Royal Winnipeg Ballet | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The club was renamed the Winnipeg Ballet in 1941 and operated semiprofessionally. Apart from its regular Winnipeg performances, the company made occasional tours in Canada and was a major hit at the 1949 second Canadian Ballet Festival in Toronto.
Peregrine, David
A principal dancer in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet during the 1970s and 1980s, David Peregrine's noble style brought conviction to a broad range of roles from the classics to modern (courtesy Royal Winnipeg Ballet).

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

  The Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) is the second-oldest ballet company in North America and the oldest surviving dance company in Canada. The RWB was first organized as a ballet club in 1938 by 2 immigrant English dance teachers, Gweneth LLOYD and Betty FARRALLY, who had moved to Canada at the invitation of friends. The club made its public debut in June 1939 as part of a pageant planned for a visit to the city by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Although not seen by the royal party, the company danced 2 brief ballets on prairie themes, Grain and Kilowatt Magic, both choreographed by Lloyd.

The club was renamed the Winnipeg Ballet in 1941 and operated semiprofessionally. Apart from its regular Winnipeg performances, the company made occasional tours in Canada and was a major hit at the 1949 second Canadian Ballet Festival in Toronto. With Lloyd as its principal choreographer, Farrally as ballet mistress and David Yeddeau as production and stage manager, the company established an enduring profile as a compact troupe offering accessible, entertaining programs made up of short ballets. The company also benefited from the involvement of several University of Manitoba faculty members and students who often designed and executed sets and costumes. Despite this strong community involvement, the company experienced chronic financial problems and, in 1949, decided to reorganize as a professional company under the governance of a board of directors. Neither Lloyd nor Farrally was comfortable with this new arrangement. Lloyd moved to Toronto in 1950 to open a school and, although she returned occasionally to choreograph, the RWB was run by Farrally. In 1953 it became the first ballet company in the British Commonwealth to be granted the privilege of including the word "royal "in its official title, and toured into the United States with the celebrated British ballerina, Alicia Markova.

In June 1954 the RWB's rented premises were devastated by fire. The company's entire stock of costumes, original music, choreographic scores and sets was destroyed. After a difficult hiatus, during which the company launched a major reconstruction fund-raising campaign, the RWB resumed performances in 1955 but endured a period of confused and turbulent leadership. Farrally's direction was effectively shared with American dancer and choreographer Ruthanna Boris. Boris left in 1957 because of the reluctance of the RWB board to support her ambitious plans. Farrally left for similar reasons in the spring of 1957 and American choreographer Benjamin Harkarvy was hired. By March 1958 he too had resigned because of conflicts with the board, and former leading RWB dancer and occasional choreographer Arnold SPOHR was asked to salvage the upcoming Winnipeg performances. Spohr's success in this soon led to his appointment as director, a post he held for an exceptional 30 years.

Spohr had high ambitions for the RWB and, despite his own struggles with an often conservatively minded board, became the architect of the company's rise to international success in the 1960s and 1970s. Spohr's outstanding gifts as a ballet master, zealous devotion to dance and canny programming sense provided a strong artistic focus that helped give the RWB a vivid personality, notably characterized by one critic as a "prairie freshness." At Spohr's insistence, the RWB launched its own school in 1962 and in 1970 created a separate professional training division within it under the direction of David MORONI. Spohr continued the policy he had learned under Lloyd and Farrally of offering audiences programs of short works covering a diverse range of styles and themes. He also made a point of searching out choreographers, often in the early phases of their careers, who could give the RWB a distinctive repertoire. Brian MACDONALD was the first of these, and it was on his works of the late 1960s that the company's first major successes in the US and Europe chiefly rested.

In 1966 the RWB unveiled the first truly Canadian full-length ballet, Macdonald's Rose Latulippe. The company also achieved notable success with the ballets of Norbert VESAK, and Spohr showcased the work of such internationally acclaimed choreographers as Oscar Araiz, John Neumeier (who gave the company its first full-length classic work, his highly original version of The Nutcracker), Vicente Nebrada and Dutch choreographers Hans van Manen, Jiri Kylian and Rudi van Dantzig. Spohr also forged a lengthy association with celebrated American Broadway and ballet choreographer Agnes de Mille, who both created and staged existing works for the RWB.

By the mid-1960s Spohr had managed to expand the RWB to a complement of 25 dancers and, with minor fluctuations, the company has remained this size ever since. With a relatively small audience base in its home city, the RWB has always been compelled to tour. By the late 1960s it had become a major attraction on the international circuit, famous for its adaptability to different stages and a noted cultural ambassador for Canada. Apart from its almost continuous "bus and truck" tours of the US and Canada, the RWB has danced in many foreign cities. It was the first Canadian ballet company to dance in such major cities as Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, London, Leningrad, Moscow, Paris and Prague. It was also the first North American ballet company to perform in Cuba after the Castro revolution and, under Spohr and subsequent directors, has toured widely throughout Europe, Central and South America, Asia and Australia.

By 1980, the RWB's professional school had begun to provide the company with a more dependable stream of classically trained dancers; two of its graduates of the late 1970s, Evelyn HART and David PEREGRINE, achieved international success at ballet competitions in Japan and Bulgaria. This burgeoning of talent, combined with the RWB board's belief that there was a demand in Winnipeg for full-length story ballets, prompted Spohr to introduce more such works in the classical style -- van Dantzig's Romeo and Juliet (1981), Peter Wright's Giselle (1982) and Galina Yordanova's staging of Swan Lake (1986). Some observers accused Spohr of departing from the RWB's populist format of mixed programming as a way to keep Hart with the RWB. The CANADA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS opposed the shift on the grounds that it would change the company's successful profile and strain it financially. Audiences, however, responded well and the RWB continues to stage full-length productions alongside its traditional "mixed bills."

Throughout its history, the RWB has often depended on the generosity and support of a few key patrons and board members. Since the late 1950s the most important of these has been Kathleen Richardson, a member of Winnipeg's wealthy and influential Richardson clan. Although her continuous financial help has often spared the RWB disaster, Richardson's practical support and sage counsel -- quietly and unobtrusively given -- have also been fundamental to the company's success, particularly during the directorship of Spohr, with whom Richardson forged an important working relationship. Richardson's commitment to the welfare of the RWB is unsurpassed in the history of the performing arts in Canada.

Spohr retired in June 1988 and was succeeded by RWB principal dancer Henny Jurriëns, formerly assistant to Dutch National Ballet director van Dantzig. Jurriëns began a program intended to modernize and expand the company's image and repertoire. Before this could be achieved, however, he died in an auto accident in April 1989. Two months later, the RWB suffered a further loss when a plane flown by dancer David Peregrine crashed into an Alaskan mountainside with no survivors. In 1990 Australian John Meehan, formerly of American Ballet Theatre, became artistic director, adding to the repertoire works by such international choreographers as Antony Tudor, Frederick Ashton, Jiri Kylian and Jerome Robbins, and staging The Sleeping Beauty. He also increased the emphasis on new work and appointed RWB dancer Mark GODDEN as resident choreographer. Meehan, who felt isolated in Winnipeg and frustrated by the company's chronic financial difficulties, left in 1993. He was succeeded by William Whitener, formerly of the Joffrey Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance company and latterly artistic director of Montréal's LES BALLETS JAZZ. Amidst continuing financial problems, criticism of his repertoire choices and dancer unrest, Whitener was released in 1995, and former principal dancer André Lewis was appointed to the post in 1996.

Lewis's answer to the company's financial problems was to stage a succession of full-length, popular works, including Godden's Dracula, David Nixon's Beauty and the Beast and Butterfly, and a traditional staging of The Nutcracker by Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon, to replace the long-serving and unconventional Neumeier version. By the late 1990s most Canadian ballet companies were struggling financially and having difficulty retaining their audiences, and were looking to more overtly popular programming, particularly full-length story ballets, to secure box office success. Nevertheless, Lewis's choice of works was widely criticized both inside and outside the RWB. Lewis came close to losing his job in 2001 but survived to become the company's longest-surviving artistic director since Spohr.

The RWB's early development was the subject of a candid 2008 historical documentary entitled 40 Years of One Night Stands: The Story of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. However, the company no longer enjoys the high profile it maintained under Spohr's leadership during the years of the international "Ballet Boom." In recent years, like many of the country's dance troupes, the RWB is necessarily more restricted to its home turf and must focus attention on expanding its local audience. The company's traditional dominance of the Western Canadian market has been challenged by the growth of Vancouver's BALLET BRITISH COLUMBIA and Calgary's ALBERTA BALLET.

In light of these challenges, Lewis has programmed full-length accessible ballets including Peter Pan (choreographed by Morris, 2006), Wonderland (choreographed by Hounsell, 2011) and Moulin Rouge, The Ballet (choreographed by Morris, 2009). He has also remained committed to emerging Canadian choreographers such as Shawn Hounsell, Jorden Morris and Peter Quanz. Notably, the RWB performed alongside the NATIONAL BALLET during the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad gala. Although touring has been reduced, the RWB travelled to Israel in 2010 as part of the company's 70th anniversary celebrations. Lewis's shrewd programming choices and faith in local talent has paid off in recent years.

Cycles of fortune and hardship are, however, familiar to the decades-old company and few would doubt its capacity to adapt and survive.

Further Reading