Nick Thompson

Performing Stampede

How the vastly underrated Young Canadians reflect Alberta to ourselves

By Aritha van Herk

Each evening at the Calgary Stampede, roaring crowds watch the chuckwagon races, a sport fast, dangerous and life-threatening to both men and horses. But the rumble fades once the chucks are over. The hardcore racing fans leave, the tourists don jackets against dusk’s chill, and the big eight-wheeled tractor trundles the TransAlta grandstand show’s moveable stage in front of the infield. The stage itself is a hybrid of beast and bling called the Queen Mary, pulled in and settled in place, carefully levelled against the permanent stage to make a large performance platform. A behemoth of an apron, it boasts three elevators and state of the art turntables that almost dip and roll under the gyrating bodies that perform on them. As Dave Kelly, who has served as grandstand show host and announcer for the last seven years, says, “It’s the only stage I know where it takes 40 seconds just to get to the centre, to where people can see you, a mad dash.”

The indubitable and sometimes dubious character of Stampede arouses much discussion in Calgary. Some Calgarians keep a Western wardrobe ready to don, while others sneer at the annual carnival as a form of uncultured theatre, a faux celebration of an era so far in the past that it doesn’t even raise dust. The tension between rodeo fans and animal welfare groups is fierce. And the jostle between the lineups and the excessive drinking and the commercial aspect of the whole affair means that the words “culture” and “Stampede” are seldom uttered in the same sentence. Yet the culture of the Calgary Stampede occupies a distinct precinct, provoking an unusual brand of poetry and music. And if the chucks are both the most historically authentic and the most controversial element of the Stampede, the grandstand show may well be the least.

The show is exactly what its name suggests: grandstanding, or what Kelly calls “a country fair on steroids.” Entertaining 20,000 people every night, it manages in 75 minutes to combine tacky and touching, celebration and threnody, Chautauqua and Vegas. It serves up education and spectacle, music and dance, with a soupçon of Cirque-style acrobats and jugglers, pyrotechnics and stunts. It has to please a million different demographics: kids, teenagers and seniors, men and women, rural and urban and the infield leftovers from the chucks. Reviews of the grandstand show range from gentle enthusiasm to tempered approval—great family fun, but kind of lame if you’re going with your friends—and an attitudinal shrug: once you’ve seen one of these shows, you’ve seen them all.

But while the nightly spectacle sounds like a recipe for disaster, year after year it draws full-house crowds and year after year grows bigger and glitzier. Every year it follows a path both predictable and creative, always garnished by the singers and dancers of the Young Canadians.

The Stampede always offered an evening grandstand, but in the early days that meant reprising a rather tired show that travelled Western Canada from fair to fair over the summer. But Calgary’s determination to offer the biggest and the best of the West meant the entertainment provided by those prescribed vaudeville shows was not quite up to Stampede standards. In 1964 the Stampede Board invited Randolph Avery of the Barnes & Carruthers Theatrical Agency in Chicago (which packaged and booked these shows) to come to Calgary and produce one specifically for the Stampede. That event featured American vaudeville acts, but more importantly featured the Canadian singer Juliette and local dancers the Kidettes, directed by renowned instructor Margot Gooder McDermott (who served as artistic director of the Young Canadians until 1991). Instead of importing all of the talent, Calgary would celebrate some of its own. The show was so successful that Avery was recruited by Peter Lougheed, then the grandstand committee chair, to move to Calgary and become the producer. Legend has it that Avery used to call the grandstand show “the mud opera,” because it was bound to pour at least once. He also declared, “We don’t have to go out of town to enjoy good entertainment.”

What looks like youthful exuberance is absolutely serious—and the outcome is no small effort.

Avery was the impresario who decided it was a good opportunity to test some of Calgary’s potential. He put ads in the local newspapers and sent word to school music departments that he was looking for talented kids. Auditions were held and 18 young students selected as the original Young Canadians. Avery had an idea that he wanted to replicate the American Doodletown Pipers, the 1960s epitome of a squeaky clean, charming vocal group, who had appeared on the Red Skelton show and the Ed Sullivan show. (Never mind that later a critic would call the Doodletown Pipers “dull as lint” and “defiantly strait-laced, transported directly from a Lutheran choir performance.”)

Avery allowed the nascent Young Canadians to sing and dance three numbers in the 1968 grandstand show. He was more doubtful about their talent than they were—every year they begged to perform more, and after four or five years he began to relent. Slowly, between Avery and McDermott’s dancing kids, the Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede were born. Avery directed until his son Bill took over in 1987; Bill managed the whole spectacle until 2013, when he retired and handed the reins of creative producer to Dave Pierce. Pierce, a native Calgarian, has international experience in musical productions, including his triumph as music director for the opening, closing and victory ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, for which he received an Emmy award. That’s a serious pedigree, and Pierce’s creative skill promises to make the 2014 show better than spectacular.

The Young Canadians of the Calgary Stampede are expected to sing and dance their way through the entire show. Their performances are the culmination of a year’s work in the Young Canadians School of Performing Arts, the major community youth program supported by the Stampede. Stories of the Young Canadians are legion. Scratch a Calgary kid and they’re as likely to have been—or yearned to be—a Young Canadian as they are to have played hockey. The Young Canadians provide the chorus line for the headliners, lifting their hats and doing the splits in a combination of costume and choreography. They perform spectaculars and finales. But what looks like youthful exuberance is absolutely serious—and the outcome of no small effort.

What is astonishing is the low-key reputation of the school and its success. It’s taken for granted that those ranks of smiling kids—ranging from 7 to 21 years of age—are just gathered up and shoved out on stage, singing and dancing. But theirs is no cushy experience. If it rains, hails or snows (and it has done all of those), the show goes on, and it’s seldom delayed, let alone cancelled. Even in 2013, after the flood, the show went forward, incorporating a tribute to first responders.

Auditions are held every August, and competition is keen across categories: junior, apprentice and senior dancers and singers. Christine Robbins, who has had three daughters in the company, recounts how the first year her two oldest tried out, they both made it to the final cut but were eliminated. With more than 120 kids trying out for the dozen or so spots for junior dancers (ages 7–11), the odds are low. The next year, her middle child got in but the oldest and youngest did not; then, the next year, the youngest and the middle children got into junior dancers and the oldest into apprentice (ages 11–14) singers. The spread for senior (ages 14–21) dancers and singers is wide enough for a significant range of talent and experience. But admission is only the beginning.

Young Canadians troupe members and their parents put in serious hours, practising, driving and volunteering (those people selling programs at the grandstand are company parents). The commitment has to be unstinting, and every performer has to prove him or herself every year because readmission is not guaranteed. Parents are fundraisers and seamstresses and cheerleaders, chaperones and envelope-stuffers—what Christine Robbins describes as “giving back, and earning the scholarships that students receive when they are accepted to the program.” One year, she recalls, she put in 160 volunteer hours just sewing.

The Young Canadians School of Performing Arts is a year-round organization, with a new crop entering every September to study dance (jazz, tap and ballet), voice, theatre and gymnastics. Demands on the 110–130 students are incredibly high—they train three or four nights a week (including on weekends) and, as Stampede approaches, six times a week. All students admitted receive a full scholarship valued at about $9,000. Once they audition successfully, their training is free—with opportunities to work at Banff and at the Disney Performing Arts School in Los Angeles. The Calgary school provides a young, firebrand faculty for vocal, dance and acting instruction, with a strong fitness component. It also brings in visitors such as ballet dancer Evelyn Hart to share their experiences. Many of the instructors are themselves Young Canadian alumni. On top of that, prior to diploma and departmental exams, tutoring services are provided for cast members. High school students can count the training as work experience.

When so much of what we consume is imported from elsewhere, we forget home-grown talent and its aspirations.

There are expenses. Gas, for one. And shoes. Robbins’s three daughters needed character shoes and black jazz shoes and two or three pairs of pointe shoes every year. But the return is high. The Young Canadians School’s stated objective is to provide instruction in a variety of disciplines and opportunities for performance so that each student can “develop the self-awareness that will be required to make each one successful in life,” perhaps the strongest argument for engagement in the arts that can be made in a province where the arts are more and more considered a “frill.” And kids—and adults (the troupe has been in existence for 45 years)—who have gone through the Young Canadians school speak of the experience as life-changing, saying it instills confidence and poise, an ability to stand up in front of a crowd without being intimidated. A corollary result is fast friendship: With that kind of intensive practice comes connection, and many of the troupe members remain friends for life.

Angela Benson, artistic director of the school, says local talent is rich and plentiful. Her enthusiasm is not surprising, since she was one of those dancing kids who used the experience to make good in the wider world, including on stage in London’s West End, before she came home to Calgary. During the year, she trains the students to be professional performers. And they hit the pinnacle at Stampede, when, choreographed by Brian Foley, all the students perform nightly in that furious combination of art and spectacle, the grandstand show. While fireworks and confetti might cement the light show, even the glummest spectator has to let out a yelp of pleasure, an ooh and aah, when those hundred dancers perform in perfect unison.
If they were smart, the Stampede would publish a roster of their alumni, highlighting how many of their students go on to excel in music or dance, star in musical theatre or become, like Paul Brandt, successful performers (he won the 1992 Youth Talent Showdown at the Stampede). But being Albertan, we tend to ignore our own talent until it goes away and gets recognized. When so much of what we consume is imported from elsewhere, when the “big names” gobble our entertainment dollars and we break the bank to hear the Rolling Stones or Lady Gaga, we forget homegrown talent and its aspirations.

And one place where that happens is on the stage at the Stampede grandstand. In the hovering light of a summer evening, a hundred young performers stand determined to put on a killer show, ready to dance and sing their hearts out.

Dave Kelly said it best: “It’s completely unique. You’re standing out there, on this massive stage. It’s a warm summer night. You can see the bugs flying in the lights. There are kids everywhere, 20-year-olds standing next to 8-year-olds sitting next to 80-year-olds. Twenty-thousand spectators, and they are mostly with you, ready to laugh, paying attention. Even the tired, drunk people standing around the stage in the infield are happy. And everybody on that stage will bust themselves to make it great.”

Every place on Earth celebrates its community’s character. Entertainment and play, pleasure and recreation reflect our human desire for magic, some mark of joyful connection, moments of transformative delight. Some may mock the cowboy hats and twirling batons of the grandstand show, but even in costume, those dancing kids mime our parts in a developing story. And if any word might summarize Alberta’s brash and optimistic character, “grandstanding” fits the bill—an indelible melding of performance and celebration.

Aritha van Herk was an artist in residence at the 2012 Calgary Stampede. She has authored numerous books about Alberta.


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