A prima ballerina in a class of her own

John Ayre November 16 1981

A prima ballerina in a class of her own

John Ayre November 16 1981

A prima ballerina in a class of her own


John Ayre

No glowing prophecies attended the enrolment of Evelyn Hart as a scholarship student at Toronto’s National Ballet School. Indeed, none but a blighted future seemed likely for the tiny 14-year-old. Intimidated by other, better-trained students, she quickly lost what little faith she had in herself. Time and time again, she phoned her parents, begging for permission to come home immediately. After four months she fled the school in self-imposed disgrace, never to return.

Eleven years later, as Hart prepared for her premiere as Juliet in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s new production of Romeo and Juliet, that memory still burned. It was enough to make her feel almost an impostor in her own dressing room. The accessories were all there, but somehow they seemed not to belong to her. A neat row of seven old pairs of pink slippers stood ready to serve if a last-minute air shipment of new ones didn’t turn up from Austria. In front of her mirror, a large unopened bottle of club soda (to handle the thirst of a punishing three-hour performance) stood in a jumble of makeup and discarded practice clothing.

Clearly Hart was not the cool prima ballerina marshalling her forces for a performance. Her face, which can easily light up in childlike animation about the beauty of ballet, was tense and pale. Two nervous hands wound in and out of a yellow ankle-warmer in her lap as she contemplated her first major classical role. “A problem I constantly have,” she admitted in a tight, hushed voice, “is that my desire to dance is so great, I’m constantly feeling as though I’m not quite up to par.”

Yet, in a Cinderella-like twist of fortune, the dropout of the National Ballet School could one day be the greatest dancer that Canada has ever produced. Major international choreographers who have worked with the Royal Winnipeg in the past year simply rave about her. Vicente Nebrada, who set International Ballet of Caracas’ showpiece Our Waltzes in December, exclaimed: “She’s a magician. When I tell her something, she immediately understands the meaning. If what happens between me and her happens with other choreographers, she’s going to be one of the world’s greatest dancers.” Even Rudi van Dantzig, the celebrated Dutch choreographer who spent two months this summer setting Romeo and Juliet,

didn’t flinch from comparing her “great musicality and great spirituality” with that of Ulanova, one of the great ballerinas of the century. “For me, Ulanova was one of the unearthly people. Evelyn is like that—in a world, in a class, of her own.”

Much of this is evident in Hart’s trade mark, a short contemporary pas de deux by Norbert Vesak called Belong. Although it lacks the classical dimensions that Hart has always craved, it nevertheless suggests the open boundaries of her ability. In the famous rendition with her partner, David Pere-

grine, she binds her hair tightly in a net and wears only slippers and a silvergrey body stocking on her short, bony, 97-pound frame. In the fabled style of Ulanova, her beauty comes almost entirely from the expressiveness of her body in motion. The soft-rock score operates not so much as a cue, but as a reawakening that first lifts, and then speeds her body through a seamless series of fiery yet effortless pirouettes, lifts and serpentine arm and leg extensions. Her musicality elevates a sensational sketch into a bewitching piece of esthetics.

When she and Peregrine danced Belong at the 10th International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, last July, the audience went wild and applauded so loud and long (Hart stopped counting at the 14th curtain call) that they almost refused to let the evening go on. With this piece and her eerie, almost trance-like rendering of the pas de deux in Giselle, Hart overwhelmed the heavily favored Russian girl to win the senior women’s gold medal, the most coveted ballet award in the world. In a rare tribute, she was granted the competition’s only Exceptional Artistic Achievement Award. And she won with the highest marks since the Bolshoi’s Vladimir Vassiliev, in the first competition in 1964. As Peregrine put it: “She mortgaged everything on an improbable dream. She gambled and won. She became the fantasy.”

Every so often in her apartment, Hart plays a videotape of her Varna performance on her Betamax with a sense of awe of how well she managed to dance. Yet even this somehow fails to give her confidence. “It’s strange: a gold medal doesn’t even make me feel more of a dancer.” Oddly, Hart is still more impressed with the work of others. “I still take a look at someone else and say, ‘That’s perfection and I couldn’t possibly do that.’ Perhaps one day I will accept that what I have to give is not like someone else, but I’m still at the point where I’m striving for those goals.”

This self-lacerating sense of inadequacy has always been at the root of Hart’s motivation. As with such other late starters in ballet as Nureyev, her

first training was so patchy and unpromising that it engendered a chronic sense of panic. When she was 11, she was turned down at an audition for the National Ballet School and had to make do with rudimentary Saturday morning classes at the “Y” near her home in Peterborough, Ont. Three years later when her father, a United Church minister, transferred to Dorchester, near London, she was able to take serious lessons from the private school of Dorothy Carter. This cleared the way rapidly to a summer session at the National Ballet School and later to her short, painful debacle as a full-time student there. “I wasn’t prepared mentally for the ballet, for understanding the feelings, the fatigue, the criticism. I had only one year of training compared to all those kids who had six.”

This near disaster did not endear her career in ballet to her parents. Nor did it help that Hart refused to eat in order to give herself a ballerina’s exaggerated slimness. Admits her mother, Maxine: “While she was at the Carter School, she seemed to get the idea she had to be 90 pounds. That was her limit and that really bothered me.” Hart’s father, Terence, was closer to her in temperament and more tolerant of her obsession. Once a brilliant theological student who won a gold medal for scholarship, he also had a brush with artistic ambition when he was referred to Sir Ernest MacMillan for organ lessons. He was so afraid of failure, however, he could not face the necessary audition. At the time Evelyn started dreaming of ballet, Mr. Hart was playing Bach and Brahms for hours on the piano in the basement at home or

on the organ at his church. Evelyn often sat listening to him (she has Grade 6 piano) and moved around impressionistically to the music. Today, listening to music provides her with a rare inner calm that reminds her of those informal evening concerts.

At the almost hopelessly late age of 17, Hart had one last chance: the tiny, obscure Professional Programme of the Royal Winnipeg, which was then a refuge for all the leftover talent who couldn’t get in elsewhere. Her uncertain parents took her out one fall weekend. According to her mother, they had a

minister appeal to his congregation in a Dickensian flourish “to take this little ballet student” to board for however long she needed. Once there, Hart suffered through a two-week trial period, fearing that she might not make it. Her terror markedly contrasted with the impressions of her fellow students. Her future partner, David Peregrine, came out to see the new girl with “the back made of bubble gum” and was dismayed to see her erupt in tears after her class.

With her superior promise, however, Hart was soon creating as much worry as she was suffering herself. Her impa-

tience to catch up the lost years (“Go faster. I’m way behind.”) earned her the nickname “The Wild One.” She sometimes had to be kicked out of the studio because she stayed so late to refine her technique. Her coach, David Moroni, sensed an extraordinary talent. “I couldn’t believe the receptiveness of this kid, the natural awareness of movement. I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s got it. It’s all there.’ ” Fearful his school wasn’t ready for her, Moroni confesses, “I went home and had nightmares the first year.”

Despite her obsession with work, there is little that is grinding or humorless about Hart. She is, after all, the daughter of the manse, assured in her social graces and, outside the theatre, able to turn her self-deprecation into amusing anecdote. Unlike most dancers, she has retained a childlike romanticism that enriches her art. When she was only 2, Hart used to take frilly dresses off the rack at her grandparents’ store in Mitchell, Ont., and pretend to wear them. Later, she loved putting on an oversized tutu costume that belonged to a girl down the street and moving around with a secretly felt reverence. At a recent dance gala in Ottawa, Hart sat like an entranced groupie

during a dress rehearsal of the National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet banquet scene, repeatedly whispering, “Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful,” at the set, the costumes and stageful of dancers. She was like a very small child ready to put her hand out to a brightly colored piece of glass. Even her notion of her own stage presence is related to makebelieve. “Perhaps I’ve always wanted to be beautiful. It’s not that I don’t think of myself as beautiful from the inside. But it’s easier to make-believe. For those moments onstage, I am a different person.”

Once she was trained, the Royal Winnipeg could only offer half of her dream—that she would become a professional dancer. It was not until two Russian teachers, Madame Zolotova and Ludmila Bogomolova, suggested in consecutive summer training sessions that Hart’s abilities were really worldclass and should be tested, that the Royal Winnipeg decided to send her to the Varna competition in July, 1980.

Even by her standards, it was a terrifying experience. Her first international exposure came at a pre-Varna warm-up in Osaka, Japan, the World Ballet Concours. With a laugh, Hart remembers it as if it were a slain monster: “I lay awake until three in the morning. I couldn’t eat. I was literally shaking the whole time. It was the first time

onstage that, instead of relaxing after a few bars, I got more and more tense. When I came off, I never wanted to go back onstage again.” Yet Hart and Peregrine came out of it with a bronze medal each and the high regard of the international judges. In the dilapidated Black Sea port of Varna, Hart was still frenzied, irritating Peregrine with repeated demands for rehearsals when he wanted to have a beer or go for a walk to relax. Says Peregrine: “It amazes me how she can keep up this feverish pace, but it obviously works for her.”

With the aura of Varna about her, Canadian audiences suddenly took notice. In Winnipeg, there was a dramatic surge in Royal Winnipeg subscriptions as fans flocked to see Belong. In a sweet reversal, Hart was the guest star at a $100-a-ticket National Ballet gala in March in Toronto, at which she performed Belong with Peregrine. The two stole the show not only from established National Ballet stars, but even from ballet giant Carla Fracci.

In the meantime, Hart was expanding her repertoire with excellent but short ballets such as Nebrada’s Our Waltzes and Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos. In both, she appeared so confident of her technique there was a droll cockiness to her that very few stars dare display. In a black red-lined dress, she was the vibrant focal point for a

stageful of boys in black silk shirts and trousers. It was as if all problems had dissolved onstage.

But a major problem does in fact remain for Hart. She may have the potential, even the look, of a Ulanova, but unless she proves herself in such major roles as Giselle and the Swan Queen, her success will be only a freakish sensation. If she had started with the National Ballet, she would have had these roles as early as 19. But because the Royal Winnipeg, until recently, could neither afford nor even dream of the full-length classics, she has passed the age of 25—only 10 to 15 years to retirement—with only the flimsy Louisa role of The Nutcracker in her repertoire, and now, finally, Juliet.

That’s why the rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet this summer were so crucial. As usual, she haunted the studios and theatre. On the Sunday before opening, she even came to an early morning orchestra rehearsal to listen to the music by itself. When Rudi van Dantzig saw her exhausted figure in the corner of the room, he scolded like her coaches of years before: “Dancers need their day of rest. You should go home.” For once, the pressure was too much. In the early performances in Winnipeg last month, her Juliet was tense, more like tragic divorcée than innocent teen-ager. Unquestionably, however, there was a strong base of dramatic substance and energy that waited for more settled nights.

Because of her burning commitment to her art, Hart lives a monastic life that allows only for such indulgences as huge bottles of Diet 7Up and searching for the perfect vanilla ice cream in the Osborne Street Village. She has no time for a steady boy-friend or outside interests. Her friendships rarely range outside the dance world. She was lucky, recently, to find an evening—after a rushed photo call in New York—to dine with choreographer Vicente Nebrada and Zane Wilson, one of her partners from the International Ballet of Caracas. Her two-bedroom apartment in Winnipeg is functional and temporary until she decides to buy a house or spend time in Europe with another company to learn more of the classics.

Although this possibility creates nervous stomachs at the Royal Winnipeg, there is a certain inevitability to it. An enthusiast of the heavy, romantic style of the Russians, which is unfashionable in North America, Hart senses a greater sensitivity in Europe for what she has to give. More importantly, she knows she has to grow. Her dream, after all, is now backed by an unshakable privilege. Hart loves to tell the story of her teacher Galina Yordanova, who once looked down at a pool of sweat in a rehearsal hall. “This is water. But it is very expensive water.”