If principal dancers have any sway over the character of their company, Ballet Victoria may be getting an injection of boyish energy and good-humoured showmanship from its new male lead.
The performance part is really what you live for as a dancer, Prince George's Matthew Cluff said during a rehearsal break. Rehearsals can get tedious, class every day is just about warming up your body and minor improvements and whatnot. So whatever Im doing, its the performance aspect I live for.
At 19, Cluff has a wide grin, wears West 49 T-shirts and speaks with admiration about the contestants on televised dance competition So You Think You Can Dance. He talks about how the moment he realized he wanted to dance seriously came around age 12, while he was sitting in a hairdressers chair. And about how he started dancing in Prince George at two, when his brother joined a dance class to impress a girl and the teacher noticed him as a tot, bobbing along on the sidelines.
But his resume shows hes a hard worker. Coming from the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School, after training with the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, both Cluff and artistic director Paul Destrooper are candid about greater ambitions: Ballet Victoria will be a stepping stone to larger companies, rather than a final career stop for Cluff.
Pauls aware this isnt where Ill end up for good, its more like getting your foot in the door, said Cluff. I think as a first company, its really going to provide me with some great opportunities.
Cluff replaces Robb Beresford, who joined Alonzo Kings LINES Ballet in San Francisco after five seasons with Ballet Victoria. While losing a principal dancer in the middle of a season would seem like a challenge, Destrooper said he knew Beresford was looking for a new contract and made a casual agreement to keep him on until he found one.
Jobs dont fall from the sky, so ... I said as long as you dont have a solid contract with another company, lets figure it out, Destrooper said.
Cluff sent an audition video at the serendipitous time when Beresford announced his departure.
Its funny, you take leaps of faith and it works out. I got Matthew this season and Im thrilled about it. And Robb Beresford got a contract with a great company in San Francisco.
Destrooper described Cluff as having strong technique, strong lines and said he hired him as an appropriate partner for fellow principal dancer Andrea Bayne. He also describes Cluffs stage presence as dramatic and flashy.
Hes like a little Arabian horse, said Destrooper. Robb was more like a thoroughbred.
Cluff makes his official debut as principal dancer tonight, when Ballet Victoria remounts The Secret Garden as part of a mixed program. The company first staged the story ballet, based on a script by The Belfry Theatres Michael Shamata, in 2009.
The show opens with an excerpt from Marius Petipas Le Corsaire, which Destrooper said he included in the program specifically for Cluff, who dances the role of Ali.
Hes perfect for the role. Its a ballet that Ive wanted to do for the last couple of years, but you need a company that has enough talent and technique so you can do the piece justice, Destrooper said.
Pianist Sarah Hagen will play Claude Debussys music for Noctilux, a duet choreographed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballets Bruce Monk.
Finally, the company will dance Joe Laughlins White Waltz, an homage to Frederick Ashtons 1937 ballet Les Patineurs set to the Blue Danube. Ballet Victoria (including the last-minute addition of Cluff) premired the piece in February when Laughlins company Joe Ink performed a retrospective program at the McPherson Playhouse.
Cluff is dedicated to building his ballet technique and is looking forward to his time in Victoria. But at 19, hes still not sure what the future holds. While he made the decision at 13 to pursue a career in dance in that hairdressers chair, he said he likes the idea of diversifying.
I didnt necessarily know if I wanted to go the ballet route [at 13]. I still dont know. The dance world, once you get into it and have an awareness of everything thats out there -- its quite diverse and big. And ballets just a small portion of that, he said.
That said, if theres one thing he learned from So You Think You Can Dance, its that the best dancers have a strong technical base. And ballet is where it all begins.
Whatever avenue you end up going in dance, you have to have strong technique, he said. And ballet is the foundation for everything.