When one thinks of Canada, images of beavers, poutine, and Drake may be at the top of your list, but you would be hard-pressed to name a more iconic Canadian figure than Anne Shirley.
With more than 50 million copies of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s original book Anne of Green Gables sold since it was first published in 1908, over the years the story of the feisty redhead has been adapted for the television, film and stage.
Now, Canada’s Ballet Jörgen is set to premiere its newest work, Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet in Halifax later this month, just a hop-skip-and-jump from Anne’s imaginary home on Prince Edward Island.
Having previously focused on translating ballet classics such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty into a Canadian context over the last decade, Canada’s Ballet Jörgen artistic director and CEO Bengt Jörgen says it was time for the company to branch out with a truly Canadian story. With a presence in Halifax, Jörgen and his team set-out to find a story that would work well with their focus in Atlantic Canada.
“Anne of Green Gables, of course, is not just an Atlantic story, but it’s also a Canadian story, and it’s probably the most famous Canadian story there is,” says Jörgen by phone from the company’s office in Toronto. “So we decided, why not go right to the top and do the biggest story of them all?”
It is also a story Jörgen felt already had a connection to dance with a central character who is vivacious, energetic, and always on the move.
“It really is a dancing sort of energy that she has, which is very easily transcribed into a dance context,” says Jörgen. “It is almost as if Lucy Maud Montgomery was a choreographer as well. I think she may have choreographed rather than having written the book, and because Anne is very much a moveable character, it lends itself really, really well to dance.”
Based on Montgomery’s first book in her series about Anne Shirley, Jörgen says while the ballet synopsis may be slightly different, audiences will have no difficulty in recognizing its story.
Similarly, they may also recognize the music which accompanies the ballet, as it comes from our country’s longest-running musical, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical.
An iconic piece itself, the stage musical version of Montgomery’s story has been performed annually at the Charlottetown Festival since 1965. In 2014, Guinness World Records also recognized it as the longest running annual musical theatre production in the world.
“The music is orchestrated from the musical, so it sort of lives within the world that was created by Norman Campbell and Don Harron, in terms of the musical context,” says Jörgen.
With a partnership with the already established stage musical, it was a relatively easy sell to the Anne of Green Gables Licensing Authority, who closely hold the rights to Montgomery’s work.
“We wouldn’t be here without their support, especially the heirs of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who have all been tremendously supportive of this project,” says Jörgen.
Instead, the biggest hurdle for Jörgen and his team was in figuring out how to make the musical’s orchestrations work inside the ballet.
“Making a full-length ballet of the story is long overdue, and I think they really look forward to seeing it on stage as a continuation of the Anne of Green Gables world that they created,” says Jörgen.
Of course, bringing the story of Anne Shirley to life through ballet requires someone up to its unique challenges. Jörgen found his redhead in pigtails with Halifax native, Hannah Mae Cruddas. It is a role Jörgen says she was destined to play.
“If you see her dance, you’ll know that you’re seeing Anne,” he says.
Getting her dance career underway in 2007 with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen’s local participant program in Halifax through a production of Anastasia, Cruddas would go on to study at Canada’s National Ballet School at age sixteen. Returning to Canada’s Ballet Jörgen as an apprentice in 2011, she was promoted to a full company member in 2013.
Ironically perhaps, Cruddas came full circle last year, performing the lead in the company’s 30th anniversary tour of Anastasia. But while that performance may have marked a major milestone in her career, the biggest is still yet to come as she originates the role of Anne Shirley.
A fan of Montgomery’s books, having read them all starting at the age of eight, Cruddas also has a connection to the music used in the upcoming ballet.
“I begged my parents to take me to the musical when I turned nine, it was my birthday present to go to the musical on P.E.I.,” she says.
Going beyond fandom though, Cruddas also sees a lot of herself in the character of Anne Shirley.
“I’ve always tried to emulate a bit of my life after her, and always admired her imagination, her love of nature, and her tenacity. Unfortunately, I also have a bit of that stubborn streak as well, but I have always loved Anne,” she says with a laugh.
Knowing she is playing such an iconic character, Cruddas is determined to do her justice.
“Luckily we do have a great sounding board to work with, the book is so clear, and her character is so clear, so it’s not as terrifying as it could be,” she says.
Cruddas will get her first opportunity to perform the role publicly in front of a hometown crowd as the ballet will open in Halifax this September. It is a performance she is particularly excited about as she still manages to visit the city often, even staying in her childhood bedroom when she is there.
“Because we tour so often, I still feel like I have a second home in Halifax,” she says.
Calling the story joyful, warm and uplifting, Cruddas is looking forward to sharing the story of Anne Shirley as the production goes on the road following its Halifax premiere, with performances across Canada and into the United States.
“It’s really a way to reassure people that imagination, love and compassion isn’t lost,” she says. “These characters are so lifelike, and they just bounce off the stage.”
Canada’s Ballet Jörgen presents the world premiere of Anne of Green Gables – The Ballet featuring Symphony Nova Scotia at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium (6101 University Ave, Halifax) on September 28 & 29. Visit symphonynovascotia.ca for tickets and information.