Evelyn Hart (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 27, 1995. Partner content is not updated.

Even in rehearsal, even going through the paces with a stand-in partner who has not danced in years, even with all the stops and starts, Evelyn Hart displays some of the ethereal grace that is her signature as a dancer.

Hart, Evelyn (Profile)

Even in rehearsal, even going through the paces with a stand-in partner who has not danced in years, even with all the stops and starts, Evelyn Hart displays some of the ethereal grace that is her signature as a dancer. She is the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's resident guest artist and - along with Karen Kain - one of Canada's two reigning ballet queens. And she was on stage in Winnipeg's Centennial Concert Hall last month, working through a meditative duet called Missing that renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka created for her and Toronto dancer Rex Harrington. The latter was unable to attend the lighting rehearsal for the work, which is to get its world première in Toronto on Nov. 25 as part of a program of short dances that the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is taking on a tour across North America. But Hart was painstakingly going through the 11-minute piece with the help of Kudelka and André Lewis, her retired former partner, adjusting the angle of her foot, her placement on the stage, the timing of each lift. "Sorry, I'm screwing up totally," Hart finally exclaimed - all appearances to the contrary.

It is the subtleties, Hart explains later in an interview in her dressing room, the things the audience may not even notice, that make ballet magical. "It's creating a shape, or barely touching," she says. "There's so much possibility for expression." It is those same subtleties that set Hart herself apart. Slight and delicate at five-foot, four-and-a-half inches, and 98 lb., Hart is a legendary perfectionist with an intense relationship to her art. Sometimes, her eyes well with tears when she struggles to put into words the emotions that ballet inspires in her. There are moments in Missing, she says, "when I'm so very profoundly touched." One of those moments involves a simple movement: standing at centre stage, Hart very slowly raises her arm in a circle and then places her hand in her partner's. "You're so exposed," says Hart, clasping her hands to her chest as she relives the bit of choreography. "I hope that some of what I feel will come through, the depth of it. I don't even know how to explain it. Maybe, it's just that it makes me feel so grateful for being able to be an artist. It's a very spiritual feeling."

Hart clearly has an ability to transmit that emotion to her audience. She is a lyrical dancer, observes Kudelka, a dancer known for her dramatic roles. "And she has a very wonderful instinct and intuition," he adds. At 39, she also has a wealth of experience. Hart has performed most of the major classical roles in the world's ballet capitals - including Moscow, London and New York City. And in the early 1990s, she spent half of each year with the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich. But she has also maintained a 19-year-long attachment to Winnipeg, where the Toronto-born dancer now lives. Her title as resident guest artist means that she has the freedom to accept guest performances elsewhere, while remaining the RWB's main attraction in a wide range of roles.

This season with the Winnipeg company, in addition to dancing Missing, she has performed in George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco, and will dance the female lead in Rudi van Dantzig's Romeo and Juliet, Titania in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Dream and Louise in John Neumeier's The Nutcracker. She will also dance Swan Lake in Munich later this season.

Hart still rehearses up to six hours daily, in addition to taking 1½ hours of ballet class, usually allowing herself only two or three days off a month. Although she concedes that she needs more time to recover from intense weeks of dancing and touring than she used to, she also suffers fewer major injuries as time goes by. "The older you get," says Hart, "the more you become like a fine-tuned instrument." And the more precision she demands of herself.

That, in large part, explains Hart's relationships with other dancers. "I don't consider myself difficult in the sense of a prima donna," she says - and few in fact would ever call her that. "But I'm difficult in the sense that I want to make it right. It's not creating problems, it's fixing them so that when you go on stage it's just that much more layered and secure and confident." And in Winnipeg, she says, "my process of working is facilitated because it's a small company and they know me. And I have perhaps a little more of what I call quality control, in the sense of how much rehearsal time I have, and if my costume is uncomfortable, and being able to have a bit of artistic input. It's also a matter of the fact that I can come in on a Sunday and there's a studio there. If I want to work, I'm usually able to."

It has been a happy fit. Hart has elevated the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, lending it her star status and inspiring her fellow dancers. But in other respects, recent years have been difficult for the company. Like other ballet troupes across the continent, the RWB - Canada's longest-running company at 57 years of age - is struggling to cope with shrinking public funds. And it has endured a difficult two-year period of spending restraints that enabled it to slash its debt load from $876,000 to a more manageable $236,000. The RWB has also had to deal with some artistic flux since Arnold Spohr - who was artistic director of the company for three decades - resigned in 1988 (he still advises the company). Henny Jurriëns, who took Spohr's place, died in a 1989 car crash. Another artistic director followed before William Whitener came aboard in 1993. But in early November, after the RWB's season had already begun, the company announced a mutual parting of the ways. Whitener's departure happened to coincide with the launch of a major strategic review that is expected to last a year. Hart's former dance partner Lewis will be acting artistic director while the RWB sorts out its future.

The ballet's past is rooted in a populist tradition. The RWB was founded in 1938 by two dance teachers from England, Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally. The founders were not professional performers and avoided the classics. Instead, Winnipeg gained a reputation over the years for its eclectic, energetic and thoroughly contemporary ballet repertoire. That changed somewhat in the 1980s, when Spohr began introducing full-length classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle, a change aimed in part at retaining Hart and other promising classical dancers who had come out of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School.

Hart had started late for a ballerina. One of four children born to a United Church minister and his wife, a physical education teacher, Hart began formal dance instruction in London, Ont., when she was 14. Her very first teachers noticed in Hart a quality of weightlessness, as though she were floating on air. And Hart herself remembers the sensation. "When I was a kid and I'd be out playing sports, I couldn't jump or run," she recalls. It was not the jumping she feared but the landing - "and I always had this feeling that I kind of had to hold myself up off the floor."

Hart briefly attended the National Ballet School in Toronto. But it was not until after she moved to Winnipeg at the age of 17 - to join the RWB School's professional division - that her career began to bloom. Then, in 1980, when Hart was 24, she burst onto the world stage, winning the gold medal at the biannual International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria - the first Canadian ever to do so. That not only solidified her own reputation, but brought international attention to the RWB as well. "There was a watershed point in her life when she could have picked up and gone to New York or London or Paris," observes RWB executive director Jeffrey Bentley. "She stayed here, and we owe her for that."

But Bentley and the rest of the company must do a balancing act, acknowledging Hart's pre-eminence and capitalizing on her fame while recognizing that the ballet's future also depends on its other principal dancers, such leading lights as Elizabeth Olds and Suzanne Rubio. "It's like you have this beautiful tree in your garden," says Bentley. "But it also casts shade. You have to try to get the light through so you always have a garden."

The post-Hart era is still in the relatively distant future - the RWB's prima ballerina shows no sign of slowing down. She says that she would love to dance the classics for three more years, and to switch to less demanding neo-classical or contemporary repertory for a few years thereafter. But the prospect of at some point having to give up dance altogether fills her with fear. "I dance to feed myself and to put a roof over my head," Hart says. But it is more than that. "It's always going to be a very scary thing - when the dancing is finished, what's going to fill up that hole," she concedes. "But I've always been an all or nothing kind of person." She has a few good friends in what she calls "the life outside," but no romance in her life. "In a way, my art feeds me," she says. "It is an extension of myself, of my intellect and my physical self. The problem is, of course, that the more that you're involved in something, the more you fall in love with it, the harder it is to let it go - because nothing compares with the passion."

Maclean's November 27, 1995