Create Calgary: Shapers

Create Calgary: Shapers

Curating Calgary — Five artists who have influenced the city's local, national and international reputation and identity

This article was originally published in Create Calgary, a new arts magazine launched by Calgary Arts Development in 2022 to celebrate the work of artists who call Mohkinsstsis/Calgary home. You can pick up a free copy at public libraries, community recreation centres and other places where you find your favourite magazines. You can also read the digital version online here.

Jean Grand-Maître: Artistic director and choreographer

A photo of Jean Grand-Maître in a black T-shirt.
Alberta Ballet artistic director and choreographer Jean Grand-Maître. Photo: Todd Korol.

When Jean Grand-Maître arrived in Calgary 20 years ago to be artistic director of Alberta Ballet, he recognized an adventurous spirit in the relatively young and open-minded city that he hadn’t found working in Europe or major cities like Toronto. “I could do anything, I could try anything,” he says. So, he took the leap with an ambitious collaboration with Canadian folk icon Joni Mitchell, combining contemporary choreography set to her music and based on her songs. The success of its debut in 2007 led to a string of “portrait ballets” with Elton John, k.d. lang, The Tragically Hip and others. By the time he stepped away from his role in spring 2022, Grand-Maître had exposed new audiences to the world of ballet while forever linking the province with some of the biggest names in pop music.

  1. Choreographed ballets to music by Joni Mitchell (The Fiddle and the Drum, 2007), Elton John (Love Lies Bleeding, 2010), Sarah McLachlan (Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, 2011), k.d. lang (Balletlujah, 2013), Gordon Lightfoot (Our Canada, 2017), The Tragically Hip (All of Us, 2018), and — for his farewell finale — David Bowie (Phi, 2022). 
  2. Won the Order of Canada in 2018 for his extraordinary contributions to the nation.
  3. Choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
  4. Showcased LGBTQIA2S+ storylines in two of his pop ballets, Love Lies Bleeding with Elton John and Balletlujah with k.d. lang.
  5. After seeing The Fiddle and the Drum in Calgary and then meeting with Jean Grand-Maître in Las Vegas, Elton John withdrew the right to his songs from an American ballet company and gave them to Alberta Ballet.
  6. During Grand-Maître’s tenure, Alberta Ballet became Canada’s second-largest dance ensemble, with 30 dancers performing more than seven programs each season.

“That rock stars are coming to him is a sign that, not only is he onto something that others want to share, but he’s also turning a regional ballet company like Alberta Ballet into a cause célèbre. It can also be argued that he and they are producing the most innovative and original ballet work in Canada right now.”
Deirdre Kelly, journalist and internationally recognized dance critic, from a review in Critics at Large, 2011

Katie Ohe: Sculptor and teacher 

Sculptor Katie Ohe sitting at a table with several tools, and welder's masks hanging on the wall behind her.
Groundbreaking sculptor Katie Ohe. Photo: Jason Stang.

Groundbreaking sculptor Katie Ohe has shaped our view of art (literally). She was one of the first artists in Alberta to create conceptual artworks that invite physical interaction and, by choosing to stay in the province, she influenced countless others who practised and studied here. Ohe’s generosity has extended beyond the arts community — along with her late husband, artist Harry Kiyooka, she founded the not-for-profit Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre, offering public lectures, workshops, programming and exhibitions on their property in Springbank. 

  1. In 2019, Ohe was awarded both the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award and the Alberta Order of Excellence. 
  2. Ohe was a student of well-known artists like Marion Nicoll and Illingworth Kerr at Alberta College of Art (now Alberta University of the Arts). In 1970, she became a teacher at the college — some of her students included Evan Penny, Christian Eckart, Brian Cooley, Alexander Caldwell and Isla Burns. 
  3. Ohe is an elected member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. 
  4. Ohe’s Zipper sculpture has been spun by students on the University of Calgary campus for nearly 50 years.

“For over 60 years, Katie Ohe has been a catalyzing force in Calgary’s art community as an artist, mentor, teacher, supporter and builder. As one of Alberta’s most important artistic figures, she has made a significant contribution to the development of contemporary art in the province and her innovative approaches to material, form, movement and participation have been a meaningful influence for generations.” 
— Naomi Potter, director/curator of Esker Foundation in Calgary, from notes for Ohe’s retrospective exhibition, 2020

Keith Johnstone: Director, playwright, author and teacher 

The cover of a black-and-white paperback book picturing three people onstage wearing hats and masks. The title is 'Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre' by Keith Johnstone.
Keith Johnstone’s revered 1979 book about improvisation techniques. Photo: Stafford Perry.

[Note: Keith Johnstone passed away in March 2023.] Keith Johnstone is an extraordinary improv artist who finds inspiration in the ordinary — and teaches people to think on their feet. The co-founder of Calgary’s Loose Moose Theatre is revered around the world for inventing Theatresports and other improv formats, as well as for his plays, books, and numerous workshops and talks. A key ingredient to his success is asking “What if?” and then going along for the ride, whether it ends in uproarious laughter or a touching moment. What if the only other passenger on the bus is a talking monkey? What if your beloved sibling’s ghost arrives with a heartfelt message for you? As he approaches age 90, the result of his work continues to play out on stage and screen through Loose Moose alumni Rebecca Northan, Andrew Phung and Bruce McCulloch, among many others. 

  1. Loose Moose Theatre alumni include Rebecca Northan (Blind Date), Andrew Phung (Kim’s Convenience), Mark McKinney and Bruce McCullouch (Kids in the Hall), Paul Spence and Dave Lawrence (FUBAR), Norm Hiscock (comedy writer for Kids in the Hall, Parks and Recreation, and Emmy-winner for his work on King of the Hill), among others. 
  2. Johnstone wrote his seminal book on improvisation techniques, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, in 1979. 
  3. Johnstone founded the International Theatresports Institute in 1998. The not-for-profit is a communication and information hub for Johnstone’s ideas and manages the production rights of his improv formats. 

“Most of my self-generated work as an artist is due to Keith Johnstone and the time I spent at the Loose Moose Theatre. I met him when I was 16 years old, so his teachings and philosophies around performance and improvisation got in deep. Keith is almost entirely responsible for my ‘artistic operating system’ — everything I do is based on those early years. In my international travels, Keith’s name is the one that always causes other artists to light up.” 
Rebecca Northan, actor, playwright and director 

Michelle Thrush: Actor and director

A photo of actor and director Michelle Thrush.
Actor and director Michelle Thrush, part of Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society. Photo: Red Works Photography.

Michelle Thrush sheds light on Indigenous perspectives that have been missing from the narrative for far too long. The Cree actor and director first gained fame as Gail Stoney in the TV series Blackstone. She is also part of the team behind Making Treaty 7, a legacy project of Calgary 2012, the year the city was named a Cultural Capital of Canada. It was one of the first productions in Canada to give Elders a chance to speak their truths on the signing of the Treaty and its repercussions. Today, Thrush continues to break ground as artistic director of the Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society, an Indigenous-led, settler-supported organization that shares Indigenous stories through arts and culture and models a way of working toward healing. “It’s about building bridges between people and culture,” she says. “That, to me, is an important part of what Making Treaty 7 has done.”

  1. After recovering from the unexpected deaths of three members of the original Making Treaty 7 production, including leaders Michael Green and Narcisse Blood, Thrush carried the work forward as co-director with One Yellow Rabbit’s Blake Brooker.
  2. Thrush’s solo show, Inner Elder, is a bittersweet comedy based on her difficult upbringing as a brown girl in a troubled home in a city of white privilege. It debuted at Lunchbox Theatre in 2018 and was performed at the National Arts Centre in January 2022.
  3. Thrush is known for her roles as Gail Stoney in Blackstone, for which she won a Gemini Award in 2011, and as Sylvie LeBret in North of 60 and Deanna Martin in Arctic Air.

“Audience members often describe the show as ‘life-changing’ and many Calgarians have noticed more and more public gatherings are starting with an acknowledgement that they’re being held on Treaty 7 land — something that was not nearly as common an occurrence only a few years ago.”
Elizabeth Chorney-Booth, journalist, on Making Treaty 7, Avenue magazine, 2016

Cheryl Foggo: Writer, playwright and film director 

Writer-director Cheryl Foggo stands in a field with former rodeo cowboy Fred Whitfield, who is holding the reins of a horse. There are cattle and foothills in the background of an outdoor set for the documentary film John Ware Reclaimed.
Writer-director Cheryl Foggo with actor Fred Whitfield on the set of John Ware Reclaimed. Photo: Shaun Robinson

Cheryl Foggo was a child when her brother came home from a visit to the Glenbow Museum and told her about a famous Black cowboy named John Ware who had lived in Alberta. The reality of a cowboy the same colour as her, who loved horses just like her, gave Foggo a sense of belonging, and sparked her curiosity. A descendant herself of Black pioneers who came to the Canadian Prairies, Foggo has dedicated much of her career to the stories of Ware and others who made the Prairies their home. Her books, films and plays about their lives, loves and struggles have created a more inclusive view of our history and culture. “There are young people whose sense of identity is both Black and western Canadian and who have experienced that same divide as I have. My work has helped them claim with joy both aspects of that identity,” she says. “But it’s not just young Black people who benefit from that work — those stories do belong to all of us.” 

  1. Foggo is working on a book to complete her trio of works about John Ware, which includes the play John Ware Reimagined and the documentary John Ware Reclaimed
  2. Foggo has been working with Heritage Park to help identify where Black stories are missing and how they can be included. The first project, featuring information about the Black porters who worked the trains, was unveiled this summer at the park’s Shepard Station. 
  3. Foggo has won several awards throughout her career, including a 2021 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award. 

“Cheryl Foggo’s personal film confronts Canada’s racist past. John Ware Reclaimed is an engaging and insightful film that brings Ware’s legacy to the forefront — where it should have been in the first place.” 
— Courtney Small Author and film critic, POV Magazine, on the documentary John Ware Reclaimed, 2020