John Canfield on the Switch from Dancer to Choreographer


"Dancers are living clay for the dance maker. To define and refine a creative relationship with them takes years to master." Jean Grand-Maitre, Artistic Director for Alberta Ballet

John Canfield. Photo by Paul McGrath

In 2017, Alberta Ballet launched a special fundraising evening that gave Alberta Ballet’s donors and special guests a chance to engage with the dancers in their most familiar space, the rehearsal studio. The Studio Party as it came to be called, was the brainchild of a handful of dancers and Alberta Ballet administration.  The staff literally opened the studio doors and invited people in.


The highlight of the evening’s entertainment was performances by company dancers: prepared, sneak-a-peek pieces that showcased the recently announced upcoming season. Each only a few minutes in length, these pieces were choreographed snippets of much longer ballets featuring several dancers at once. However, the final piece of the night was unlike the others featuring a solo performance of a completely unrehearsed piece of dance.


John Canfield was a new member of the Company. Originally from Maryland, he was just shy of completing his second season with Alberta Ballet but the short-notice performance would prove to have lasting impact. It inspired John to apply to Alberta Ballet’s Dancer Development Fund, a pool of resources to encourage dancers to explore secondary skill sets and help them prepare for a next career after they retire from the professional stage. 


“A lot of other dancers did other things, and then I was like, well, I’m into choreography. So I could see about a doing a piece with our dancers. So that’s how I focused my application.”


The Dancer Development Fund helped John secure resources for his piece of choreography.  And the project centred on John using his peers as the dance subjects.


As a choreographer of his peers, John was in a unique position.  The role from dancer to choreographer – “a shift in mediums” as he called it—would soon reveal a wealth of challenges. 


“It’s all about communication. Sometimes I would talk about concepts I wanted to bring forward. There were a few times in which I totally doubted myself.”


John was working with people who knew him well.  Working side-by-side in the studio for hours every day allows for a shared understanding of style and interpretation.


“We’re such a tight knit group. We go out together, we hang out together. So in a way it’s really good because they already know me. I’m developing my choreographic voice. Sometimes I’ll struggle to come to communicate something, but they’ll understand because they know me personally.”


“These dancers were my peers. But they were also my friends.”


The difference between ‘peers as subjects whom are empathetic to the topic at hand’ can be markedly different than ‘friends as subjects you wish to keep as friends’, as John began to find out.


“It is a challenge, you have to be able to correct them and give them critical advice without coming across obnoxiously, like “fix your feet” or something like that.”


The solution? Communication, paired with trusting himself to express an idea and then seeing it in action. The ability to see what works and ‘clicks’ is a relief for any choreographer, new or seasoned.


“When you have time and the opportunity to work with dancers, that’s when you learn the most because I can imagine everything in my own head, and I can improve myself, but you don’t really know unless you have dancers right in front of you.”


The Studio Party was first conceived to raise money specifically for Alberta Ballet’s Dancer Development Fund. The moment that inspired John at the 2017 event sparked a year of transformative work.  And in 2018, he was able to give back to the community who give to Dancer Development Fund with a prepared work where he could more fully share a choreographic vision.


John chose not perform in the piece, an intentional approach.


“Of course, I think I will be able to do my own work well, but that’s not my point.  I want to see if I can get people to do what I think and how I move, translate my idea.”


”I’m really grateful for the feedback I’ve received from the public and the dancers. It’s really given me the confidence I need to move forward, and make the creative vision a reality.”