THE ARTS

Clearing the clouds from the campus

The Banff School of Fine Arts is evolving into Canada's first year-round conservatory

Gordon Legge August 17 1981
THE ARTS

Clearing the clouds from the campus

The Banff School of Fine Arts is evolving into Canada's first year-round conservatory

Gordon Legge August 17 1981

Clearing the clouds from the campus

THE ARTS

The Banff School of Fine Arts is evolving into Canada's first year-round conservatory

Gordon Legge

Fifteen years ago the National Film Board of Canada distributed a film on the Banff School of Fine Arts called Campus in the Clouds. While capturing the school’s pristine mountain setting, the fluffy title also alluded to its reputation as a summer camp for the children of the rich. This summer, the NFB is again on campus, considering a yearlong shoot to replace the outdated film, no\tf withdrawn from circulation, with a version that should put to rest the school’s image as Disneyland of Dilettantes. Although the setting remains inspiring, the 48-year-old school has changed significantly in recent years as it moves toward its goal of becoming Canada’s first year-round advanced conservatory of the arts, a world-class professional training centre with an innovative approach unrivalled in this country.

In its 1933 mandate, the school was given the humble mission of bringing the arts to prairie communities. Operated first by the University of Alberta and later by the University of Calgary, only summer sessions in fine arts were offered. The transformation took place in 1978 when the Alberta government, acting on the advice of several reports, made it an autonomous institution, paving the way for the year-round advanced arts education program which began in September, 1979. The strategy was so ambitious that a report of the program’s planning advisers pledged that the school “will keep Canadians at home, draw special talents to our country, and raise standards of teaching and performance.”

Such lofty promises are beginning to be realized as the school begins its third winter cycle next month, adding a ground-breaking music theatre course to its already progressive visual arts and music curriculum. The program focuses on performance and production, reflecting a belief that creativity and risk-taking are as important to the arts as structured tutoring. No degrees and diplomas are granted, and tenure is not offered to instructors. The school’s purpose is to complement, rather than compete with, existing university and college curricula, enabling the young artist to bridge the gap between academic training and a professional career. And unlike most fine arts schools, the school is multidisciplinary, encouraging links

between visual arts, music, writing and technical theatre training.

Typical of this approach is the pioneering effort in music theatre by artistic director Michael Bawtree. Built around an ensemble of composers, writers, singers, dancers, actors and designers, the program’s goal is to foster versatility in the performing artist through broader training in acting, voice and dance. “This is a whole untouched area for Canada,” says Bawtree, a veteran of Canadian stage and founder of the COMUS Music Theatre of Canada. “Music theatre hasn’t developed in Europe because opera is such a strongly entrenched tradition, and America has a history of musical comedy. We have the opportunity here to establish a new kind of training program for the singing actor .. . the home of a new genre.”

The cross-fertilization of ideas and methods evident in the music theatre

ensemble is the result of a formal interarts policy formulated by Bawtree to encourage collaboration between artists of different disciplines. Says theatre arts manager George Ross: “The minute you get locked into your tiny little studio and start doing Mozart or Beethoven, you’re dead. In this melting pot, there are no doors. We have space.” One such interarts project, a jazz improvisation workshop, brought together 25 composers and performers—including saxophonist Lee Konitz and keyboard player Karl Berger—to explore the boundaries of music. They performed warm-up exercises for a studio of visual artists who, in turn, translated the music into color and form.

This flavor for risk is an important factor in attracting instructors from around the world. French sculptor Daniel Graffin is spending this summer in the fibre art department because the school allows him to work at the fringes of his craft. “I would never have taught in France because the system is too rigid, too institutionalized,” says Graffin. “All of your energy that should go into the teaching process goes into fighting the system. Here you are extremely free.”

Free expression has also become an integral part of the writing program, where novice writers type away ceaselessly in their basement cells in the Max Bell Theatre, engaged in what the department calls “free fall.” Rather than dwelling on academic precepts, the school forces the writer to tap his experience and emotions, stripping away the protective layers that prevent free ex-

pression. During a discussion of the method, a student said to visiting writer W.O. Mitchell: “You are asking us to fall. But are you going to catch us?” Mitchell answered, “There are no safety nets here.”

But for all the unbridled creativity, Banff administrators have not forgotten the professional side of the arts. This year’s winter cycle will see the advent of a publishing workshop, the first in Canada to offer intensive practical training in the book and magazine fields for recent university graduates. As well, an electronic media and film program will broaden technical skills of craftsmen already working in the profession, and an arts journalism course will plug into an arts tabloid at the school. For those inclined toward the difficult and often fractious management side of the arts, an arts administration course has been available since 1973.

Since the school is part of The Banff Centre, which also comprises a management school and conference division, it is able to raise nearly half its operating revenues from conference rentals and tuition fees, and maintain a high degree of independence. The other half rests with a government and a premier who have seen fit to measure the school’s success by its reputation, which they felt deserved more than $6 million in gov-] ernment money last year. Premier Peter Lougheed has said privately: “The school’s greatest fan is the one who talks to me over the breakfast table” — his wife, Jeanne, an alumna. The Banff Centre’s director, David Leighton, adds: “While some think we are an elitist institution unworthy of taxpayers’ money, Lougheed has had the guts to stand up and support us. If we can’t do something of quality for the arts, it’s a pretty sad day for all of us.”

If idealism has anything to do with it, that quality should be substantial. Michael Bawtree invokes almost every noble virtue in the universe when he writes about the school’s purpose in his proposal for the interarts program: “Banff’s responsibility to the arts is to explode jargon, cant and cliché; to bring dead metaphors to life; to reach behind conventions in form, content and behavior; to clean the ears, wipe the eyes, clear the nose, sensitize the touch and taste; to reassociate feeling and thinking; to differentiate between the newness of genuine discovery and the newness of the latest fashion;.. .to play its part in the struggle to connect—and reconnect, and reconnect—art with life.” Lest this seem like so much esthetic rhetoric, Bawtree shyly adds a piece of pragmatism that might well stand as a credo for the entire Banff experiment: “This modest program will take a little time to implement.”