Arts & EventsA Secret Jewel of Canadian Ballet

A Secret Jewel of Canadian Ballet

A Secret Jewel of Canadian Ballet

Canada’s National Ballet School students perform in Spring Showcase 2012.

It was all ballet in Toronto.

Excitement at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) spread beyond Toronto and Canada to other continents.

Canada’s NBS hosted the Assemblée Internationale 2013 (AI 13), a festival of dance, a forum of ideas, a celebration of creativity and beauty of ballet art that brought together 200 dancers and their artistic directors from 18 professional ballet schools and 11 countries.

Ballet communities arrived from Australia, The Netherlands, Spain, Germany, the United States, Cuba, New Zealand, France, the United Kingdom, Denmark and from across Canada to exchange their knowledge and experience, while balletomanes got to view dancers on the cusp of their professional careers.

The Assemblée Internationale is a unique festival for the ballet community. Talented dancers from different countries worked together, rehearsed and performed for the public, while their creative directors shared their experience and teaching techniques.

It took four years to organize this festival. The staff and students at NBS worked hard to put everything together to host the event. It required dedication and commitment. But with Mavis Staines as artistic director, NBS students, faculty and staff were able to bring their vision to fruition.

Staines was an initiator, a unifying and driving force of the Assemblée Internationale 2013. When she was appointed as NBS artistic director in 1989, there was no better candidate for the job. Her life was intertwined with NBS: she was a student, a dancer and a teacher at the school. Over the years, she proved herself a visionary, a reformer and an innovator who allowed Canadian ballet traditions to keep step with world-class ballet.

“It’s such a gift my older sisters didn’t wear out the shoes.”

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Artistic Director Mavis Staines teaches in the studio.

Ballet entered Staines’ world with ballet shoes. Her mother always dreamed of dancing ballet but was unable to due to the Great Depression and the Second World War. She bought the shoes in the hope that one of her three daughters would be inspired to become a ballerina. Mavis Staines, unlike her sisters, loved the shoes and everything they brought with them. “It’s such a gift my older sisters didn’t wear out the shoes,” Staines says.

Everything was aligning for the dance career that suited Staines’ passion and temperament. When she was five years old, she attended Mary Martin’s production of Peter Pan in Ottawa; it charmed and inspired her so much that Staines knew she wanted to lead a life in the theater.

Staines still remembers the feelings the dance studio brought out in her. She says: “It’s moving to the music, working hard to create the movement with a kind of dynamism and accuracy. I just felt complete on every level.”

After convincing her parents that dance meant everything in her life, 13-year-old Staines applied to Canada’s NBS. That year, NBS accepted only 45 students, and Staines was one of them. At school she excelled, graduating with honours and joining the National Ballet of Canada as a First Soloist. Later, she moved to dance at The Dutch National Ballet.

The ballet world is much tougher than it looks. Dancing ballet requires a physical and emotional balance. It is not only a precision of technique, but keeping solid postures and jumping lightly. Staines says it’s also connecting with an audience, a teacher and an artistic inner self. It’s the ability to make a body speak beautifully with the universe. And damage to the body mutes the dancer.

Staines had just recovered from a leg injury and was dancing again. One day she was closing the door at the top of a steep flight of stairs and the door knob came out. Staines fell backwards, shattering her arm. The ballerina had to undergo surgery and physiotherapy. This time, the doors to the stage remained shut.

It was a tough period, Staines says. At that time, there were no resources to help dancers make a transition at the end of their careers. Later, Staines would advocate for changes to make a career in ballet more secure.

“It was very important for me to support this initiative [Dancer Transition Resource Centre] so that future generations of dancers had more support through the process,” Staines says. “It’s one of the things that makes me more comfortable about drawing young children and their families into the school, knowing that at the end of their careers, there is a transition support.”

Over the years, Mavis Staines guided and nurtured future generations of talented dancers, who would later become professional dancers, teachers and artistic directors.

Assemblée Internationale 2013

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The first Assemblée Internationale took place in Toronto in 2009. NBS was celebrating its 50th anniversary. International partner schools were invited to attend. Staines suggested sending DVDs of student choreographic works to the dancers and artistic directors in advance, so that upon their arrival in Toronto, they could rehearse and perform in a blended cast. This practice was not done anywhere else. The dancers spoke different languages, had different teachers and dancing techniques – yet it was a success.

Assemblée Internationale 2009 performance
Assemblée Internationale 2009 performance

“They lived together in a unifying experience of taking a dance from studio to stage,” Staines recalls. “It was only afterwards… one of my colleagues told me that they thought I was completely crazy, and this would never work. But in fact it proved to be a powerful exercise, creating a higher quality of art than even I dared to hope.”

At the end of the Assemblée Internationale 2009, the ballet community raised questions of the challenges the art faced. How to stay relevant? How to be more accessible? Ultimately, how to bring ballet to the public and not the public to the ballet?

After the celebration, NBS was flooded with requests from the ballet community to repeat the Assemblée Internationale. There was no better school than NBS to host such a festival.

“NBS is an organization that has human resources, and the internal talent and physical facilities to do this,” Staines says.

A marriage of classical ballet with virtual reality

For this year’s AI 13, an NBS faculty member suggested a marriage of classical ballet with virtual reality.

Shaun Amyot, NBS artistic faculty member and choreographer, presented a new, co-choreographed innovative work titled STREAM – a 22-minute ballet performance, with 32 dancers from around the world performing in Toronto and joined virtually through live-streaming by 12 dancers from the Dutch National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam. Amyot worked on this project in collaboration with Amsterdam-based choreographer Michael Schumacher.

This project, Amyot says, drew a bigger audience worldwide. It represented a true work of an internationally blended cast with the use of live-streaming technology. Amyot believes STREAM broke barriers, enhanced classical ballet and reinvented the art to fit modern tastes.

Yet, if not for Staines, Amyot says, such work would not have happened. She was an inspiration, urging him to think outside the box. Staines is always forward–thinking, coming up with ways to stay connected and relevant with the Canadian public.

Amyot says: “At first, I thought this idea of an internationally blended cast looked good on paper, but I was not sure if it’s possible in real life. And we managed. Actually it was much better than any of us anticipated.”

Opening the windows at NBS

Everybody was alive with energy at Canada’s NBS, and excited to welcome AI’s 13 guests, says Laurel Toto, NBS junior school manager and co-manager of community engagement.

“One of my colleagues said something beautiful this morning: ‘It’s like we are opening the window and all of this wonderful spring air is coming in. And what the spring does: it regenerates, rejuvenates – it’s like a new birth.’ And I think all of us love when it happens,” Toto says.

Toto joined NBS 30 years ago. Like most NBS staff, Toto wears many hats. Besides teaching, Toto manages the junior school program, oversees community engagement, and directs the children in the National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker.

All those years, Toto says, she was lucky to work under the leadership of Mavis Staines. When Toto met Staines for the first time, she was impressed. She thought Staines was a kind, compassionate and generous person. The creative class they both took in Utah showed her that Staines was a magnificent dancer. The longer Toto worked with Staines, the more she admired her.

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Canada’s National Ballet School students perform in Spring Showcase 2010.

Staines reformed and reshaped NBS, Toto says. And the first thing Staines did as artistic director was review the school’s curriculum. She worked with NBS artistic faculty to create a ballet curriculum that would fit Canadian tastes and represent the best of Canadian ballet traditions. The other change Staines brought was to invite neuromuscular facilitator Irene Dowde to create a comprehensive conditioning program to educate students about their bodies and inform them of the care required to sustain the rigors of a professional dance career, Toto says.

Staines is always interested in innovation in ballet, vividly following new developments and creative edges in the world dance community. She sent Toto and other teaching staff to attend various creative classes around the world.

But one of the important changes Staines introduced at NBS – she reshaped the school’s ideology. Toto says the artistic director always wanted to empower young dancers to add their voice to Canadian ballet traditions.

“Staines would always say: ‘You want to keep the fire of tradition burning and not just tend to the ashes. It’s like a mythological fire: it’s an immortal fire that each generation should add to, and keep it alive with their understanding of the art.’”

Staines is an energetic artistic director and an active participant in the international ballet community that keeps NBS on the world map, Toto says. For several years, Staines served as a juror for the Prix de Lausanne – the world’s premier ballet competition. Now, NBS has exchange programs with more than 22 international schools.

As a colleague, Toto liked the fact that Staines always encouraged teachers and students to look for projects that enhanced collaboration and sharing. The Assemblée Internationale 2013 was another such opportunity to learn and evolve.

Both NBS faculty members Amyot and Toto are happy to be a part of the school, and proud of the achievements of their leader who redefined, reformed and reshaped a Canadian ballet school so it wouldn’t fall short of the high standards of European schools that have existed for centuries.

“The work that has been done at Canada’s National Ballet School is tremendous, and it was done under the leadership of Mavis Staines,” Toto says. “I feel so fortunate to be here at this time.”

Generations of achievers

On the other side of the country at Ballet BC in Vancouver, the stage is ready, the lights are tested, and the performance is well-rehearsed.

A former student of Staines, now Artistic Director of Ballet BC, Emily Molnar has been busy with preparations for her own world premiere of Giselle. Molnar, like many other achievers in the ballet community, was raised and nurtured by Mavis Staines.

Molnar remembers how as an 11-year-old girl, she was eager to continue her studies at the National Ballet School. Mavis Staines was her first teacher at the NBS, a teacher who influenced her as an artist and person.

Now, Molnar takes example of how to lead a ballet company from Staines: “Mavis is a hero of mine. She is incredibly passionate about what she does. Her intelligence and enormous vision engage people towards their potential through their art. She is a true leader.”

But first of all, Molnar says, Staines puts trust in her students to follow their artistic voice.

“Mavis encouraged me to follow my artistic path, to have courage, to trust my creativity, and to be a full human being. Through that I was able to be the best artist that I could be,” Molnar sums up.

Celebrating the power of collaboration

The Assemblée Internationale 2013 is a ballet festival uniting the world. And it’s a gift of Canada’s National Ballet School’s artistic director Mavis Staines to the world.

“This project I want to be the National Ballet School’s gift to the international ballet community. I think one of the main strengths of being in Canada and being Canadian, is an understanding and celebration of the power of collaborating. And I wanted there to be a festival which brought a large number of schools together. I wanted people to spend time together in the studio, in blended groups, speaking a universal language.”

Mavis Staines’ achievements haven’t gone unnoticed. In 1998, Staines won the Toronto Arts Award for the Performing Arts. In 2006, she was named by the Women's Executive Network as one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women. In December 2010, Mavis Staines became a Member of the Order of Canada, in recognition of her commitment to the education and well-being of ballet dancers. In February 2013, she was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her commitment to education in the field of dance.

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