The cast of characters included tragic and unfaithful lovers, a murderer, sultry harem dancers and a man in spiritual distress—played by dance legend Rudolf Nureyev. All were participants in the National Ballet of Canada’s 35th birthday party in Toronto last week—a gala celebration that forcefully demonstrated the diversity and power of dance. Produced by National founder Celia Franca, the occasion attracted 3,000 well-heeled balletomanes to the O’Keefe Centre and paid tribute to the company’s past with a retrospective of highlights. But the climax of the evening was Nureyev’s performance, with company star Frank Augustyn, in Maurice Béj art’s brooding Song of a Wayfarer. Backstage afterward, a grinning Nureyev tossed a multicolored scarf over a calf-length leather coat and commented on the National’s evolution since he first worked with it in 1965. “Now,” he said, “the company is more adventurous. It’s got life ahead.”
The National’s euphoric birthday romp was only one of many signs that Canadian dance has moved into a period of unprecedented vigor. That vibrancy is part of a wider explosion: in recent years, dance has sloughed off its image as an effete, marginal art form and made significant inroads into the popular imagination. Dance movies, high-profile Russian defectors, including Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov—and North America’s fitness frenzy—have fanned the ardor of a more dance-sophisticated public. The National itself recently announced a coup, appointing a new artistic associate: renowned choreographer Glen Tetley, 61, who created its acclaimed one-act work Alice last year. Meanwhile, audiences are at near capacity—up from 65 per cent of available seats in 1983—while the company is enjoying its highest international profile ever.
Other dance organizations across the country are also making vital strides. The Alberta Ballet Company, currently touring Canada to celebrate its 20th anniversary, has tripled its earnings and almost doubled its performances in the past five years. And Winnipeg’s 23year-old Contemporary Dancers Canada has increased its audience with such startling spectacles as Suburban Tan-
go, performed by dancers wrapped in plastic food wrap.
Some companies are boldly making forays beyond the Canadian border. The Toronto-based Desrosiers Dance Theatre, headed by choreographic sorcerer Robert Desrosiers, won ecstatic reviews during a recent round of per-
formances in Australia. Desrosiers is famous for surrealism and grandiose imagery; his Blue Snake features a huge mechanical monster that eats dancers. Such spectacles inspired Perth’s West Australian newspaper to hail one performance as “the most exciting, powerful and compelling theatre you will see in one lifetime.” Meanwhile, the Montreal troupe LaLaLa Human Steps, headed by Edouard Lock, recently completed a 20-month, 111-
performance international tour of Human Sex. A wry look at love and sexual identity, that work is so violently acrobatic that its star, brawny, platinumhaired Louise Lecavalier, regularly ate raw meat to fuel her frequent kamikaze dives during the 80-minute show. LaLaLa turned down 40 additional performance invitations for fear of overtaxing the dancers.
In increasing numbers, Canadian dancers and choreographers are also spinning into the international limelight. In April last year New York’s Joff rey Ballet performed the première of The Heart of the Matter by the resident choreographer of Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, James Kudelka; Anna Kisselgoff, the influential New York Times dance critic, praised him as “a choreographer to reckon with on the international scene.” This January the San Francisco Ballet mounted the world première of Kudelka’s ambitious, difficult Dreams of Harmony to more enthusiastic reviews. “He has a strong sense of emotional resonance through movement,” Kisselgoff told Maclean's. “There’s a lot of passion in his work, even when he’s using a very classical vocabulary.” Another international phenomenon is the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 9 wraith-like ballerina Evelyn I Hart, currently on a 15-day I tour of the Soviet Union (page 52).
A creative storm has been sweeping through Canadian dance since the early 1980s. And according to Monique Michaud, head of the dance section at the Canada Council, it has lost none of its force— despite cuts in government funding. When the dance section was first created in 1972, the country had fewer than 20 professional companies. Now there are some 80 troupes, 30 of which receive council funding. Over time, energy has shifted from performance to the creation of original contemporary works. Said Christopher House, resi-
dent choreographer of the Toronto Dance Theatre: “Independent choreographers often find that the dancers are about to rush off and do their own choreographic thing.”
Audiences have responded eagerly to that creativity. According to Statistics Canada, about one million Canadians saw at least one ballet or contemporary dance performance in 1984. One of the country’s most popular companies is the Desrosiers Dance Theatre. Mounting its new work Lumière—which features a dancer as the biblical figure Samson who pulls down two huge Greek columns—the company filled a 435-seat Toronto theatre to at least 90per-cent capacity for three weeks last fall. Another box-office sensation, Montreal’s emotionally supercharged Margie Gillis, is known for dolphin dives and expressive use of her thigh-length bronze hair. Her latest tour included Someone Missing, in which she gives the impression of entering a piece of music by slipping through the space between the bowing arm of cellist Eugene Friesen and his instrument. The movement is so deft that Friesen continues playing, apparently oblivious.
The triumphal march of Canadian
dance is part of a wider phenomenon that has seen dancers emerge as recognized stars of popular culture. One sign is the appearance of dance-oriented movies, including The Turning Point (1977) and last winter’s White Nights, both of which starred Baryshnikov. Some Canadian dancers are also beginning to enjoy idol status. With his fairy-tale-prince looks, former Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer Barry Watt, 27,
has often been mobbed by adoring female fans seeking his autograph.
But perhaps the single greatest factor in the new enthusiasm for dance is the fitness frenzy. “People admire dancers more now because they go far beyond the Jane Fonda aerobics,” choreographer Tetley told Maclean's. “These are the poet artists of the physical world, the athletes who speak to the heart and the mind and the soul.” For men, the aura of effeminacy that once surrounded dance has largely dissolved. Cameron Diggon, president of the Calgary City Ballet Society board, took ballet lessons to improve his balance for mountain climbing—and later married his ballet teacher. Said Diggon: “We’re beyond the point where we think dancers are a bunch of sissies in tights. It’s really hard work.”
Powerful male dancers are one of the strengths of the National, according to William Como, editor-in-chief of New York-based Dancemagazine. But the company boasts impressive performers of both sexes, from such established artists as Augustyn and Karen Kain to a new generation that has given the company a youthful sheen. Among the younger talents: Kevin Pugh, Gregory
Glaseo, John Alleyne and Rex Harrington. Said Como: “Since most of them studied together at the National Ballet School, the company has a marvelous ensemble feeling.”
Several years ago the National was decidedly less exalted. In fact, for a long time the company was nicknamed “rent-a-corps for Rudi,” because of its early 1970s New York appearances backing Nureyev. That began to change in 1983 with the arrival of artistic director Erik Bruhn. The Danish-born Bruhn, a leading dancer of his time, introduced daring contemporary works, including Desrosiers’ Blue Snake, to the company’s repertory. Bruhn instilled a new enthusiasm, imposed rigorous standards—and set out to make the National an international attraction in its own right.
He accomplished that with Alice, which had its première in Toronto before Bruhn’s death last April at 57. The company took it to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in July. The brooding, lyrical work explores the looking-glass world of Charles Dodgson (better known under his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll) and his relationship with the real-life Alice Liddell. “It was a huge success in New York,” said Como. “People began to take notice and see the company on its own.”
For now, the National—under the leadership of associate artistic directors Valerie Wilder and Lynn Wallis— has sustained Bruhn’s creative legacy. It will soon embark on an Eastern U.S. tour, and will make its first British appearance in eight years when it travels to London in June. But not all observers are convinced that the company can remain aloft without someone of Bruhn’s stature to work with. “They need someone of that ilk,” said Como, “and that’s very hard to find.”
As Canadian dance moves forward, two former National dancers have dedicated themselves to filling in the blanks of the past. Two years ago, with mostly public funding, Lawrence and Miriam Adams launched Encore! Encore!, a dance archive that has reconstructed and videotaped six almostforgotten dance compositions. Said Lawrence Adams: “We’ve only scratched the surface.” Still, fleshing out dance’s past can only enhance its future. Contemporary Canadian dance, with styles ranging from Desrosiers’ full-blown visions to the hurtling bodies of LaLaLa, is growing—literally— by leaps and bounds. Propelled by exquisite performers and masterful choreographers, Canadian ballet is on a creative and box-office roll. And the art advances with giant steps.
— PATRICIA HLUCHY in Toronto with correspondents’ reports
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