Claude Giguère remembers the first time he booked his North Shore Celtic Ensemble for a concert in North Vancouver’s famed Centennial Theatre.
It was the early 2000s and the NSCE, formed in 1998 by Giguère and Spirit of the West rocker Jay Knutson, was then only a few years old. Centennial Theatre was by far the biggest venue they’d ever booked up to that point, and they were more than a little worried about getting enough butts in the seats to see their high-energy youth ensemble play their hearts out.
“It was a huge project for us,” said Giguère. “It was like, ‘my God, how are we going to do this?’… You’re hoping that people will come. It costs a lot to rent a theatre like this one, and you don’t want to flop.”
The ensemble wasn’t sure that they could pull it all off, but they had some reinforcements – a dance group called the Eire Born Nora Pickett Irish Dance Academy – to share the stage with them.
The big day came, and the theatre was … well it wasn’t full, but it was full enough to make the show a success.
“We were lucky because the Irish dance troupe, they had a bigger school than we did,” Giguère said. “I think they had like 100 kids, and you put their families in there, we must have had maybe half [full]. … It was an acceptable number, but it wasn’t a full house by any stretch of the imagination.”
It was, however, the start of an annual tradition that persists to this day. The Celtic Ensemble continued to book Centennial Theatre once a year – the show soon settled into a regular spot on the last Saturday in November – and eventually they no longer needed to partner with anyone else to fill the seats. They now fill it nearly every year on their own, and while the show isn’t typically a Christmas show itself – the group shows off the entire range of their exciting and eclectic repertoire – the late-November date has become a beloved annual holiday tradition for many on the North Shore.
And that first Centennial Theatre show played a huge role in helping the ensemble get to where they are now, said Giguère.
“Up to that point, we had played mostly in festivals, outdoor venues, care centres and that sort of thing. So to go to a big theatre with all the technology, then suddenly you think differently, and then you have more possibilities. And so that was exciting, and it pushed us to develop what the Celtic Ensemble has become now, to develop the idea of what the ensemble could be, and involve the kids in the creative aspects of putting a show together as well.”
They’re back at Centennial Theatre at the end of this month, and this year’s show will be a particularly poignant one for a couple of reasons, the first being that the ensemble couldn’t hold one last year because of COVID-19 concerns. They’re absolutely thrilled to be back on the big stage this year, said Giguère.
The bigger reason, however, is that this will be the last Centennial Theatre show for the ensemble with Giguère leading the group. He recently announced that the 2021-22 season will be his last as the ensemble’s leader, and so this will be his final big North Shore theatre show.
“Every year we have people who are graduating from the ensemble and we celebrate them [at the Centennial Theatre show],” he said. “And now I’ll be one of the graduates, after 23 years.”
When Giguère steps away from the group at the end of the season he will be replaced by professional violinist Gabriel Dubreuil, an ensemble alumni who is already helping to lead the group.
“He really understands what the ensemble is about,” said Giguère. “I'm fully confident that he will do a great job. … He’ll be fabulous there, and he’s already doing so much.”
Before he says his final goodbyes, however, there will be the big show at Centennial Theatre. Many friends of the group will be present for the show, said Giguère, including several ensemble alumni who will be coming back for the special occasion.
“It’ll be really moving to be surrounded by so many people who have really fed me so much,” he said. “The ensemble is ultimately about connections, it’s about those beautiful people you meet along the way.”
Connections is a key word for the ensemble and it also happens to be the name of the upcoming show. Some of his former students will appear onstage for presentations during the show, renewing those connections that have been formed by the ensemble members over the years.
“For me that makes it very special to have that connection,” he said, adding that instead of always looking forward as he has done with the ensemble over the years, he finally gets a chance to look back. “You’re always thinking forward, but now it’s the one where you start thinking of what’s been done, thinking back a little bit and making connections. … Reconnecting with all of those people who have grown with the ensemble over the years, that’s extremely special for me. I think it will be an amazing show, and I can’t wait to see some of these people who eight, nine, 10 years old when they started with us and now they are in their 30s.”
The North Shore Celtic Ensemble’s show Connection will be held Saturday, Nov. 27 starting at 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Theatre. Guests ages 12+ must present proof of vaccination to enter, and all patrons will be required to wear a mask inside the theatre. For ticket information visit the Centennial Theatre website.