For 20 seasons, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Tara Birtwhistle has captivated and touched audiences with her extraordinary charisma.
The long-limbed principal dancer with the unconventional short haircut has always radiated sheer joy in performing.
Whether she was a deeply expressive classical ballerina in Swan Lake or a gawky tomboy in Rodeo, Birtwhistle has been the very definition of magnetic stage presence.
Very different from Evelyn Hart, the ethereal prima ballerina who preceded her, Birtwhistle has been a more earthbound star. She has large tattoos that she covers up with stage makeup. She says her fellow dancers will remember her as a clown in the studio.
While the fragile Hart tiptoed into retirement at age 50 without a Winnipeg farewell, Birtwhistle, 39, says it's time to say an emotional public goodbye to the home audience that has supported her entire career.
As she gives her final bows Wednesday through Sunday in the season-ending mixed-repertoire show Bright Lights, Big City, there likely won't be a dry eye at the Centennial Concert Hall.
Birtwhistle, who gave birth to a daughter named Isabella two years ago and fought to regain her physique to dance a little longer, says she's been passing through stages of grief.
"Isn't there one that's like denial? That's what I was like this whole season," she says in an emotional interview. "Now it's the crying stage -- the acceptance."
It may be a challenge to keep her composure while she plays a troubled urban aboriginal woman in the poignant The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, the second of three works on the program (Birtwhistle, who isn't in the other two ballets, will come out for a final curtain call at evening's end).
"But I can't be crying through the whole thing -- that would be awkward," she says with a laugh. Her husband, dancer Dmitri Dovgoselets, is also in Rita Joe, but the taller, heavier Eric Nipp will play her rugged love interest.
Fans can cross their fingers that Birtwhistle will appear in future non-dancing roles. The River Heights resident will still be part of RWB, but on the coaching side, as she starts the new job of ballet mistress on July 1. Her aim, she says, is to be "not a boss, but a guide. I want to instil that you have to be an artist."
Raised in Sherwood Park and Red Deer, Alta., Birtwhistle left home at 14 to train in the RWB School's professional division. She was accepted into the company in 1991. At 5-foot-7, she was almost too tall and suffered from self-doubt. "I thought I wasn't classical-looking enough," she once said in an interview.
She was singled out in 1993 when the Calgary Herald praised her "sassy, vivacious star quality," comparing her to Cyd Charisse. She realized around then that even in abstract ballets, she was innately a storyteller. "My whole career, I've been a dance actress," she says. "Being a character onstage is what I love doing."
Her favourite roles are the vampire-bitten Lucy in Dracula, the mean stepmother in A Cinderella Story, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Rita Joe. She also put her stamp on the flamboyant aunt in Nutcracker, lead roles in abstract works like Carmina Burana, and many others.
"Tara has always been a supernova on the stage," says former company dancer CindyMarie Small, a close friend.
"Where other people dance the steps that are given, a rare star will take the same material and create something unimagined and unforgettable. (She adds) 'Tara-isms' which the choreographer didn't specifically ask for, but which colour the character... in a way that takes it to a new level."
Given her pick of farewell pieces, Birtwhistle chose The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Norbert Vesak's landmark 1971 ballet based on the play by George Ryga, set to taped music by Ann Mortifee and featuring the voice of Chief Dan George. She last danced the 40-minute work in 2003.
"It's historical. It's one of the first ballets I saw the company do when I entered the school," Birtwhistle says. "It's a very powerful story. The costume I'm wearing is from 1971 -- I find that special."
Birtwhistle knows some patrons were disappointed in how little she danced as the Queen of Hearts in the recent Wonderland. "Where have you been for the last 20 years?" she says in joking response. Her heavy costume limited the Queen's choreography, she says, but have no fear that Rita Joe is a full-scale dance role.
Her approach to performing has sometimes taken a toll. "I give a lot of myself onstage," she says, "and I leave a little bit onstage."
Although she appears confident, she has suffered from terrible stage fright. Around the time she was promoted to principal dancer in 2000, she went through a crisis of confidence, constantly telling herself she wasn't good enough.
In the fall of 2001, she defected to Calgary's Alberta Ballet. Within a few weeks, "I knew deep down: This isn't right. So I phoned Andre (Lewis, artistic director) and said, 'Is it OK if I come back? Because I don't belong here.'
"...I had to do that, to know what I had here."
She eventually overcame her crippling self-doubt by taking small, deliberate steps, especially "mindfully and honestly" doing daily ballet class.
"I feel like I have a freedom now that really just comes with age," she says.
During this retirement season, the ballerina has found herself gathering up RWB memorabilia. "Isabella (her two-year-old) will never know me as a dancer," she says. "It's almost like I'm collecting these things for her."
Asked what she'd like to say to Winnipeggers, Birtwhistle's voice cracks. "It was my honour to be on stage for them," she says, tears welling. "If they enjoyed it and took away something, then that's what I wanted to do. I hope my performances will live on in people's hearts."