The Royal Winnipeg Ballet: 40 Years of One Night Stands
Reviewed by Leland Windreich
Published December 2005
There wasn’t much ballet in North America in 1938. Seedling companies were springing up in Atlanta and San Francisco, emerging from local ballet schools. Winnipeg, a middle-sized city in the dead center of the Canadian prairies, was surely the most improbable place for such a project until two intrepid Englishwomen, Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Hey Farrally, stormed into town and started up a ballet club and a school.
At home Lloyd had studied dancing from age five and graduated from the Liverpool College at 21 with a solid education in physical education and gymnastics. She went on to study the “revived Greek dance” under Ruby Ginner and ballet with the Ginner-Mawer establishment. She opened her own school in Leeds, where she met Robert Jarman, the Physical Education Officer in the area, and when he emigrated to Canada Lloyd was invited to teach in his school in Winnipeg.
The rest is history, as she comments in a brief talking-head moment in the film, noting that her emigration was the result of believing that living in the same place becomes boring (she died in Canada in1993, age 92). Winnipeg offered a huge bright blue sky and a challenge, as well as a community that accepted novelty with enthusiasm. From 1939 to 1952 she created 36 ballets for the emerging company. Young Betty Farrally had accompanied her to Canada and was her assistant and ballet mistress. Early black and white footage indicates that from the beginning the dancers were shapely and musical, and that Lloyd’s choreography was imaginative and timely.
Although she wooed an unsophisticated population with her concept of a “beer and skittles” ballet company, she created many sensitive pieces in addition to the crowd-pleasers. Clips from two of her most esteemed ballets, “Shadow on the Prairies” and
“The Wise Virgins,” show a mature style in her choreography and a commanding intention for dramatic detail.
This 60-minute DVD, which had its debut on BRAVO! on November 30, begins and ends in 1980, the year of the RWB’s most celebrated triumph, as Canadian dancers
The peripatetic Lloyd went on to Toronto in 1950 to open a branch of the Canadian School of Ballet. She was succeeded by two short-term directors and ultimately by her principal dancer, Arnold Spohr, who put the RWB on the map with his ambitious mandate to achieve international acclaim. Tall, strikingly handsome Spohr is seen in early clips as a performer, teacher and choreographer. Shots made in recent times show him as a frail but connected senior. He had called in leading and emerging choreographers from distant shores: Oscar Araiz from Brazil, John Neumeyer from Germany, Vicente Nebrada from Venezuela, Eliot Feld from the U.S., and Rudi van Dantzig from Holland. Agnes de Mille, then at the height of her fame, was imported to this improbable fount of ballet and fell in love with the dancers, creating or restoring four acclaimed works for their repertoire. Filmed moments depicting her visit are particularly amusing.
The film includes interviews of the pioneer dancers, charter members of the club that became a dynamic repertory company. Most are in their eighties now: Sheila Mackinnon, Jean (Stoneham) Orr, Eva von Gencsy, who come across as being particularly spry. From the company’s middle years we share the comments and memories of Richard Rutherford, Ana Maria de Gorriz, David Moroni (who established the RWB’s professional school), and Bonnie Wyckoff. The fact that the film deals only with the first four decades of the company’s history makes one crave a sequel to show its development under four new directors and its change of focus when Evelyn Hart emerged as an international superstar. But that, as the director tells us, is another story.
Available after December 2008 from Merit Motion Pictures (www.meritmotionpictures.com). Price not set.