While the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) was touring Western Canada last year, more than 40 dancers and orchestra members learned that they were on the wrong side of an avalanche as they were about to board a bus for the 90-minute drive from the coastal city of Prince Rupert, B.C., to Terrace, 110 km inland. But a 10-foot-high wall of snow and rocks was blocking their way. Undeterred, the company members chartered two bush planes to fly them to Terrace—10 at a time. During its 50-year history, Canada’s oldest ballet company has frequently exhibited that sort of pluck, weathering fires, floods, tragic deaths and serious financial difficulties. Not only has the Royal survived, but it has established itself as one of the country’s leading dance companies. Its
adventurous repertoire and effervescent style have made it immensely popular both at home and abroad. This year has been particularly gruelling, but as it celebrates its first halfcentury this month, the Royal is showing itself to be as vital and resilient as ever. Wrote Vancouver Province dance critic Max Wyman recently: “The RWB has always succeeded because it never pretended to be what it wasn’t, and because it has kept its finger on the pulse of the audience.”
For the birthday week festivities, Oct. 4 to Oct. 11, company artists presented the ballet equivalent of a decathlon at the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg. The troupe hosted a gala featuring such international stars as Danish-born Peter Schaufuss, performed a full-length program with Canada’s
other leading classical dance company, Toronto’s National Ballet of Canada and presented the first show of their 1989-1990 season. And along the way, the world-renowned company performed the extraordinary feat of presenting five works that it had never staged before. There were two world premières among them: a sweet, family-oriented adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, and a piece of high-voltage hipness, L.I.F.E. (Love Is for Eternity), created by Michael Peters, who choreographed the Thrillerand Beat It videos for pop star Michael Jackson. The company also performed a challenging contemporary work, Sequoia, recently created by solo dancer and novice choreographer Mark Godden. Those works revealed that the classically based Royal is still determined to do more than tread the familiar waters of Swan Lake.
For Canada’s oldest ballet company, 1989 has presented an almost unbelievable mixture of celebration and devastating loss. In April, less than a year after being appointed artistic director, the dynamic, Dutch-born Henny Jurriens died, along with his wife, Judy, in a car accident. On the same day, Betty Farrally, who had cofounded the company in 1939 with Gweneth Lloyd, died of cancer. Then, in June, principal dancer David Peregrine died in a plane crash.
Meanwhile, the company, which has weathered numerous financial problems in its halfcentury history, underwent another money crisis. Its current annual operating budget is about $8 million, 27 per cent of which comes from public sources, 59 per cent from the box office and 14 per cent from corporate and individual donations. After nine deficit-free years, the company was facing a potential shortfall of close to $500,000 earlier this year. Longtime company member and interim artistic director André Lewis noted that many corporations were reluctant to contribute to the ongoing expenses because they had made donations towards the fund for the company’s new $ 10.4-million building, which opened in January, 1988. Added Lewis: “When Henny came, maybe we were a little too ambitious and brought too many things along at the same time.”
Then an anonymous donor came to the rescue last spring with a gift of enough money to reduce the company’s deficit to a manageable $50,000. The money is widely rumored to have come from Winnipeg’s wealthy Richardson family, owners of James Richardson & Sons, Ltd. Kathleen Richardson is the RWB board’s honorary president, and her family has rallied to the troupe’s aid in other periods of financial trouble. But the company still has to search for fresh sources of income.
While there is nothing in the Royal’s long history to compare to the tragic events of the first half of the year, the company has never had an easy ride. Against all odds it has prospered in an isolated Prairie city—and won the hearts of dance-lovers in such faraway locales as Kuala Lumpur and Prague. It has visited about 493 cities and towns in 37 countries, and in the 1989-1990 season it will be on the road for nearly 30 weeks. Its most luminous asset,
principal dancer Evelyn Hart, is the only Canadian ballerina besides the National Ballet’s Karen Kain to have become an international superstar. As the company begins the search for a successor to Jurriens, it is attempting to assuage its collective grief through hard work. Said interim artistic director Lewis: “Dancers live their emotions best through dancing—our
salvation has been to just keep going.”
The company’s offerings this season range from a chaste treatment of a Canadian icon to a bold evocation of a primitive society. The allCanadian Anne of Green Gables is a cheery pastel confection choreographed by Winnipegbased Jacques Lemay to music that composer Norman Campbell adapted from his own 1965 score for the musical that has become a Charlottetown Festival staple. Like the musical and the 1985 TV movie, the 50-minute ballet about the plucky Prince Edward Island orphan seems destined to appeal to large audiences. The contemporary Sequoia, the first major work by 31-year-old Godden to enter the company’s repertoire, examines relationships within an early human society with energy and flashes of humor. The RWB is touring both of those works across Canada this season. Part of the Winnipeg season only, Paquita—which had its last performance on Oct. 15—is a work for classical purists, filled with 19th-century pyrotechnics. Derived from the choreography of French artist Marius Petipa, it featured the dazzling, deceptively fragile-looking Hart in the title role.
That ambitious program is an apt demonstration of the company’s development since its first performance, in 1939. The Winnipeg Ballet Club, forerunner of the RWB, was the creation of ballet teacher Gweneth Lloyd and her pupil Betty Farrally, both of whom had recently emigrated to Winnipeg from England. At first, their dancers were virtually
untrained—and entirely unpaid. For their first show, Lloyd choreographed two five-minute pieces: Grain, a work about one of Manitoba’s biggest exports, and Kilowatt Magic, about the coming of electrical power to Manitoba.
The group did not turn professional until 1949, and its present name dates from 1953, when it received its royal charter from Queen
Elizabeth II. Arnold Spohr, who joined the company as a dancer in 1944 and served as its artistic director from 1958 until 1988, recalls the company’s early years as exhausting and exhilarating. Said Spohr: “We were like pioneers—we felt like we were doing something that hadn’t been done yet in Canada.”
The 1960s was a period of consolidation for the company. It opened the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in 1962. About 90 per cent of the ballet company’s current membership—including Hart—trained at the professional division of the RWB school. By the end of the decade, the company was beginning to win international notice. In 1968, it was the first Canadian troupe to be invited to the Paris International Dance Competitions. There, it triumphed over the European companies, winning the gold medal for best company. Twelve years later, in 1980, the company once again captured the attention of the international ballet world when Hart and Peregrine participated in the International Ballet Competitions in Varna, Bulgaria. For their performance of the pas de deux Belong, by Canadian choreographer Norbert Vesak, Peregrine won a bronze medal and Hart earned a gold.
One constant of the first half-century has been the Royal’s refusal to equate bigger with better. Currently, the company has 26 dancers—compared with the National Ballet’s 7 0—and it has no plans to increase its numbers significantly. By remaining small, the company can tour extensively and give nearly all of its
dancers, including the corps members, a chance at solo roles. The relatively small number of dancers also makes it more difficult to mount full-length classical ballets—Swan Lake and Giselle entered the company repertoire only in the 1980s. But most company members, including Hart, say that they like things the way they are. Said the RWB’s most famous ballerina: “Partly because the organization wasn’t such a big one, they were able to adapt and accept who I was and therefore create for me an atmosphere to develop my own talent.”
In their anniversary year, the dancers’ lives are as hectic as ever. By the end of December, they will have toured for nine weeks, in the United States and Canada. And next year, the company will spend two months touring the Soviet Union, West Germany, Hungary, Holland and possibly Spain. Like most performers who have been with the company for a while, principal dancer Elizabeth Olds, who joined in 1982, takes the schedule in stride. I With a shrug, Olds grinned 8 and said, “It gives me enough I time to do my laundry and Q pack up again.” Brimming with energy, the hardy Royal Winnipeg Ballet is eager to share its artistry with the world.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.