Last month, the Canada Games closing ceremony took place at Investors Group Field, marking the end of two weeks of intense athletic competition amongst Canada’s best young athletes.
As the ceremony was primarily to honour the athletes, the ticket price was just $10, making it accessible to many. The stands were full of some of the 6000 volunteers who’d given their time so the athletes could shine; it was the volunteers’ chance to celebrate a job well done.
Everyone had high expectations for the closing ceremony – the grand finale to an unbelievably successful event. It was sure to be an even bigger spectacle than the nightly performances held at The Forks during the Games. It was also Canada 150 and the 50th anniversary of the Canada Games rolled into one.
Yes, it blew the top off everyone’s expectations but it took a lot of work behind the scenes.
“I had the time of my life,” said Anthony Ferens, one of the young volunteer performers dancing during the ceremony. “I got to sway with Fred Penner, dance for Canada, jam with Brett Kissel and party with the athletes,” added the 27 year old Honours Theatre Major.
For those dancing their hearts out on Investors Group Field, it was the culmination of an experience that started back in February.
Patrick Roberge Productions (PRP) held open auditions at the University of Manitoba to find the 500 dance volunteers they needed. Ferens with many years of dance experience must’ve been exactly the type of performer they were hoping to attract. They needed dancers with advanced skills as well as those with some or no training. For many, PRP’s reputation sealed the deal and made this a gig they couldn’t pass up.
PRP has a stellar reputation for exciting, technically perfect, large televised productions. Having previously produced the ceremonies for the 2007, 2011, and 2015 Canada Games, they know how to create that WOW factor.
Brenda Gorlick of StudioWorks has been involved in theatre and dance for almost 40 years as a performer, a teacher and a choreographer. As performer liaison for the event, she auditioned and rehearsed wannabe dancers in conjunction with choreographer Jocelyn Peden and assistant choreographer Kelsey Chace.
After auditions, the 500 chosen participants, which included many of Gorlick’s students and ex-students, attended an intensive weekend rehearsal. They rehearsed in four hour blocks, in dance boot camp style, under the choreographer’s direction. About 70 percent of them had prior dance training so they knew how to pace themselves through the long rehearsals.
Gorlick, dance captains and volunteers, encouraged everyone and helped the novices master the steps. They were then divided into teams according to the musical numbers they were in and sent home with training tapes so they could practice further. There were two tapes per number; one showing the choreographer dancing the steps, the other breaking down the steps and the arm work.
Twelve year old dancer Zoe Gagnon knew what to expect at rehearsals as she has danced and studied with StudioWorks for a few years. “It was so cool to dance with new people and learn the choreography,” she said while explaining why she enjoyed rehearsing.
It wasn’t until four days before the closing ceremony that the performers got together again, firstly on the Subway Soccer field before moving onto Investors Group Field for three full days of rehearsals before the ceremony on Aug. 13.
In contrast, the 650 singers who comprised the Canada Games Gold Choir got by with only one major rehearsal before the big day, although they were at IGF stadium early to practice before the ceremony.
Every aspect of the production had to be carefully rehearsed as there were multiple elements to each big musical number, all of which had to jibe together. The final technical and dress rehearsals would be the last chance to iron out any glitches.
A small army of volunteers worked behind the scenes. Costumes were altered, puppets were fitted, props were found and inventoried and PRP’s production team had lots of help. Each group of dancers was assigned a volunteer performer attendant.
Everything went just as it was supposed to on the lead up to the big day. And then it was showtime!
The opening Parade of Athletes featured the Asham Stompers, La Troupe Jeunesse and the Young Canada Games performers accompanied by Sierra Noble on her fiddle. The dancers danced and danced and danced in the hot summer sun. The long number didn’t end until all of the athletes had entered the stadium and were sitting on the field.
The standout Canada 150 piece featuring an original song “Stand Up Canada” with the Canada Games Gold Choir showcased those fabulously fun red and white Canada Goose and Gumby-like puppets.
“We wore harnesses with pipes sticking out of the top that the puppet slid onto,” said Ferens who was a puppeteer in this number. “The legs attached to you at the bottom and the arms were clipped on,” he added. “Really cool” (his words) rubbery red Converse shoes completed the look.
He hadn’t seen the puppets until rehearsals at the stadium and hadn’t expected them to be so big. “They were seriously badass puppets,” he remarked. They’d previously debuted during the Canada Day event at the National Museum of Man in Ottawa, as had the some of the bright, whimsical summery costumes.
Gagnon was a ladybug in the piece.”The costumes were my favourite thing,” she enthused. The cute, colourful corset dresses with the beautiful bee, ladybug and flower hats epitomized summer. The white tuxes topped by flower pot heads really brought the “Grand Summer Party” theme to life. The whole number was a real crowd pleaser with a technicolour dream quality.
The three segments celebrating our favourite festivals – Winnipeg Folk Festival, Folklorama and Festival du Voyageur – made the ceremony truly Winnipeg-centric. Each organization collaborated with PRP’s artistic team to truly represent their festival on the field.
The Folk Festival segment was a light-hearted spoof of the annual rush to find a good spot to hear the music when the festival opens. The decidedly hippie looking “folk” danced in with their tarps and then sat down to listen and sway to Fred Penner singing from his new album.
The big finale featured Albertan country music superstar Brett Kissel, as the next Canada Winter Games will be held in Peace River in 2019. His high energy and great voice during “Started With a Kiss” had the athletes and everyone else up and batting around the 500+ beach balls thrown out to the athletes and up into the stands by the bag full.
The hundreds of beach balls floating in the blue sky and the bright old fashioned romper costumes paid homage to our own “Hottest Summer in 50 years” theme for the Games. It was a fun, lighthearted interlude in the afternoon that had everyone joining in. The number of beach balls slowly diminished when people started holding onto them as souvenirs.
In the end, getting the dance routines, choral numbers and speeches to flow seamlessly came down to strict attention to timing. Jennifer Jensen-Tracy, PRP’s production stage manager, was masterminding it behind the scenes, guided by Artistic Director, Patrick Roberge. Jensen-Tracy was in radio contact with stage managers stationed at each of the four entrances to the field. Countless backstage marshals further ensured everything went smoothly so no one missed their cue.
By all measures it was a beautiful production full of memorable moments. Above all, it was for the athletes, to celebrate their achievements and participation in the Games. It was also a legacy moment in Canada Games history, being the 50th anniversary. It was also another feather in their cap for PRP whose artistic team really captured the spirit of Manitoba.
And for Winnipeg?
“Winnipeg’s relatively small dance and performing arts community was given a big boost through this experience,” said Gorlick. “This will put Winnipeg on the map as a place with the talent to pull off large events. It will also lead to more collaboration between dance schools,” she added.
For the 500 young dancers it was an experience they will always remember. How could they forget the thrill of performing live in front of thousands of people while thousands more watched on TV. You can bet more kids will be signing up for dance classes after seeing the ceremony, and those who were in it will be auditioning for roles in other productions.
PRP has already hired some of them for its “Great Big Boo” Halloween production that will be touring Manitoba and Saskatchewan from Oct. 19-29. The Bros. Landreth has committed to working again with the StudioWorks students who formed their backup ensemble during the Opening Ceremony.
It seems our “hottest summer in 50 years” theme, that was everywhere during the Games, will not soon be forgotten. The closing ceremony was the perfect wrap up to this spectacular event, and may have also provided the start of something big for dance schools and young performers in Manitoba.