Ballet takes centre stage in Toronto


“Emergence” is one of the works that is integral to the history of the National Ballet of Canada, which celebrates its 60th anniversary with an exhibit that examines the history of the art form in this country.

Story by Waheeda Harris
Vacay.ca Senior Writer 


Rudolf Nureyev and Karen Kain star in the 1973 version of “The Sleeping Beauty”.

TORONTO, ONTARIO — Opening this week in Toronto, 60 Years of Designing the Ballet, is an exhibition filled with memorabilia, photographs, costumes, set pieces, video, all integral to Canadian dance history.

The exhibition is also the stage for The Tutu Project, a year-long effort to create 60 tutus in celebration of the 60th anniversary, including works created collaboratively for many events, including Toronto Pride, Fashion Week and Word on the Street, by fashion designers David Dixon and JUMA as well as by children.

Curated by Caroline O’Brien, a resident designer and wardrobe supervisor for the National Ballet of Canada from 1989-2007, the exhibition is an insider’s view of many of the popular productions including Swan Lake, Cinderella, Emergence, Don Quixote, Giselle and The Nutcracker. O’Brien explained to Vacay.ca what makes this exhibit a must-see this summer:

Q: What story did you want to tell the public with the exhibit about the National Ballet of Canada?

A: The exhibition is a narrative of design for the ballet since 1951. When Celia Franca founded the company and struggled through those early years, she always insisted on the highest quality production values in spite of financial constraints. When the company moved to the O’Keefe Centre in 1964, Franca was working with choreographers from Europe and brought designers who could best illuminate these new productions. A high point was the arrival of Rudolf Nureyev in 1972 and his lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty designed by Nicholas Georgiadis.

Q: Who made a significant impact on the connection of dance and design?

A: When James Kudelka arrived as artistic director, he took the collaborative spirit of design for ballet to a new level in the creation of several new evening-length works and a large number of contemporary ballets. He was the first director who had graduated from the ballet school, had danced with the National Ballet, and returned as artistic director. His collaborations with Santo Loquasto are a testament to the value he placed on design, and Kudelka continually gave opportunities to Canadian designers.

Q: What iconic objects are included in the exhibit?

A: The exhibition introduces Celia Franca as founder and presents the sketch, a photograph and the costume she wore as Lady Capulet for the première of Romeo and Juliet, designed by Jurgen Rose, at the O’Keefe Centre in 1964. Twelve archival tutus offer a spectrum of the various forms a tutu can take and the designers who have created and recreated images of the ballerina. There are objects from the recently acclaimed Romeo and Juliet designed by Richard Hudson, a production that ties back into the history of the company from many perspectives. There are several original sketches, set pieces, props and historic items that carry a special provenance and celebrate the legacy of the designers and performers who have passed through the corridors of the St. Lawrence Hall and the Walter Carson Centre. It is an exciting opportunity for the public to gain a backstage perspective on the ballet.

Q: How did you choose the items to be included in the exhibition?

A: We had to constantly return to a question: “How does this object relate to design?” We decided we would look at the ballet from behind the scenes. The video footage and photographs are from fittings and backstage. It’s a perspective of ballet through the eyes of designers, stitchers, milliners, wigmakers, shoemakers, property masters, carpenters and scenic painters. Original sketches, working drawings, costume items, set pieces and tools are included, celebrating the trademark of the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes to bring a world of wonder and enchantment to the public.

Q: Why were these three ballets (The Nutcracker, Emergence, Romeo and Juliet) chosen as the narrative?

A: The Nutcracker, one of the best-loved traditions of ballet in North America and a production known to many audience members, was chosen for the richness of design and for the wealth of material available. Emergence is a recent contemporary work created by a group of Canadian collaborators and reveals a design process that reaches beyond the classical tradition. Richard Hudson’s Romeo and Juliet represented the start of the 60th anniversary season, and celebrated a lavish and extravagant design. We also wanted to include Hudson as he worked as an assistant to influential designer Nicholas Georgiadis.

Q: Why is the tutu iconic?

A: The tutu is the most recognized and imitated object of the ballet. The tutu dates back to the romantic times when the cult of the ballerina began in 1832. Perhaps the appeal of the ballerina has been reinforced by the elegance and aristocratic gesture, by the technical and artistic virtuosity, and by the intrigue of her private and public life. It is only the Olympic athlete of the arts world who can successfully carry off the wearing of a classical tutu, as the mere mortals who occupy the seats in the theatre aspire and dream of the exclusive world of the ballerina. The hard work and discipline inherent to the art form are apparent in the radiance of a performance by the princess of the ballet dressed in the extravagance of her classical tutu.

Q: What are some of your favourite pieces included in the exhibit?

A: I am thrilled we included a series of photographs by principal dancer Aleksander Antonjevic. He has offered images of dancers preparing for performance behind the scenes that will be printed on large banners and we have the accompanying costumes in the exhibition. We have included a series of historic photographs that illustrate the work of crafts persons in their workplaces as well as a series of framed original designs that span the entire history of the company. And the tutus, of course, when they are all lined up, are very impressive in their variety and magnificence.


Dates: 60 Years Designing the Ballet opens July 11 at the Design Exchange in Toronto and runs until September 2, 2012.
Location: The Design Exchange is at 234 Bay Street just south of King Street West. Pedestrians can walk one block from the King subway station on the Yonge line or two blocks from St. Andrew subway station on the University line ($3 for one-way fare) to the Bay Street location.
Admission: Free for members/ $10 for adults. Every Tuesday evening between 5-8pm, admission is pay what you can.

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NOTE: Photos courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada


A Toronto-based freelance journalist since the beginning of the millennium, Waheeda has been lucky enough to visit every continent. She's always happy to travel, especially when she can swim in the sea, taste locally-made cuisine and spend an afternoon in an art gallery.

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