Imagine hearing singers as they perform at Cultus Lake, or musicians playing violins in the courtyard of District 1881, or being part of an indoor-outdoor opera that starts at dusk and goes until dawn, right here in Chilliwack.
Those are some of the ideas that Jean-Louis Bleau, the new executive director of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre, wants to make happen.
He took on the position at the beginning of September. The centre had been under interim leadership since June 2021.
“It was a no-brainer to come here,” he said.
When he first stepped through the doors of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre, he couldn’t believe his eyes.
“There’s that ‘oh wow’ factor here in Chilliwack.”
It’s something he compared to arts centres in big cities.
“The backstage is enviable even for venues in Calgary. It’s amazing,” Bleau said. “It really is a spectacular hall.”
But it’s not just the centre itself that drew him to Chilliwack.
After speaking with people around town, Bleau said everyone is talking about the change that’s happening in Chilliwack. The perception he’s getting is that the city is at the beginning of a “cultural renaissance.”
“Chilliwack is changing. People talk about that and they talk about the potential. It’s great to talk about that, but the wonderful thing is, I felt that.”
Bleau came here from Calgary where he provided creative and administrative leadership to the Mount Royal University Conservatory in various roles since 2015, most recently as interim director. The conservatory is Western Canada’s largest performing arts institution.
While in Calgary, he had a hand in several unique performances, such as one that took place in a swimming pool. It was called Blue and featured synchronized swimmers performing to the songs of a choir, based on the album Blue by Joni Mitchell.
He said he loves taking performances out of concert halls and venues and placing them in nature.
One performance took place around a lake in the heart of Kananaskis, while another used huge illuminated buffalo puppets in a field surrounded by the mountains in Alberta.
“I love arts and culture being in the community as well as in the concert hall,” Bleau said, adding that the Chilliwack Cultural Centre is not a “square box.”
“I see the centre’s role as curating arts and culture in the community.”
He wants to engage with artists in the community and develop performances that speak to Chilliwack and its history – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.
Bleau recently went to Bridal Veil Falls which he called a “magical” space. After visiting, he though it would be fantastic to bring an evening performance to the space that tells the Stó:lō people’s story of Mt. Cheam.
“A lot of it is starting with the spark of an idea and fanning that and problem solving as things go along,” he said as he spoke of the performances out in the community.
In addition to bringing the arts outside, he’s working on a variety of other things to see what resonates with people in Chilliwack.
There’s the “passport series” of performances that will bring various cultural works to the centre.
“Rather than travelling half way around the world to experience something, can we bring something here and create that experience for people in Chilliwack to enjoy and appreciate?” he said.
Another vision Bleau has is seeing more students at the centre where kids would come in during school hours to take part in workshops.
He noted there are a great number of community arts organizations that use the centre and pointed to a two-week window at the end of October where three back-to-back performances were all by community groups. He wants the centre to “take ownership” and “foster” it in better ways.
“I think that’s fantastic. There is so much creative energy and life happening in Chilliwack,” Bleau said.
He is not just part of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre as the executive director, but also as a teacher and a student. Bleau is currently taking a ceramics course and a photography class.
He also just started up the Re:Action choir where singers can explore a more “adventurous dive” into the musical arts.
But it’s the once-in-a-lifetime productions that he really wants to bring to Chilliwack.
One dream production he wants to do is a massive opera called Ra. It’s a dusk-to-dawn interactive performance that progresses from outside to inside. The audience is part of the opera, moving from one room to the next and going from inside the centre to the outdoors.
“This space is ideal for it,” he said. “The dreaming side of me would love to see that opera created here, and how amazing that would be to actually do a work on that scale in the community of Chilliwack?”
Bleau said as the new executive director, it’s a huge privilege for him to be in a role where he can help shape the future of arts in Chilliwack, and he welcomes insight from local artists and others in the community.
People who want to be part of how to animate the space and community and expand on what the Chilliwack Cultural Centre does can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.