Forever Young - the NBC at Fifty

By Crabb, Michael | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Forever Young - the NBC at Fifty


Crabb, Michael, The World and I


:espite fewer performances and less funding, the National Ballet of Canada has remained an energetic and talented company, led by a gifted artistic director liberated from old methodologies.

For ordinary mortals, turning fifty can be disquieting. For performing arts companies, however, the experience is very different. Their survival depends on a capacity for self-renewal, the ability to remain forever young. When such an organization marks its fiftieth anniversary, as the Toronto-based National Ballet of Canada (NBC) is throughout the 2001/2002 season, the natural response is a heartfelt sigh of relief. To remain artistically vital for so long provides considerable reassurance for the future.

The NBC has good reason to feel confident. Paula Citron, dance critic of Canada's respected national daily, the Globe and Mail, has watched the company since she was a girl. Citron says the NBC has never looked better: "It's a lean, mean machine that can dance anything." Vancouver critic Max Wyman, the author of several books on Canadian dance, concurs that "it's a sleek, beautiful, well-schooled company this country can be proud of." Gary Smith, dance critic for the Hamilton Spectator, travels widely to observe ballet companies in Europe and the United States. He's always impressed by how well the NBC compares with its foreign counterparts. "There's a wonderful artistic renaissance in the company," says Smith.

Although it employs considerably fewer dancers than during the better- funded 1980s, the fifty-five-member NBC remains the largest of Canada's six professional ballet companies. Of the six, it also retains the strongest allegiance to the traditional classical ballet repertoire. The associated but independently constituted National Ballet School, founded in 1959 as an offshoot of the company, has produced a steady stream of well-trained, versatile dancers for the NBC and leading ballet companies across Europe and North America. One of them, James Kudelka, is now the NBC's artistic director.

Before the costs of touring soared into the stratosphere, the NBC was a constant traveler. Within sixteen months of its debut the company had performed in Canadian cities from coast to coast. Following its successful U.S. debut in 1953, the NBC became a prominent fixture in the North American touring circuit.

The company's international currency was given a major boost in 1972 when the great Soviet ballet defector Rudolf Nureyev arrived to stage a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty. The NBC's lengthy relationship with Nureyev galvanized the dancers, catalyzing the careers of such young company stars as Veronica Tennant, Karen Kain, and Frank Augustyn. For several seasons, the NBC performed regularly at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera House in New York. At the same time, the company finally ventured across the Atlantic, where the unmannered classical purity of its dancing was much complimented. A succession of widely viewed, award-winning television broadcasts of its productions helped cement its international reputation.

Dazzling Dancing

Therefore, as befits a ballet troupe with many past triumphs, the NBC marked its demicentenary with a special November 11 performance at Toronto's 3,200-seat Hummingbird Centre, attended by some two hundred company alumni. After a dazzling display by the dancers of today, the old-timers trouped onstage for a collective bow under a cloudburst of white and gold balloons. Afterward, dancers, alumni, and audience members thronged the lobbies for coffee and birthday cake, amid much hugging and kissing, photo snapping, and autograph signing. Altogether a cheerful, nostalgic event, it was a momentary opportunity to forget the fact that Canada's leading ballet company, despite its undoubted artistic vitality, is once again beset by the kind of financial problems that have so often bedeviled its past and limited its ambitions. …

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