the role ... it’s a fun opportunity,” says Canfield.
The Alberta Ballet’s next production, All of Us, will be a neoclassic, original creation by Grand-Maître. All of Us is set to the music of Canadian favourite The Tragically Hip.
All of Us is the sixth installment in Grand-Maître’s portrait ballet series.
Portrait ballets are a series of ballets created by Grand-Maître’s collaboration with various musicians.
The intent is to paint a portrait through dance, of the artist’s music.
“The idea is that we work with the musicians, I get to interview them and talk about their music and their life. It’s not like I am a journalist, it’s more like I am a portrait artist who is going to paint their music in a way,” says Grand-Maître.
“They open up to me very much about what they want their music to achieve and so after these discussions we create ballets from the interview.”
Grand-Maître has worked with Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Sarah McLachlan, k.d lang and Gordon Lightfoot in the past for this particular series.
All of Us follows the story of two opposing clans trying to survive in world 100 years from now that has been destroyed by nuclear war.
“As I was watching the world … and the brutality, intolerance and the hatred … I decided let’s do a ballet about hope, because Gord Downie and The Hip are all about hope,” says Grand-Maitre.
Composing a show that deals with the destruction of the world and the fall of humanity is nothing new, but the theme provides an opportunity for endless creations.
“Describing the end of the world it also gives you the chance to talk about what’s good to save about it,” notes Grand-Maître.
Canfield will be playing one of the lead characters, Abraham.
“He is kind of this young, brash character. He’s in love with this girl named Cordilla who is much wiser than he … so there is a bit of a love story there,” adds Canfield.
Grand Maître says he had Canfield in mind immediately for the role.
“John is a very special cast, he is a very non-generic dancer who has a very special hold, he’s got a huge presence on stage and is a very authentic actor.”
All of Us wraps up the 2017/18 season for the Alberta Ballet and Canfield’s time with the company.
Canfield plans to move to another company for next season. He would like to shift his focus to a more contemporary style of dance.
“It was a hard decision, that’s for sure, because Alberta Ballet is an absolutely amazing place. But part of my plan for the future is just to explore everything that I can because that will mold me into a diverse artist and a diverse person,” Canfield explains.
He says he can’t guarantee that he’ll be employed immediately next season, but the future looks bright.
“Part of the idea of being an artist is pushing and taking risks, so I am taking a risk and hopefully it will work out.”
To Canfield, dance makes him the person he is today.
“Dance has taught me to be an individual, like a very specific person, because no dancer is the same and no art is the same. It’s taught me to support myself, who I am and to just go for it.”
The future looks bright for this young dancer. Canfield knows that no matter where he ends up, he will always have the life experience’s he’s gathered on this journey.
You can see Canfield and the Alberta Ballet in of All of Us premiering in Calgary May 2-6 and in Edmonton May 10-12.
- By Sam Pankiw