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Northern ballet tour entertains audiences while training young dancers

Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s On the Edge tour performed fifth of 12 shows in Thompson on April 21.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s On the Edge tour danced its way through Thompson on April 21 and is now in the final half a 12-day string of performances in 12 Manitoba communities, including five in the north.

Grand Rapids School was the first northern audience for the tour on April 20. After the open-to-the community performance in R.D. Parker Collegiate’s Letkemann Theatre, there was another public performance in Gillam the following day and then one day off before a performance for students at Mel Johnson School in Wabowden April 24. 

The last community show of the tour is at Kelsey School in The Pas April 25, following an earlier performance that day for Mosakahiken School students in Moose Lake.

On the Edge wraps up with performances in Swan River, Pine Creek and Brandon April 26-28.

Playing somewhere with a theatre made setup a little easier for the touring production, which includes selections from classical ballets as well as modern ballet performances, said Vanessa Léonard, director of the RWB’s Anna McCowan-Johnston Aspirant Program that the touring dancers are part of.

“We are in a theatre setting here so we don’t have to bring in all of our lights,” she said about two hours before her dancers hit the stage in Thompson for the fifth performance of the tour. They did have to set up special flooring that they use to ensure dancers’ safety but it was still easier than when they perform for students in school gyms and have to bring in the flooring, lights, the wings and the backdrop. “It’s quite an ordeal.”

The open-to-the-public performances on the tour, like the one in Thompson last Friday, are about 90 minutes long and consist of several small pieces, including classical — think The Nutcracker or Swan Lake — and modern pieces, which are usually performed without point shoes. 

“It’s nice to get to see quite a few different pieces, some that were choreographed over 100 years ago with the classical sections and then we do have contemporary pieces that are choreographed specifically for this tour,” said Léonard. “It’s quite exciting to see the range and the versatility these dancers have.”

There are 16 dancers on the tour, all members of the aspirants program, which the director described as a postgraduate program for ballet school students. 

“It’s basically like university for ballet,” said Léonard. “We focus on creating auction material for the dancers to send out to different companies around the world and also on these wonderful performances that they are bringing into the community now.”

The pieces in the tour shows — school performances are only about an hour and include time for students and the dancers to interact — range from a solo number to one with 10 dancers in total. Having more dancers than the total number of performers required for any one section helps keep the show moving along quickly.

“The dancers need to change their costumes very quickly,” Léonard said. “It is good not to have every dancer in every piece because then the audience will be waiting around for a lot of changes.”

Léonard  did come on a tour into Northern Manitoba when she was a student at RWB, but the only destination was Flin Flon.

“I have not done one quite this big,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

Although performing the same pieces day after day after day might sound boring to some people, Léonard  says it fulfills the mandate of the aspirants program, since that it what is expected of professional dancers.

It also helps the dancers progress from focusing more on the technical aspects of the pieces to how they express themselves artistically.

“A professional company will do multiple shows so you have to be able to grow but also sustain the character or sustain the emotion,” Léonard says. “You’re able to discover your character and what the story is.”

Bringing the joy of ballet and live performance to Manitobans who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to see it in person without a trip to Winnipeg is a treat, according to Léonard.

“I think it’s wonderful that we can come to these communities and show the audiences and inspire some people. I know that there are local dance schools her so I think I’m excited to be able to bring a professional quality of ballet to hopefully inspire some young dancers to continue dancing themselves and maybe even think of it as a possible career path.”

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