The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's presentation of Rudi van Dantzig's masterpiece Romeo + Juliet -- which opens Wednesday night at the Centennial Concert Hall -- will see four of the company's most significant principal dancers return to the stage.
Tara Birtwhistle, Johnny W. Chang, Jaime Vargas and Vanessa Lawson -- all current ballet masters with the company -- will play the theatrical roles of Lady Capulet, Lord Capulet, Friar Laurentius and Juliet's Nurse, respectively.
The ballet masters have also been coaching the dancers who will be taking on the meaty titular roles.
Lawson, who made the difficult decision to hang up her pointe shoes last season after recurring injuries started taking their toll, is adjusting to her new role as ballet master.
"I've been busier than I've been in my whole life and I'm 'retired,' she says with a laugh. "It's been quite eye-opening. As a dancer, you don't always realize what goes on behind the scenes. It's been a huge learning experience. I'm finding it challenging but I love the challenge."
Working on Romeo + Juliet, meanwhile, has been bittersweet. Balletomanes will doubtless remember Lawson's stunning turn as Juliet in the company's 2009 production of the ballet. Not being able to dance in one of her favourite roles was hard to accept.
"When I first started going over choreography with (principal dancer) Amanda Green in the summer, I was referred to my performance video from 2009 and I just started bawling," Lawson says. "I had to say, 'OK, Vanessa, you need to focus here.'"
Still, shaping a new generation of Juliets -- Green, along with Sophia Lee and Elizabeth Lamont -- has been just what she's needed to help her move on.
"Me not being able to dance -- you have to learn to overcome that," she says. "I still have moments of pain. I definitely miss it. But being able to work with the Juliets and pass on those feelings I had as a dancer and give them guidance, it's very rewarding."
Teaching has also given her a chance to recover from the rigours of being a professional dancer.
"My body has started the healing process. As a dancer, you're never going to feel wonderful because it's so demanding, but you need to learn the difference between muscle pain -- the kind you can work through -- and something more dangerous. Our body is our instrument, and we need to take care of it."
Lawson says she's still getting comfortable in her new role. "In the beginning I was quite nervous," she says. "I knew what I needed to do and the responsibility I had for my own body. But I have so much experience onstage that I could pass down. And there's still so much room to grow. There's never a dull moment."
Birtwhistle, also a past Juliet, has been a ballet master for four years and retired from performing for three. She says the overlapping year made the transition from dancer to master easier.
"If a dancer doesn't have closure, it can be difficult. But I felt done. I was 40 and was with the company for 20 years."
For Birtwhistle, it was becoming a mom that made her re-evaluate her career. When her first child was born in 2009, she was back to work after three months -- "I still can't believe that," she says -- but motherhood awoke something in her; she felt a strong pull to pass on her passion and knowledge. "I felt like I wanted to truly pass the torch and be there for that moment."
Birtwhistle welcomed her second child last year and is just now returning from a "real" maternity leave. "I hadn't so much as pointed my foot for a year," she says. She's thrilled to take on the role of Lady Capulet -- "it's a very dramatic role and I was very much a dance actress" -- but coaching her Juliets has also been energizing.
"These three Juliets are all new," she says. "I'd seen many casts and had an idea of what I wanted to do should I be cast as Juliet; they haven't seen many Juliets. They're a complete blank slate. To allow them to create their own Juliets is inspiring to me. They were creating off what they felt."
Lawson and Birtwhistle agree it's those moments that make it all worthwhile.
"That's why you do it," Birtwhistle says.