As a child, dance was pure joy to Baden’s Peter Quanz. Not so much dance on the stage, but the work that went on behind it.
Enrolled in ballet classes from age 11, Peter stood out from his classmates, but not in a good way, he admits. “While my classmates tried to mimic the movement of our instructors, I tried to analyze it.”
“I’d constantly ask my teachers: ‘Why do we move our feet this way?’ ‘How do we move our bodies to create this effect?’ I drove them crazy.”
His interest in classical dance led him to the Integrated Arts Program at Eastwood Collegiate in Kitchener. “Surely there, I’d find people who had the same interests as me,” he hoped. His elementary school community had provided little of that.
Attracting a diverse population of teenagers from across Waterloo Region with strong interests in dance, music and drama, the Eastwood program was made for a teen like Peter. And he shone.
It was at Eastwood, where his interest in ballet choreography blossomed. But he received scant encouragement from his teachers. “They told me that I was far too young to make it in that field. Choreographers are usually retired ballet dancers—much older and more experienced than me.”
Determination won out, and after his grade 11 year, Peter was accepted into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. There he could build on his talents. His three years at RWB were rich ones, and Peter Quanz choreographed seven ballets for production.
Winning a scholarship to study with European ballet companies after leaving RWB, he was given his first chance to professionally choreograph for the Stuttgart Ballet Company in Germany. He’d climbed the first step in his fledgling career.
Not that Peter didn’t pay his dues over the next dozen years of his apprenticeship.
“I wasn’t part of the mainstream, not being a dancer. I was told I was too polite, too Canadian, too intense.”
But Peter earned his stripes and started to attract notice for the style—and the beauty of the dances he was choreographing. In 2002, at age 23, he was invited to choreograph a short work for the New York City Ballet.
And from New York, up the ladder he climbed—creating dances for the American Ballet Theatre, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and the National Ballet of Canada.
Noticed by European ballet royalty too, in 2007, Baden’s Peter Quanz, an astoundingly youthful 28, became the first Canadian choreographer to create a ballet for the Kirov Ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia.
A “do it fully, or don’t do it at all” kind of guy, Peter intensively studied the Russian language in order to be able to communicate personally with his dancers instead of relying on an interpreter.
He also made an intensive study of Russian history, folklore and musical traditions in preparation for his “eastern experience.”
Peter Quanz had now become hot property on the international ballet scene. Offers to choreograph came in from across the globe, including with the Hong Kong Ballet.
With the same zeal as he undertook his preparations for Russia, Peter took on the challenging intricacies of learning Mandarin Chinese.
The East—its culture, its landscape, its musical traditions, and its people fascinated him. So when an invitation came in 2013 to work with the Buryatian Opera and Ballet Company in the Russian state of Buryatia, on the border between Russia and Mongolia, he accepted.
Arriving the capital of Ulan-Ude in the depths of winter, the Canadian was asked if he’d ever been anywhere that cold before. “Yes,” Quanz answered without missing a beat, “Winnipeg.”
Over the next three months, Peter Quanz worked with the dance company to produce a work that combined dance, Buryatian throat singing, percussion and string instruments. He also worked to reflect the region’s strong traditions of shamanism, mysticism and Buddhist culture.
For his achievements, Peter Quanz was presented with Buryatia’s State Medal in Literature and the Arts, the first North American to be given the honour.
But the East was not done calling for the multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-talented Peter Quanz of Baden, Ontario. In 2019 he left for a two-year gig with the Harbin Dance Company in Harbin, China, a city of 11 million people in the north of that vast country.
And while he was treated with great courtesy and deference by the dance company and the citizens of Harbin, this Canadian was shocked by the disciplinary style of the Chinese dance teachers towards their students.
“Yelling at them, scolding them, even hitting them—especially the girls was common,” he recalls.
And then, there was arrival of the COVID-19 virus in China in the early winter of 2019. As the situation deteriorated, Peter Quanz was forced to return to Canada before his job was complete. No problem for this problem-solver.
Setting up a studio and transmission centre in the living room of his parents,’ Ken and Lil Quanz’ Baden home, Peter worked with his dancers over Zoom technology. With a camera mounted on the wall and the choreographer (in excellent Mandarin) giving direction to his 24 dancers in Harbin, the work was eventually completed.
When restrictions lifted in China in November 2020, he was able to return to put the finishing touches on the work before it premiered in early spring 2021.
With still a year left in his contract with Harbin, and another ballet in the works, Peter Quanz is anxious to return to the East. But the continuing COVID restrictions make this difficult.
The current political differences between Canada and the Chinese government are also delaying his journey, which he hopes will include two Canadian dancers. “Getting Visas for them right now is very challenging,” he states.
Peter Quanz has always been able to see the light in any cloudy situation and he holds tight in Waterloo Region until the world rights itself again. With any luck, November 2021 will see him heading to Pearson Airport to complete what he started.