Learning to Abstract

Peter Quanz discusses the elusive creative process, the importance of mentorship, working hard and how to avoid burnout

By Jillian Groening


There are certain minds where it feels like a privilege to get a glimpse inside. Having the chance to ask questions and prod around the grey matter feels akin to entering a grand and empty basilica or observing a first run-through performance while tucked in the corner of the dance studio. Peter Quanz has one of those minds.

I have to learn how to resist the the urge to catch that butterfly and pin it down, to preserve it,” Quanz says. “It’s most beautiful when it’s still flying.
— Quanz

The Winnipeg-based choreographer, founder and Artistic Director of Q Dance has an impressive amount of experience under his belt for his relatively green 35 years. From being graced with commissions from the Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Hong Kong Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada to being bestowed various grants and the Clifford E. Lee Award for young Canadian choreographers, Quanz’s resumé is more than admirable.  Quanz’s resumé is more than admirable. But these achievements wouldn’t have been possible if Quanz’s brain wasn’t in a state of perpetual motion. He also works like a dog: this year alone he will develop seven new creations and is staging eleven ballets.

This June, Quanz will be premiering his sixth program under Q Dance to hungry contemporary ballet fans in his adopted windy city. After being granted a commission in 2009 from New York’s Guggenheim Museum to create a new work to a score by pioneering minimalist composer Steve Reich, Quanz set to work. Needing dancers and concerned about the exorbitant cost of hiring movers south of the border, Quanz chose to work with Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) company members and an enriching partnership was born.

Now a highly anticipated aspect of the RWB season, Quanz makes sure to honour his company’s humble beginnings.

 Q Dance, photo by Vince Pahkala

Q Dance, photo by Vince Pahkala

“The dancers worked for free, we worked on lunch hour, on weekends, whenever there was time available in the studio,” Quanz recalls over espresso in his lofty exchange-area art space. With the RWB company members busy creating Moulin Rouge The Ballet, Quanz was given studio time for his work, In Tandem, parallel to their pre-existing schedule. Quanz would sit in the studio, waiting for dancers who may have gotten let out early or weren’t needed for certain sections. Never knowing who to expect or when, there were some days where Quanz would sit alone for up to six hours.

“I was so lucky to get to work with them and they were donating their time. Everything comes at a price,” Quanz reflects. “But the energy of that creation was so fantastic that after the piece premiered I founded Q Dance. I wanted to have that type of experience on an ongoing basis.”

Now celebrating five years of existence, Q Dance has had the privilege of collaborating with three different choreographers and has forged important relationships with the likes of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Music, visual artists such as Dominique Rey, and many more.

Now when I step into the studio I really acknowledge that the people that I’m getting to work with are far superior as dancers than I could ever have been but I know how to make them better and how to find something more in them and that is a tremendous privilege and excitement
— Quanz

“Q Dance is about branching out and making connections and trying to think about how to redefine the model,” Quanz explains. While trying to think outside the box and filling theatre seats are all too often opposing ideals, Quanz has found a way to make it feasible through artistic partnerships and Q Dance’s relationship with the RWB. With Quanz’s works having been seen by over five million people in over four continents, it appears that his strategy is working. “It’s proof that the investment made in creativity here in Winnipeg can have a worldwide impact. It’s built from community and it’s drawn from the inspiration of everybody who is a part of the team. We work together and we connect and that’s why the work relates to people in China, in Cuba, in Russia, in Europe and in New York. It’s just so exciting to see that happening.”

With a vigorous schedule ahead and the weight of a rockstar company on his shoulders, Quanz has the expert ability to know when to compartmentalize and when to let ideas bleed together as well as being highly in control of his creative motivations.

“[My ideas] come from deadlines, I’m horribly slow at a lot of things,” Quanz confesses. “It helps to think about what is meaningful to me right now. What ideas do I want to carry forward from the last project and change into a new direction? What am I curious about now? So everything I’m doing is very much in the moment, which is great.”

This immediate attitude towards creativity helps Quanz balance out projects ranging from classically-toned contemporary ballets to endurance-based performance art works. Making lists, managing his own communications and daily meditation also aid in staying on top of his workload and avoiding burnout. Not to mention accepting when certain things are better to be ignored. Such as vacuuming.

In a sense I’m more an architect of time, of the space, of the environment. We are creating the structure for other people to inhabit.
— Quanz

“It’s not important for me to vacuum my floor, [my home] is a retreat and a refuge and I’m fine with that. I’m not going to get stressed about it,” says Quanz. Being aware of his priorities for the day allows him to stay focused on his rehearsals. “I have the opportunity to work with truly gifted artists who have prepared their bodies and their minds to come into the studio and work with me and it’s my responsibility to treat that resource with respect. First thing is the work in the studio and that is the privilege.”

Apart from a lot of reflection and a clear focus, Quanz is also blessed with a handful of mentors who have aided in guiding him throughout his still fresh career. This ability to work closely with heavily respected members of the greater artistic community has not only fed him pearls of wisdom and experienced advice but has also passed on the understanding of the necessity for a supportive arts community.

From dance artist and advocate Stephanie Ballard to former Artistic Director of the RWB, the late Arnold Spohr, dance critic, writer and cultural ambassador, the late Francis Mason, the late dancer, writer and senior ballet mistress at American Ballet Theatre Elena Tchernichova and dancer, historian and archivist Vincent Warren, Quanz has had the honour of being able to learn from a bevy of highly respected artists and advocates.

“I really try to connect with people who have a vast experience and who want nothing more than to share that,” Quanz states. “That’s an inspiration and a model that I hope I can achieve. We have a responsibility in our community to be connected, to talk about what we are doing, to educate. That’s our responsibility. We are here to connect. We are here to be ambassadors.”

This sense of guidance and purpose was something Quanz was lucky enough to experience at a very young age. After attending the theatre often as a child with his parents and sister, Quanz was fascinated by the well-choreographed happenings on stage.

“I was really struck by the way that Brian Macdonald [past director of the Stratford Festival] not only did the choreography for the dance performances but also the set changes,” Quanz remembers. Macdonald, the late dancer and choreographer, would subsequently become one of Quanz’s mentors. “There was always something happening that commented on the show from another level.”

After some coaxing from a grade four teacher, the young Quanz decided to attend the RWB Professional Division. With all of his energy and training focused on becoming a choreographer, Quanz was given opportunities to flourish as an artist. Under the direction of Spohr, Quanz was taught important and intuitive methods of instructing dancers.

“I was so fortunate in those early experiences because yes, I could get an idea out but I didn’t know how to coach it,” Quanz recalls. “I didn’t know how to pull a performance from dancers. I didn’t know how to reveal something in them that they didn’t know existed and Arnold Spohr was a great help with that.”

After graduating from the professional ballet program, Quanz jumped at the chance to work with the world renowned Stuttgart Ballet. Quanz signed a two-year contract and was given enough for rent and nothing more. But the experience was incomparable. With no money for food let alone a show ticket, Quanz learned how to hide in the train bathroom in order to travel across Europe and how to sneak in the opera house doors to watch performances.

During his time in Europe, Quanz traveled from company to company sitting at the front of studios and watching six hours of rehearsal a day. From Stuttgart Ballet to The Hamburg Ballet to Nederlands Dans Theater, The Royal Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, Quanz absorbed the methods of creating and coaching that were being practised at some of the world’s best and most innovative companies. By strictly being granted access, Quanz was able to learn fascinating things from some of the world’s top artists.

“I got an education by looking and that is a very different type of education then you get by being in a course and reading,” Quanz says. “This is the education of being self-taught and of experiencing living arts and being fortunate to have met people along the way who would take my education in their hands. Through doing that I got opportunities to choreograph with incredible dancers.”

Through his innovative and proactive learning, Quanz was able to gain tools to aid in the diverse creative puzzles he consistently throws himself in. Growing up in the classical ballet world where rehearsal time is tight and you’re often working with multiple casts of dancers, Quanz fostered the ability to be clear and concise. Thanks to a recent project with contemporary company Montréal Danse, Quanz has been able to switch gears entirely to where much of his role as choreographer means stepping away from that very title.

“I’ve set up a lot of parameters for this piece but there’s great opportunity and responsibility for the four interpreters to develop their own material, to be in dialogue with the challenges that I’ve set up and to contradict them,” Quanz explains of his work with Montréal Danse. “In a sense I’m more an architect of time, of the space, of the environment. We are creating the structure for other people to inhabit.”

Other times, Quanz is put in creative roles where there is no common language. After learning German, Russian and most recently Chinese, Quanz has also been forced to move past language to discover how best to communicate physically. Whether it be through wrapping himself around a dancer and feeling them move or attempting a further stretch by swiping their feet from beneath them, Quanz has been known to push dancers hard physically.

“It’s wonderful when you can actually feel the sensation in their body that they couldn’t access on their own because they were doing things to keep control,” Quanz says. “When the body is slightly out of control, that is when exciting things happen. That being said you need to do it respectfully and methodically over time.”

Depending on the process and the timeline, Quanz will sometimes find himself sitting on the studio floor to create and direct, or moving the rehearsal to a nearby coffee shop to discuss the work at hand. If there’s one thing Quanz is sure of however, it’s that each process and each dancer and each moment will desire a different approach. Everything is constantly in flux.

“It’s a messy business but I think knowing why you’re doing something is really important, more important than knowing what you’re doing or how you’re doing it,” Quanz reflects. “I think the why question is a really big one.”

For Quanz, often the elusive “why” reveals itself. Sometimes the why changes but it always gets enriched. With being granted the honour of ample work and opportunity, “why” is sometimes simply because the chance is there with the challenge being to look further.

“With this incredible blessing of having so much work, the only way to survive is by making each project as different as possible,” Quanz says. “To make each process as different as possible and to make sure that I keep asking ‘why’.”

Ruminating on the “why” aside, Quanz has also learned that if you try and define an idea too quickly, it can kill it and the idea has no option but to be thrown out.

“I have to learn how to resist the the urge to catch that butterfly and pin it down, to preserve it,” Quanz says. “It’s most beautiful when it’s still flying.”

One concept that Quanz strongly believes in is that work does not exist purely for the sake of creating something, but that it also must contain a function. An evening of dance is not created to satisfy the choreographers whims, but rather it should live to challenge the creators values and identity, to stretch the dancers technique physically and emotionally, and to entertain and educate the public.

“Entertainment should not be a dirty word,” Quanz states. “It should not necessarily be our driving priority, the work itself should be our priority but on some level you can educate and entertain and create art all at the same time. And that’s important.”

As well as pushing for the development of his own work and the work of his dancers, Quanz would like to use Q Dance as a platform to see growth in other choreographers. For the first time ever, Q Dance has been able to invite a guest choreographer to study, progress and create in the Q Dance incubator.

After meeting Gabrielle Lamb while creating Rodin/Claudel with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, Quanz knew he wanted to support and commission her work. At the time Lamb was dancing with Les Grands Ballets while pursuing her own choreographic endeavours while Quanz had just recently began Q Dance but no doubt was highly aware of the company’s direction. Four years later and now based out of New York, Quanz is hosting Lamb as Q Dance’s very first choreographic guest of honour.

“This was the first time that I had the resources to do that and I’m very honoured that [Lamb’s] here,” Quanz says. “Yesterday when I watched her piece I cried during the entire run. It was my first time seeing it and I was so proud of what she’s done. That was a new thing for me, to feel that about someone else’s work.”

The guidance and mentorship that has supported Quanz and Q Dance now filters down to the next generation of artists.

“Now when I step into the studio I really acknowledge that the people that I’m getting to work with are far superior as dancers than I could ever have been but I know how to make them better and how to find something more in them and that is a tremendous privilege and excitement,” Quanz states. “To get to see these wonderfully talented people having breakthroughs and finding something new and reaching more emotional depth in their work and finding new things to obsess over, it’s really great.”