As it gears up for its 75th anniversary season, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is closing out its current season with a mixed program that nods to a storied past and looks toward a bright future.
Three works will make their Winnipeg premières this week, including The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude -- William Forsythe's homage to choreography legends Marius Petipa and George Balanchine -- and Défilé, a new signature work by Winnipeg choreographer/frequent RWB collaborator Jorden Morris, which will showcase the symbiotic relationship between the company and the RWB School.
The program culminates with choreographer/former National Ballet artistic director James Kudelka's modern classic The Four Seasons. Danced to Vivaldi's iconic quartet of violin concertos, the piece will see the return of four prominent RWB alumni: former principal dancer Evelyn Hart (1976-2005); former soloist (1988-2000) and current instructor Caroline Gruber; former principal dancer John Kaminski (1978-1997); and former soloist (2001-2013) and current instructor Alexander Gamayunov.
Notably, this week's performances will mark the first time Hart, 58, has been onstage with the RWB since her retirement from the company in 2005.
"It's actually been nine years since I've been onstage, period," the beloved ballerina says with a laugh from her home in Toronto, where she teaches dance. "When I took my pointe shoes off, I didn't put them back on. So it's quite exciting. It was James's idea and I thought it was quite thoughtful. It's a part for what we call senior dancers. It's not a big dancing role but it's a beautiful little part. So when he asked I thought, 'Why not?' "
The Four Seasons -- which debuted in 1997 at Toronto's Hummingbird Centre during Kudelka's first season at the helm of the National Ballet of Canada -- uses Vivaldi's familiar score to tell the story of the four seasons in a man's life: spring, summer, fall and, finally, winter. Hart and her fellow senior dancers will be dancing in Winter. Kudelka's blend of classical and contemporary vocabulary makes for a demanding, virtuosic work. "The piece is very physical," says Hart, who has performed Spring in the past. "James is very musical. He's very detailed."
"I was very aware when I was taking over the ballet that there was this general skepticism that I was going to turn it into a contemporary company," Kudelka recalls. "I knew it would be necessary to have the dancers in pointe shoes and to celebrate the technique of ballet."
With the ranks of the National Ballet at his disposal, Kudelka was also interested in creating a work that spanned generations.
"The National Ballet had, at the time, a roster that included dancers I danced with in the '70s and '80s who, when I became director, were very important characters in the work I created for the company," he says. "I liked that more than one generation was onstage. It's the old Danish idea that you can have a life in the theatre, that you can start there as a child and you can actually move through certain roles to take you into your later years. I think there were four character principles or senior artists and I tried to use them quite a bit to create roles that would be there when other generations came through."
For his male lead -- a challenging, meaty role originally created for the inimitable Rex Harrington -- Kudelka says he took a bit of a risk with corps de ballet member Liam Caines, who will alternate with soloist Dmitri Dovgoselets.
"I wasn't quite sure who I should cast in that role -- and then I saw Liam and thought it might be really interesting to give him this particular challenge. I liked his masculinity. I liked his weight.
"He's a very different dancer than Rex. It's been an interesting challenge for him and I've enjoyed giving him permission to spread out a little bit. As I said to him the other day, 'I think you're probably used to playing a lot more ogres.' To have the central position in a piece is new to him."
Hart says that the company is lucky to have Kudelka in the studio.
"He has very specific ideas but, like any great artist, it's because he has a vision," she says. "I was talking to (RWB ballet master) Tara Birtwhistle the other day about how exciting it is for them to have him. He'll push you to find more. He likes to struggle, because through that struggle, you rise."
For her part, Hart is excited and nervous to return to the stage. "It's not what it used to be," she says of her dancing, "but I'm really grateful."
That she and her fellow senior artists are performing in Winter isn't lost on her.
"It's poignant that this is the section I'm doing," she says. "Because my career was so long ago, it's nostalgic for me. It's really quite lovely. As a dancer, you spend your whole life thinking that everything you've done isn't good enough. You're always striving for more. Once it's gone -- really gone -- you realize just how blessed you are. This is another gift I've been given.
"And thankfully, I don't have to do 32 fouettés."