This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2022

Raising the barre

How a New Brunswick ballet company helps newcomers build a life in Atlantic Canada

Grace Wells-Smith

Photo by Denis Duquette

When Eldiyar Daniyarov arrived for his first day of work at Atlantic Ballet Atlantique Canada in 2012, an ear-splitting alarm went off. The 26-year-old ballet dancer had been anxious to get to the studio early, warm up, and make a good impression. Although he had a key, he was so early that the building’s alarm hadn’t been disabled. Then the phone started ringing. “I was so scared,” he says. “Everywhere was noise.” And then some guy showed up. Daniyarov didn’t speak a word of English. Clearly confused, the man picked up the phone, while Daniyarov frantically tried to explain he was a dancer. Luckily, co-founder and CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin was on the other end, and she cleared things up for both men.

Born in Kyrgyzstan, Daniyarov had landed in New Brunswick the previous day, and was the ballet’s newest hire. After dancing across Central Asia and Russia, he’d applied to more than 20 companies in the U.S., Switzerland, England, Germany, and Canada. He received multiple offers and ultimately chose the Atlantic Ballet because he wanted to live in Canada. The company secured his work permit, but the support didn’t stop there: they found him an apartment, helped him open a bank account, and set him up with an English teacher. Now 36, Daniyarov continues to dance with the company, owns a home, speaks English (and is learning French), and has a close community. “My immigration experience was much easier,” says Daniyarov, “because I have huge support.”

The Atlantic Ballet currently employs seven full-time dancers, five of whom are from overseas. In addition to Kyrgyzstan and Canada, the dancers hail from Mongolia, Japan, France, and England. Igor Dobrovolskiy, the artistic director, is also an immigrant, from Ukraine. After Dobrovolskiy founded the company in 2002 with Chalmers-Gauvin to help build a professional dance industry in New Brunswick, the Ballet unintentionally became a magnet for newcomers and a model to other organizations of how to support employees from overseas embarking on a new life. In doing their part to attract, retain, and integrate immigrants, the Atlantic Ballet doesn’t only revitalize New Brunswick’s Arts scene, it revitalizes the province’s communities.

The ability to attract and retain newcomers is vital to New Brunswick, a province with an aging population. It has also been a strategic priority for the provincial government in recent years. New Brunswick is experiencing its highest rate of population growth since 1976. Between March 2021 and March 2022 alone, the population grew by 15,000 people, and over the past five years, the population has grown by more than 40,000. The province is now home to approximately 800,000 people—that’s the largest its population has ever been.

In a provincial news release, Premier Blaine Higgs credited the surge to a successful population-growth strategy, leading to higher interprovincial migration and higher international immigration. The strategy, in effect until 2024, includes three main targets: to reach 7,500 newcomers annually, to reach an 85 percent retention rate, and for French-speaking nominations to account for 33 percent of all nominations.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2021 population estimates, 22.5 percent of the province’s population is 65 and older, landing New Brunswick in second place for the highest percentage of seniors in Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador takes first place at 23 percent). “We are getting hit very hard by the retirement wave,” says Francis McGuire, the president of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. “We’re going to lose 20,000 people a year to retirement in Atlantic Canada.”

Dobrovolskiy is familiar with the pains of immigration. After coming to Canada from Ukraine just over 20 years ago, he found settling into life in Moncton challenging. There was a lack of professional dance opportunities, and he and his wife were planning on leaving. But a coffee break with Chalmers-Gauvin changed his mind. A life-long ballet lover, she wanted to bring more dance to the province. At the time, Dobrovolskiy was teaching her daughter’s class at a local recreational dance studio, and Chalmers-Gauvin, a consultant, was drawn to his work. “I saw a piece of choreography that he did for the school…. It made me cry,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is an amateur production and I’m sitting in the audience bawling.’”

They discussed how underdeveloped the professional dance community was in Atlantic Canada, despite other arts disciplines flourishing. “If you’re not in a big rush to leave, I’ll do some research,” she said. Chalmers-Gauvin discovered that at the time, the Canada Council for the Arts was distributing around $18 million a year to professional dance projects across Canada, but no Atlantic provinces were seeing that money. Later that day, she and Dobrovolskiy opened up P.O. Box 1783, and it was decided: they were going to start their own professional ballet company in New Brunswick.

After raising more than $300,000 in donations, the next obstacle was hiring dancers. Canada is home to at least five professional ballet training institutions, all forming new graduates, so they distributed their audition notice within Canada, wanting to prioritize Canadian dancers. But the interest wasn’t there. Dobrovolskiy says Canadian dancers didn’t take the new company seriously, because it was burrowed in an eastern province with no professional ballet community. “The first year, [we had] one Canadian application from Quebec,” he says. “The rest—60 or 70 applicants—from all over the world.” So next came the task of figuring out how to get all of the international dancers into Canada.

“Looking back, I don’t even know how we figured out how to do that, honestly,” says Chalmers-Gauvin. “Flying dancers in from all over the world and to get through the immigration papers to get them here.” She describes the ambitious duo as “naïve” back then. “And thank goodness we were, because I don’t think we would have ventured forward without that naivety.” Then rehearsals started.

In the early years, Dobrovolskiy found himself surrounded by dancers who all spoke different languages. Dobrovolskiy speaks Spanish and English, so he could do some translating, but this only went so far. “Sometimes rehearsals became an international discussion of languages,” he says, laughing. Formal language lessons were quickly introduced into the work day for dancers from overseas.

Daniyarov would sit with Paul Delaney, a professor and writer in Moncton, on some of the breaks between rehearsals. Delaney volunteers his time to teach the dancers English, and when Daniyarov started at the Ballet, the two met twice a week. As the dancer’s English improved over time, their meetings turned weekly. Their lessons moved on from naming everyday objects, such as “wall,” “ceiling,” “light,” “ table,” and “chair,” to having conversations about things like Canadian history, Acadian culture, and Indigenous communities. The goal was for Daniyarov to not only communicate, but learn about his new country. Jump forward more than a decade to the present day, and the two still stay in touch and have tea together. They’re even neighbours. “Since the day I have met with him, [Delaney] has become my mentor,” says Daniyarov, who describes the professor as part of his family now.

The ability to express himself is one of the reasons Daniyarov came to Canada all those years ago. A major difference between living in Canada and Kyrgyzstan, he says, is the ability to speak his mind here. This year, the country in Central Asia was again labeled “Not Free” by Freedom House, a nonprofit in Washington that advocates for democracy, political freedom, and human rights. And according to their scoring system based on political rights and civil liberties, things are getting worse. The country’s current score is 27/100, down from 28 in 2021. In Canada, “you can express your vision,” says Daniyarov. “You can argue, you can say ‘What do you think?’ loudly, and this is your right.”

Not to say that things are perfect here. “I don’t want to talk about racism,” he says, “but unfortunately, I wouldn’t say it doesn’t exist.” Still, he feels, for the most part, happy and settled in Moncton, citing the proximity of the ocean and the warm culture of the east coast as major contributing factors.

Olga Petiteau, 33, just celebrated her 10th anniversary with the Atlantic Ballet. Originally from France, she also had to adjust to New Brunswick culture. She says that in Paris, no one makes eye contact when out and about. “You may get in trouble,” she says. “You just do your thing.” But in Moncton, strangers say hello on the street, on the trail, or in the shops. “It’s a small city, it’s growing, but it’s got this small-village kindness,” she says. And that kindness is part of the Atlantic Ballet culture too. During the pandemic, Petiteau hosted a new company dancer awaiting access to her apartment, continuing the circle of support she’d benefited from as a newcomer. “When you feel welcome, you want to stay,” she says.

Louis-Philippe Dionne, the ballet’s operations and community relations manager, is in charge of immigration processes. He says that despite the company’s success in this area (he has secured work permits for more than 18 dancers since 2010), it doesn’t always work out. Thomas Badrock, who joined the ballet in 2017 from England, is currently undergoing struggles in his immigration journey. Getting a work permit, he says, was easy. The Ballet took care of the paperwork. “And now all of a sudden, to become a permanent resident, it’s like pulling teeth,” he says. The last time he applied, he had to take a language test that included speaking, reading, and writing. Speaking and writing were no issue, but he was told he scored too low on his reading test. He will have to take the test again, costing another $250.

Badrock is dyslexic, and says that he usually gets extra time to complete tests. But when he requested support, he was told there wasn’t enough time to make the accommodation. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says. “I’ve been in the country for five years. I’m obviously capable enough of surviving.”

What also upsets him is that he pays into employment insurance, but because he can’t secure permanent residency, he can’t claim it when the Ballet goes on break for August, December, and January, forcing him to go home. “I feel very vulnerable because I feel like I have no status in this place, when I’ve dedicated five years of my life to it,” he says. It’s frustrating when things don’t work out—whether because of paperwork, homesickness, or circumstances—but it’s never for a lack of trying on everyone’s part in the Atlantic Ballet.

“One, two, three, four….” Daniyarov counts to 12. That’s how many newcomers he knows, whom the Ballet has helped build a life permanently in New Brunswick. And now, more than a decade later, he says Moncton is starting to reflect the diversity of the company.

In July, the company performed at the Mosaiq Festival, an annual multicultural festival featuring artists from all over the world. “I have a chance to represent myself there, with my motherland country,” he says. Petiteau has also found a small community of Francophones. “I’ve got the best of both worlds,” she says. “I can speak English, I can speak French. It’s pretty brilliant to have.”

Throughout 2018 and 2019, the company hosted four immigration summits in Moncton, St. John’s, Charlottetown, and Halifax. The summits were for businesses from all sectors to learn about the processes and the responsibilities of hiring from outside of Canada.

The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency financially supported the summits, and was heavily involved in the organization. According to McGuire, the president of the agency, it’s not really the Ballet’s immigration stats that they are recognized for. “It’s the example they set,” he says. “They understand, ‘I’m bringing a person in.”

Show Comments