Power to Rise:
The Story of The National Ballet of Canada

368 pages,
ISBN: 0802041094

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Descendant in the Ascendant
by Keith Garebian

The title of this book derives from a seventeenth-century masque by Ben Jonson: "For dancing is an exercise/ Not only shows the mover's wit,/ But maketh the beholder wise,/ As he hath power to rise to it." Jonson's lines, Neufeld explains, proclaim dance as an activity that unites dancer and spectator, if they both have "the power to rise to its challenge." So Neufeld, whose earliest memory of dance is a childhood scrapbook with an illustration of Celia Franca in white costume for Giselle, is impelled to discharge a "beholder's duty" in order to "gain the power to rise and approach a fuller understanding of the delights and mysteries that dance can offer." His chronicle does fulfill a beholder's duty, affording much information on his subject, though it falls short at times as a record of specific productions.
The book's special virtue, apart from its fastidious research, expert technical production, numerous black-and-white photographs, and useful appendices, is its commanding sense of narrative line and purpose. Any chronicle of an arts organization could be overwhelmed by its own mass of detail, but Neufeld, who has written incisively on ballet for years in the Journal of Canadian Studies, does not let his love of facts swamp his main design. Power to Rise is an authoritative account of how a little company established and consolidated itself in a cultural wasteland, surviving narrow-minded resentment, polemical attacks, huge financial fardels, and its own artistic idiosyncrasies. The company's archives and other sources-such as Celia Franca's papers in the National Archives, interviews with Dame Ninette de Valois, Rudolf Nureyev, Martine van Hamel, Peter Schaufuss, Karen Kain, Veronica Tennant, all the living artistic directors of the company, and over fifty other people-have evidently provided the author with an epochal story, rife with cultural politics, personalities in conflict, and tendentious aesthetic patterns. He approaches his material with clarity of thought, sensitivity in taste, objectivity in judgement, and some passion for dance.
Over half the book is devoted to Celia Franca's tenure as artistic director, and this is not a quirk, for Franca, the first leader of the National, had an uncompromising artistic idealism that was necessary for a fledgeling company in a country where the arts had a difficult struggle against philistinism and provincialism. Franca was champion of a colonial enterprise, for the National Ballet is, as Neufeld puts it, a "descendant company", that is, one founded by experienced artists from "the old, established" ones, and "removed from the major" arts centres. Over fifty years after its founding, the National now has "the depth of generations", and it has become a custodian of the central traditions of ballet, no longer being a pale imitation of the Royal Ballet or the Stuttgart or the Kirov or the Bolshoi or the New York City Ballet. It has, in short, found its true centre-that centre being Canada, a country where professional dance was barely known when the National was struggling for a foothold.
The exact point at which the National became a living organism is debatable-as Herbert Whittaker remarked in his book, Canada's National Ballet-for the idea of a national company emerged at different times for different contributors. There were several small Canadian ballet companies in the thirties. Boris Volkoff, a Russian émigré, took a group of seventeen dancers to the Berlin Olympiad in 1936, and it placed among the top six participating groups. Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally founded a company in Winnipeg, the locale for the first Canadian Ballet Festival in 1948, which featured only three companies: the Winnipeg Ballet, the Volkoff Canadian Ballet, and the Ruth Sorel Ballet from Montreal. By the second festival, there were ten companies, but none had professional dancers. However, a permanent Dance Festival Association was set up at the time, charged with the responsibility of organizing further annual festivals, promoting ballet across the country, and raising funds. Mrs. J. D. Woods, Mrs. R. B. Whitehead, and Mrs. F. J. Mulqueen were entrusted with the task of forming a professional company. The founders recognized that it could not be a simple extension of the already dominant regional companies. There was no ballet tradition in Canada, for, as Neufeld says, "Even the conception of dance as a profession must have seemed alien and exotic, frustratingly out of reach of the few who might have dreamed of it. Indeed, the desire to dance and the need to earn a living were mutually exclusive goals in the Canada of the late 1940s." Given the abysmal lack of knowledge of dance, the three women had to go abroad for advice and leadership, their options being either George Balanchine (an exponent of the neoclassical abstract) or Dame Ninette de Valois (a disciple of Diaghilev and Cecchetti). As the first inspiration to Canadian dancers and choreographers had been the Sadler's Wells Canadian visit in 1949, where audiences had marvelled at scenery "in depth", a superbly integrated ensemble, and technical virtuosity wedded to personal feeling, the women opted for British classicism, proceeding to de Valois for her advice and support, and thereby setting a paradigm for Canadian ballet. De Valois recommended that Franca lead the national company.
A classicist pattern was set. Franca, a disciple of de Valois, Marie Rambert, and Antony Tudor, had roots at odds with those (like Volkoff) who detested "the very tidy English-governess school of dance". But Volkoff and his allies were unfair: they themselves were committed to a tradition (Russian) that was just as "old-fashioned". Though Franca tried to stay on good terms with Volkoff and Lloyd, she was resented for her reliance on the gospel according to Cecchetti. But Betty Oliphant (founding member of the Canadian Dance Teachers Association and soon to be her fellow head of the National Ballet School) also was an evangelist of the same gospel, for the sake of its physical nuances and subtleties. To Franca and Oliphant, the Cecchetti method used very good line and was death on affectation and mannerism, but to Volkoff and others, it was in boringly good taste, saccharinely romantic and pretty.
As Neufeld shows, Franca invited criticism on other fronts. She raised the hackles of the Royal Winnipeg by raiding talent, though it was clear that she had to because there were few good dancers in the country. Some of her choices came under fire, though her great intuition was later vindicated. In many instances, she assessed body types and personalities "in order to judge," claims Neufeld, "what she might be able to make of [raw material], not what it already was." Then, too, her choice of repertoire seemed heavily colonial, especially early in her tenure: Les Sylphides, the first act of Giselle, Etude, the Dance of Salomé, the Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor. But her choices made good sense in view of her vision for the company. Les Sylphides would be an opportunity for a corps de ballet with uniform style and emphasis on arms and legs; the peasant pas de deux from Giselle would be a show-piece for David Adams and Lois Smith, her most efficient dancers; the Polovtsian dances would give the males in her company an opportunity for energetic, exciting displays; and the Salomé was an expert rehearsal of her own dramatic choreography and dancing for BBC-TV a few years earlier. There was little to startle the ballet world, but Canada was too puritan even for Les Sylphides, which (Neufeld does not mention) had to be danced by Earl Kraul in full Victorian frock-coat and trousers because the original Alexander Benois costume of white shoes, white tights, and black jerkin was considered an affront to the men in Canadian audiences.
Despite adversarial criticism, Franca did not subscribe to naive nationalism. She didn't want contemporary choreography to sabotage her fundamental purpose of defining dance in classical terms rather than as a reaction to the vocabulary and traditions of classicism. She had severe handicaps. The St. Lawrence Hall could be used for rehearsal only in the summer, for in winter it became a hostel for Toronto's street people. The company had to find makeshift alternative space-in a restaurant, a church basement, or the Orange Lodge. It took a full year for Franca to get a telephone, another fifteen to get her own office. Early fundraising campaigns consistently fell short of stated goals, and these failures reduced the company's credibility as a professional organization, damaged the artistic products, and made public and government bodies reluctant to contribute to or sponsor half-baked professionalism. In a short time, Franca's productions of full-length classics, with Kay Ambrose's weak designs, began to look shopworn. Franca's autocratic management rankled many, and the company lost the dancers David Adams and Lois Smith, and the choreographer Grant Strate. With the company's eventual move to the cavernous O'Keefe Centre, a larger dramatic gesture was required. It materialized in The Rake's Progress, a classic of British repertory since 1935, though cultural nationalists were displeased by yet another Royal Ballet influence. When this was followed by Cranko's Romeo and Juliet, the National did win leverage with the Canada Council, which had recently received savage juror reports on the company from Lincoln Kirstein and Richard Buckle.
Even in the early seventies, Franca was widely thought of as "the conservative opponent of radical, new choreography, choreography that would rely less heavily on production values for its effects." On balance, however, as Neufeld also notes, Franca did introduce Bruhn and Nureyev to the National, providing the company with two of the most formative influences on its growth, and did offer Grant Strate a chance to choreograph new ballets. Was it her fault that these did not find a wide audience, or that Strate had difficulty developing a genuinely distinctive style of movement? It is possible, as Neufeld shows, that though some saw Franca as a foolhardy idealist or as a Machiavellian manipulator, she was selflessly devoted to her art, which had been her entire life. She was not the only one at the National who was denied her due. Kay Ambrose, a British author and illustrator who was Franca's designer and publicist in the early years, died without proper acknowledgement of her pioneer contributions. The international collaborators on Kraanerg, which opened the inaugural season of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, provoked criticism rather than approval. Posterity will have to acknowledge what the production's creators already recognized: the National had quality to justify an international collaboration that could (and did) attract younger, less conservative audiences.
Kraanerg opened the door to continental European and contemporary ballet, such as Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Petit's Le Loup, Flindt's The Lesson, and Wright's The Mirror Walkers. The National had choreography workshops for a new generation, thereby creating a starting-point for work by Ann Ditchburn, James Kudelka, Constantin Patsalas, and David Allan. Franca wanted international exposure for her company and she sought this by tours to relatively minor ballet centres in England, Germany, France, Belgium, Scotland, and Switzerland. Unfortunately, this scheme did not assert the National's identity either abroad or at home-until the full-length Sleeping Beauty, the ultimate test-piece of the classical canon, staged by Nureyev (says Neufeld) "in homage to his idealized memories of the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad." This production owed little to the English tradition, despite its acknowledgements to Ashton, Macmillan, and Fonteyn. There were extravagant budget costs for the enormous design (which included a grand staircase and a three-dimensional chandelier the size of a small room, and three hundred lamps for lighting). But Nureyev's name drew great audiences and an important by-product was the success of Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn at the Second International Ballet Competition in Moscow in the summer of 1973. This led to an awakening of the Canadian public to the extraordinary achievement of the company-rather like what happened at the Stratford Festival during Robin Phillips's peak years there.
When Franca took her leave of the National in 1975, after failing to place the company in the vanguard of "historical reconstruction"-it was Les Grands Ballets and not the National that resurrected Fokine's repertoire-there was some nationalist hysteria over the appointment of her successor. Neufeld treads fairly lightly on polemical ground, but there is clearly a didactic tremor in his narrative. Bruhn, Nureyev, and John Neumeier were contenders for the top job, with Nureyev in leading contention, but John Fraser, then the dance critic for the Globe and Mail, sounded the customary nationalist rant about "foreigners" and their "exploitation" of our cultural opportunities, thereby insulting Nureyev, as well as undercutting the National's achievement.
Alexander Grant's appointment was an ironic counterpoint to this shrill xenophobia, for not only was he a New Zealander who had danced with Sadler's Wells and the Royal Ballet, he was a disciple of de Valois and Ashton, and so would perpetuate the British tradition-although with a crucial difference. During his seven-year tenure, he functioned as "custodian of the existing standard repertoire and the developer of short new works by company choreographers and outsiders, but also as the source of the Ashton repertoire that had so long eluded the company." He brought in Peter Schaufuss from Denmark as a full company member, and was instrumental in bringing the choreography of Kudelka and Patsalas to the forefront. But some of Grant's larger designs failed. The company's appearance at Covent Garden met with lukewarm reviews; London critics treated the National as provincial in the worst sense. Grandma didn't like to be taught how to suck eggs. Grant also came to suffer from an embarrassment of riches: there were too many dancers who shared the lead roles. Morale plummeted, Kudelka and Ditchburn had a falling-out with him, and Kain and Augustyn spoke out in the press against his administrative policies. Once Oliphant and Bruhn turned against him, his cause was lost. It appeared that Grant's liberalism-he wanted company members to accept greater artistic responsibility-was ahead of the traditional conservatism of the organization. "A ballet company is not a school," Grant fought back, but to no avail.
As Neufeld moves on to successive artistic directors, a major theme materializes: a quest for company identity that transcended politics and personalities. As a landed immigrant and frequent guest at the National, Erik Bruhn did not stir up a nationalist hornet's nest. When he was appointed artistic director, he helped smooth ruffled feathers by his new artistic policy. Neufeld shows how he shrewdly converted his first gala into a political gesture by including dancers from three major Canadian companies, Les Grands Ballets, the Toronto Dance Theatre, and the Desrosiers Dance Theatre. Bruhn maintained the classics in the repertoire, but he added little to their number. He cleaned house quickly, setting everyone on edge but reassuring the survivors that they had earned their places. More aggressive marketing brought him financial security, permitting him, as Neufeld shows, "a three-pronged approach to the building of repertoire." He reached out to Canadian choreographers outside the company (Danny Grossman, Robert Desrosiers, David Earle), encouraged David Allan, Patsalas, and John Alleyne within his company, and developed long-term relationships with the internationally renowned Jiri Kylian and Glen Tetley. Bruhn's visionary leadership enabled his dancers to grow and take new risks.
Bruhn's death from cancer in 1986 did create a brief frisson when Patsalas, who had been entrusted by Bruhn with the responsibility of running the company after his death, put himself completely at odds with Valerie Wilder and Lynn Wallis, who had been Bruhn's administrative partners. The power struggle grew litigious; Patsalas filed suit against the National and sought an injunction to prevent the company from staging his Concerto for the Elements in the 1986 season.
Sour politics aside, the National was already set on a path to discover its true centre. Bruhn's successors, Glen Tetley, Reid Anderson, and James Kudelka, all used classical technique to explore contemporary choreography. Each artistic director brought something distinctive: with Tetley it was "sleek, streamlined movement animated by a controlled sensuality"; with Anderson, the first Canadian to lead the National, it was a detailed hybridism born of Cranko, the Royal Winnipeg, and the Royal Opera Ballet; and for Kudelka, the current artistic director and the first to be a product of the company itself, it is moody, dramatic dancing, marked by deep, sometimes feverish characters and situations. Because he is the newest artistic director, Kudelka gets the shortest assessment, but Neufeld could have granted him more space.
As a sheer chronicle, the book is excellent, venturing as it does into subsidiary or ancillary activities of the National-such as the community and educational outreach program-and showing the company's adaptation to the needs of society while justifying government funding. However, it fails many times to go beyond fulfilling a "beholder's duty." What is lacking is a fair proportion of production analysis, at least in design and dance technique. Neufeld is too often a rational documentarian rather than a impassioned critic in the manner of, say, Arlene Croce or Edwin Denby. Excellent in his analysis of narrative structure and characterization, particularly in the cases of Giselle and Les Sylphides, Napoli, and Coppelia, Neufeld is rather less useful in his descriptive vocabulary for specific dance movements, falling into vapid generalizations which sometimes blur together, as when he describes Tetley's choreography in terms of "sleek, streamlined movement animated by controlled sensuality," which is very close to his description of the "sleek design and angular movements" of Patsalas' choreography. Neufeld's style betrays him when occasions require more than dry-as-dust scrupulousness. Dance is a sensory, sensual poetry of movement. Dance writing requires more than simple knowledge, because the subject-matter is so elusive and impressionistic. As Edwin Denby once said: "It is difficult to see the great dance effects as they happen, to see them accurately, catch them so to speak in flight, and hold them fast in memory. It is even more difficult to verbalize them for critical discussion. The particular essence of a performance, its human sweep of articulate rhythm in space and in time, has no specific terminology to describe it by." But even given this degree of difficulty, Neufeld's performance does not carry Ben Jonson's idea of dance to a higher level where the critic himself becomes a verbal performer who, radiant with the sensuous inspiration of dance, provides more than technical notation. What an opportunity for Neufeld to have commemorated extraordinary displays by Bruhn, Nureyev, Tennant, Samsova, Kain, Augustyn, Markova, and Harrington! But, alas, what a missed opportunity! In short, the book is a cultural asset of its kind, without being the sort of treasury into which one can dip for the illusion of being present at rare performances.

Keith Garebian is the author of ten books, seven of them on theatre.


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