When Daniel Gillis arrived in Yellowknife in the winter of 2008, Ptarmigan Ptheatrics was one singing Nazi short of a full cast for their production of Cabaret. The tenor, who’d relocated from Ottawa in February, was on the NACC stage a few months later toting a red armband and melodically sieg-heiling as Ernst Ludwig.
His first foray into the city’s theatre scene certainly wasn’t his last; since then he’s become something of a local leading man, playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables and, most recently, Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins.
Dan grew up in a musical family in Brockville, Ont. His father would play piano, and Dan and his three siblings would gather around the piano and sing four-part harmony. He started piano when he was six and began singing in a boy’s choir at the local Anglican church when he was eight. Musicals came slightly later. When he was 15, his parents decided he needed some help adjusting to teen life and suggested he audition for his school musical.
“My social skills were not developing like they should have been, I was very shy, and it was very difficult for me to string sentences together.”
He got the lead role in The Pirates of Penzance, and his experience on-stage changed everything; it helped him buck his awkward phase and gave him the nerve and, more importantly, the opportunity to interact with girls.
“It was a very strict school and we weren’t even allowed to date, so I did my dating and my wooing on stage… My first actual lip-to-lip kiss was on stage in front of the entire school behind an umbrella, because we were supposed to pretend-kiss behind the umbrella. I’m pretty sure the whole cast saw, but they never said anything, so we got away with it.”
Dan left Brockville for military college in Kingston, Ont. and Victoria, B.C., to study civil engineering and become a navy officer. He spent several years on the West Coast doing naval tours down to the States and across the South Pacific before moving to Ottawa. There he became heavily involved in the arts scene, starring in several musicals, performing with prominent choirs – once at the National Arts Centre – and singing in jazz and doo-wop bands.
He moved to Yellowknife seven-and-a-half years ago looking for work and following his partner, artist Monique Robert, who he’d dated briefly in Ottawa. After a few years living on land, they built a houseboat on the shores of Dog Island, which they now run as a B&B.
Though Dan makes most of his living as a builder and contractor, he also runs a music business recording vocal scores for groups that can’t read music. Recently he received his first composition commission to write a piece for Aurora Chorealis as well as a grant to write a book of short stories and poems about Old Town, due out this October.
What are your earliest memories of Yellowknife?
The very first memory I have of Yellowknife is the ice fog. It was – 40 and I did not have a block heater on my vehicle and I drove all the way from Ontario. The drive up from Edmonton started in reasonable temperatures: -15, -20, but the more North I got the colder it got, and it stayed -40 for six weeks after I got into Yellowknife. That was super-hard on my car. I remember parking on Franklin. I didn’t actually know where I was going, but there was a computer store that had internet in the building across from the Royal Bank that’s now been torn down. For my first month I’d arranged to house-sit in my friend’s place in Old Town above the “dinosaur museum,” the building right on Government Dock. I remember driving down the hill in this ice fog, thick, thick, like pea soup, and finding this quirky, funny place. Of course the doors weren’t locked. And that night there was an opening party for a bookstore on the first floor. I went down and joined this party and they just welcomed me.
What’s your favourite thing about Yellowknife?
The openness, the friendliness of the people. I come from the same size town and it’s totally different. It’s not a backwoods place at all, it feels to me like a slice of a big city: we have people from all over Canada and the world who bring a lot to the table in terms of varied interests and worldviews. I love the parties where you meet government workers, teachers, mine workers, musicians; you go to a pub and meet politicians and street cleaners and janitors and teachers, and they’re all chatting together. There’s not a posh section and a blue collar section, they’re all there chatting and hanging out. You don’t find that in other places.
What’s your least favourite thing about Yellowknife?
We’re so far away from the big centres, so I really miss being able to sing with a professional ensemble. It’s been tough for me to work here professionally as a musician. Most of the things I do here musically are not paid; if I were in a bigger centre I could do that for my living or a big part of my living. And I miss being able to see big theatre and big productions.
How do you spend your winters?
I get quite involved in the music and theatre scene in the winter. I’ve been doing one thing after another in terms of arranging music, doing rehearsals and also dance, I’m involved in some of the dance shows that are going on – there’s this ballroom dance gala in the fall, I did it a couple years in a row and I learned the foxtrot and the waltz, different things like that. I really throw myself into the arts.
How do you spend your summers?
With the B&B we’re pretty busy. But when we get a chance we get out on the lake. To my chagrin, we have not been out to the East Arm yet, but now we finally have a boat that can handle the lake – just an 18-footer, but it has a bigger horsepower motor – so we’re really looking forward to getting out to the East Arm this summer. Our favourite thing is to go out and find an island in the middle of a lake somewhere, because islands are fairly free of mosquitoes.
What kind of opportunities have you found in Yellowknife that you don’t think you’d find elsewhere?
If you want to start anything, you can. You want to start a newspaper, you want to start a journal, you want to start a choir or a band – do it and people will come. And there are always needs. A few years ago there was a need to start a children’s choir, so I agreed to start a boys choir. I didn’t know this at the time, but there are only two boys choirs in the country and I started one and got it up to 16 boys, which was pretty cool. I also conducted the chamber choir. I don’t have any formal training as a conductor, but I have a lot of experience. That one year I directed was really special. I brought in early music because I really love it. It was a new experience for a lot of people in that choir and a real challenge, but I still get people telling me it was their favourite concert to be involved in.
Are you a Yellowknife Lifer?
I think I am, I feel like it’s really home. It’s developed over time, but once I had the houseboat built and we were living in it I realized how wonderful it is out on the lake, and in Yellowknife in general. It’s pretty clear to us we’re here for a long time, if not forever.