The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s spirit isn’t easily broken, so that when it happens it’s memorable, like Lloyd Robertson frowning. Since it’s a company of neither false pride nor precious ballerinas, the break, when it came, had nothing to do with stage peformance. It happened earlier this year during a blizzard in Columbus, Ohio, and it was the fault both of a burst city water main—cutting off the only source for toilets and showers—and of the bumbling Columbus theatre manager who saw no reason to bring in emergency chemical johns, or even water buckets. As for Mother Nature’s pressing demands on the company; they could always, the manager crisply implied, use the snowbanks outside. For dancers who had earlier (at Marion, Ohio) performed without beefing on a stage so shallow that they could clear it back to front in a single leap, it was too much. “Imagine,” said corps member Michael O’Gorman later, “trekking into the snow in our makeup and tights.” Thanks, said the company, declining to perform; and the audience of almost 3,000, already gathered, went home.
Any ordinary company would probably have said good riddance to Columbus for ever. But the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, being no ordinary company, decided that if 3.000
Columbans had taken the effort to show up the least they could do was schedule Columbus again. Which is why the company opened its current eastern tour with a special Columbus performance in midMarch, which went off this time without a hitch.
So too with the rest of the tour, which has proven the RWB’S flexibility in performing a clutch of short engagements (Windsor, Kingston, Waterloo, London, Belleville, Brockville) with as little stress as the longer runs (such as Montreal—or Toronto, where they’re due April 5-9). The company can move fast and easily because it’s compact. Says artistic director Arnold Spohr: “We’ve always kept our company small enough to be able to fit 25 dancers and a handful of musicians in one bus, and all the sets, costumes and lighting in one transport trailer.” By comparison with the National Ballet of Canada’s traveling leviathan of 65 dancers, three buses (or chartered jet) and eight transport trucks, the RWB is a cultural commando unit.
In many ways this compactness works to the company’s advantage; it's also a financial necessity. In round figures, the National Ballet has an annual budget of four million dollars while the Royal Winnipeg’s has one of about $1.5 million—Ru-
dolf Nureyev once cost the National a quarter of that for a single production. The most obvious result, for audiences, is visual: the RWB’S sets tend to be sparse and amateurish, and five of its dancers can be dressed for what the National might pay for one. Comments Doreen Macdonald, the Royal Winnipeg’s wardrobe director, with a certain bitterness: “The National has the money, that’s all.”
What the company is offering on its current tour is what they’ve been offering for almost 40 years: bright, energetic, often lightweight ballet entertainment. A bit of the classics here, a touch of pop there, a hint of contemporary dance somewhere else, and all on the same program. This sex-and-simplicity, light-and-easy approach is both its strength and its weakness. Unlike some heavily classical companies, the Royal Winnipeg never makes you feel as if you’ve been to church, but it can leave you yearning for a bit more substance. To his credit, Spohr is trying to rectify this, and on the present tour the company has two repertoires, partly overlapping: one mainly for conservative small-towners, the other for big-city balletomanes who may be more open to the bludgeon of innovation.
And so for the first: Grand Pas Español, a light romance; and The Hands, about just that, to the accompaniment of pop music. And for Toronto only: Oscar Araiz’s exciting contemporary version of The Rite Of Spring, and Norbert Vosak’s rock ballet. What To Do Till The Messiah Comes.
Sometimes this easy assumption falls flat on its face. The premiere of Larry Hayden’s The Whims Of Love in Windsor, for instance, was not a success. A fluffy, neoromantic work, it should logically have thrilled the hearts of cultural conservatives uncomfortable with this century. But it didn’t—Windsor (just as easily as Montreal, say, or Winnipeg itself) being quite able to note the distance between aesthetics and substance. And the same audience warmed substantially to Araiz’s abstract pas de deux Adagietto, performed with consummate skill by Gary Norman and Bonnie Wyckoff. Norman and Wyckoff are standout performers in both programs, and so are Marina Eglersky and Gailene Stock: the four make up much of the RWB’S backbone, and the company will sadly miss Stock and Norman, her husband, soon to return to their native Australia.
The tour, in fact, is demonstrating once again the tricky balancing act that the Royal Winnipeg does best: dance between two stools without falling. On one hand Spohr won’t put his dancers back into tutus; on the other, he won’t outfit them with nylon stretch bodysuits for nothing but ultra-modern lizard writhings. The positive effect is an air of creative tension often missing at the National. The negative result is suggested by the impatient remark of one company dancer. “After 40 years,” she asked, “how long should we accept being called’up-and-coming’?”JOHN AYRE
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