Dance

New steps at age 50

A half-century old, the National Ballet of Canada is trying to revitalize itself

John Bemrose May 6 2002
Dance

New steps at age 50

A half-century old, the National Ballet of Canada is trying to revitalize itself

John Bemrose May 6 2002

New steps at age 50

Dance

A half-century old, the National Ballet of Canada is trying to revitalize itself

JOHN BEMROSE

Here, a clutch of young women dressed in a variety of mismatched outfits— coloured tights and skirts and bulky warm-up socks—flow effortlessly across the floor with a faint drumming of pointe shoes. Over there, a young male dancer with the proud carriage of a god suddenly leaps into the air, quickly rotates three times, and continues walking as if he’d done nothing more difficult than scratch his nose. Meanwhile, at the front of the Toronto rehearsal room, National Ballet of Canada artistic director James Kudelka seems lost in a trance. Nodding his head and murmuring to himself, he’s counting out the steps for a section of his new ballet, The Contract, to be given its world premiere on May 4. Canada’s largest, most internationally prominent ballet company turned 50 last fall, and The Contract will crown a celebratory season that finds the National —best known for its sumptuous staging of classics like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake—struggling for a place on the cutting edge of dance.

Among the world’s leading companies, the National has long been a sober, solid citizen—though one given to startling outbreaks of brilliance, like a stuffy aunt suddenly fired up on too much sherry. It’s been fronted by its own genuine stars, among them Nadia Potts, Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn and Rex Harrington. And it has featured such great international figures as Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn, the Danish dancer who ran the company in the mid-’80s. But the National has also had to suffer the status of poor relation beside the richer companies of Europe and New York. Chronically underfunded—in fact, many new productions have been mounted only through the largess of patrons like Toronto philanthropist Walter Carsen—it currendy carries a $3-million debt, and can afford only a skeletal administrative staff. And because of Toronto’s perennial failure to build a new

ballet-opera house, it doesn’t even have its own performance space, making do instead with the cavernous, 3,200-seat Hummingbird Centre—a building the National’s founder, Celia Franca, calls “that great bloody barn.”

Yet the National’s history has inured it to such difficulties. Fifty years ago, it made its first appearance in the undersized Eaton Auditorium, upstairs from an Eaton’s department store. Franca—a veteran of England’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet—cleverly masked her dancers’ shortcomings by choosing repertoire that didn’t ask too much of them. Under her determined, autocratic leadership, the company improved so rapidly it soon began to tour the country.

It performed in arenas, community halls and school gyms, on floors too cold or too hard or too small, and in 1958 it staged Giselle in a Hamilton theatre and changed the life of an eight-year-old girl.

Immediately after the performance, Karen Kain demanded ballet lessons, and within two years was a student at the fledgling National Ballet School, founded by that other strong woman in the company’s history, Betty Oliphant. The English ballet teacher turned out several generations of fine young dancers, though Kain

recalls her tendency to play favourites. “Betty was crazy about me in the early years,” Kain told Macleans, “and she tended to make it obvious to everyone in the class. That made me very unpopular with my peers. Then when I was 14 I got really plump, and she ignored me. I was much happier!”

Slim and handsome at 51, the National’s former prima ballerina is now its artistic associate. Her eyes light up as she talks about Nureyev, who in 1972 chose her to dance opposite him in the new production of Sleeping Beauty he was choreographing for the company. At first, the 21-year-old Canadian was so shy she could hardly meet his gaze. But she flowered under his demanding but affectionate tutelage, and she and the National went on to triumph with him on the world’s great stages. “Rudolf had so much charisma that you just had to learn to hold your own,” Kain recalls. “If you didn’t, you were obliterated.”

Why did Nureyev, with all the world’s ballet troupes to choose from, select the National to work with? “He really loved this company,” says Kain. “He loved our attitude—there was no overt ego or jealousy. Everyone was willing to try whatever he wanted us to do.”

Today, the landscape of ballet has changed. The superstars are gone. “Since Karen left, we haven’t really had a star— our audience hasn’t chosen one, at least not yet,” says Kudelka, himself a former dancer with the National. The intense, 46-year-old artistic director envisions a future in which the company as a whole is the star, dancing at such a consistently high level that people can depend on it for an evening of superb performance. “We’re not there yet,” he acknowledges, adding that one reason the National hasn’t attained the standard he’d like is his own desire to create more depth in the company. That might mean that a lead role is given to a top-ranked dancer one night, while a lesser light gets a whack at it the next time.

Kudelka is also trying to strengthen the

National’s ability to develop new work. It’s a tricky proposition, since much of its audience is highly conservative. Some objected that Kudelka took too many liberties in his recent remake of Swan Lake, even though it retained a 19th-century romantic sensibility. At a time when many ballet companies, especially in Europe, are offering raw-edged versions of the classics set in slums and tenement houses, the National can look rather tame.

Kudelka is one of the finest choreographers this country has produced, and his impatience to drag the National more firmly into the world of contemporary

ballet is palpable. To do this, he feels he must change the company itself. Bred in a culture that encourages compliance and stylistic conformity, many ballet dancers have trouble opening themselves to the vulnerable, trial-by-error process of creation. “I’m trying to trust the artists more, to encourage them to be more generous in illuminating their roles,” he says. “But it’s a long process, and over the past five years I’ve been through hell trying to do it.”

In recent decades, the National has premiered a fair number of new works, some

of the most exciting by Kudelka himself. But incredibly, The Contract, with a score by U.S. composer Michael Torke and a set by celebrated Canadian designer Michael Levine, marks the first time it has ever mounted its own original, full-length story ballet. Will The Contract, a sort oî Pied Piper tale focusing on a female evangelist, showcase a company that has taken a major stride towards finding its own unique style and presence? As Kudelka’s dancers rehearse, it’s clear their skills are beyond dispute. But whether they can summon the soulful daring that animates the truly great companies is still very much in question. ES