Education and Early Career
Gradimir Pankov performed folk dances as a child, but a chance to watch the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn onstage inspired him to pursue a career in ballet. At age 17, he began training in classical ballet and music under teachers Mile Jovanovich, Olga Milosavljeva and Boris Dobrohotov. A year later, while still a student, he joined the National Ballet of the Macedonian Opera. After graduating in 1959, he stayed in Yugoslavia, performing as a guest artist with various ballet companies, including those of Novi Sad, Zagreb and Sarajevo. He maintained his dancing career during military service in 1962–63.
Pankov’s innovative career began in 1967. In Germany, he danced with ballet companies in Nuremberg, Karlsruhe, Wuppertal, Munich and Mannheim, performing principal roles in Romeo and Juliet, Pulcinello, Petruska and Afternoon of a Faun.
Career as Artistic Director
Pankov became ballet master and assistant director at the Städtische Bühnen Dortmund (Dortmund Municipal Theatre Ballet) in 1976. Three years later, he joined the Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague as teacher and artistic director of the junior company, later known as NDT II. In Holland, he met Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián and Swedish dance maker Mats Ek, with whom he established lifelong friendships and professional associations.
From 1981 to 1984, Pankov was artistic director of the Finnish National Ballet. Instead of adhering to the company’s traditional repertoire of Russian and Soviet classics, he introduced and commissioned works by young Finnish choreographers and others, and also showed pieces by masters never before seen in Finland such as Ek, Kylián, Kurt Joos, Heinz Spoerli, Rudi van Danzig, Roberto Trinchero and George Balanchine.
Pankov moved to Stockholm in 1984 to direct Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet, which he toured extensively abroad. One of these tours brought him to Canada in 1985.
In 1988, he was teacher and artistic director at the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Geneva, Switzerland. He inaugurated a new model of artistic direction by replacing the post of resident choreographer with guest choreographers, a practice that became the norm among many contemporary ballet companies. He also encouraged his dancers to choreograph by organizing choreography workshops.
Career with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal
Pankov entered semi-retirement in 1996, becoming a freelance ballet teacher with the Cullberg and Royal Swedish Ballets, Lisbon’s Gulbenkian, NDT, New York’s American Ballet Theater, Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, and the ballet companies of the Opéra de Paris and the Opéra de Lyon.
In 1999, he returned as artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, where he presented established international choreographers and emerging artists while encouraging company dancers to choreograph. He commissioned new works annually, introducing North American audiences to many young European choreographers, including former Geneva dancers Stijn Celis (who created six ballets for the Montreal company), Didy Veldman and Kim Brandstrup. He also frequently collaborated with Kylián, Ek and Ohad Naharin, a former dancer who had become a choreographer of international repute, Jean-Christophe Maillot and Stephen Thoss.
In an era when most contemporary ballet companies presented mixed programs, Pankov added a new dimension to Les Grands’ programs by commissioning evening-length story ballets such as Peter Quanz’s Rodin, Claudel and Brandstrup’s Queen of Spades. Under Pankov, Les Grands became a resolutely contemporary ballet company, ceasing to dance all classics except an annual Nutcracker. Pankov reasoned that his 35-member company was too small to do justice to the classics, which generally require casts twice that size. Instead, he invited the world’s major classical companies to Montreal to perform in Les Grands’ subscription series. These included the Paris Opera Ballet (which danced Paquita in 2015 on a visit that was 13 years in the making), Russia’s Perm Ballet, the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Cuban National Ballet and the Shanghai Ballet.
Gradimir Pankov reshaped Les Grands into a starless troupe of young and versatile dancers chosen for their personalities as much as their technique, touring them extensively from Tel Aviv to Mexico City and Beijing. A New York Times critic said that Pankov had caused a “revolution” in Montreal. One of his proudest moments came in 2008 when his company performed in Paris for the first time in 30 years. Another source of pride came in 2010, his 10th anniversary with the company, when he received his Canadian citizenship at the opening of one of the company’s seasons.
In 1995, Pankov received an honorary diploma from the Lodz Ballet Festival. He was featured in A Summer of Dance, a television film directed by Stéphanie Weber-Biron that commemorated Les Grands’ week-long performance showcase in Paris in 2008. He received two honours from his native Macedonia: the Menada Award from the Skopje Dance Festival; and the Best Promotion of Macedonia and Lifetime Achievement Award of 2011, granted by the media consortium, Macedonia Loves You, in 2012. In 2014, he received the Royal Bank of Canada Top 25 Canadian Immigrants Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Belgrade Dance Festival.
Honouring his legacy and his 18 years at the the helm of Les Grands, Gradimir Pankov was made company artistic director emeritus on his retirement in 2017.