Not their first Rodeo For 50 years, the RWB’s Ballet in the Park has been a summer tradition for Winnipeggers

Every summer since 1972, Manitobans have gathered in Assiniboine Park for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s en plein air exhibition, Ballet in the Park.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/07/2022 (185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Every summer since 1972, Manitobans have gathered in Assiniboine Park for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s en plein air exhibition, Ballet in the Park.

DANCE PREVIEW

Ballet in the Park
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
● Wednesday to Friday, 7:30 p.m.
● Lyric Theatre at Assiniboine Park
● Admission is free

Well, OK, not every summer — the pandemic shaved a few off the official tally. But the 50th anniversary of a much-loved summertime tradition is something well worth celebrating, especially if that tradition is rooted in making art accessible.

One of the hallmarks of Ballet in the Park is that it is free, and this year’s edition, which runs at 7:30 p.m. nightly at the Lyric Theatre Wednesday through Friday — is no exception.

RWB artistic director and CEO André Lewis has been involved with nearly every iteration of Ballet in the Park. When Lewis came to Winnipeg in 1975 to train in the RWB School’s Professional Division, Ballet in the Park — or Dancing in the Park, as it was then known — was still in its early days.

There was no Lyric Theatre back then, so the RWB not only had to supply the dancers and the repertoire, it also had to supply the stage.

As a dancer, Lewis remembers having to contend with challenges one doesn’t find in a plush theatre — bugs, rain, wind, oppressive humidity — but he also remembers the openness. “What I love about the Prairies is that infinite horizon,” he says.

It’s a different audience experience, too. People gather on picnic blankets or set up lawn chairs — pro tip: go early to get a good spot — bring snacks or, more recently, hit up the food trucks, and make a night of it.

There’s also plenty of pre-show programming for little ones, including a creative movement class. “I think that casualness about it makes it very, very attractive,” Lewis says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

RWB dancers rehearse for Ballet in the Park, which this year includes Rodeo, a love story featuring a unique combination of ballet, tap and square dance.

Of course, the dance is the main draw. Headlining this year’s bill is Agnes de Mille’s crowd-pleasing Rodeo, which opened last season at the Centennial Concert Hall as part of a mixed-repertoire show, featuring the RWB company dancers.

While full-length works have been excerpted for Ballet in the Park — including works that delve into more serious subject matter — Lewis tends to keep things light and funny on that stage. Rodeo, a sassy southwestern romp about an unlucky-in-love tomboy cowgirl, fits perfectly.

Over the past 15 years, Ballet in the Park has evolved to become a showcase for the organization as a whole, not just the company. To that end, the bill will also feature performances by students in both the RWB School’s professional and recreational divisions. “It’s really exciting to be able to present the fullness of the RWB,” Lewis says. “It wasn’t always like that.”

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A huge crowd gathered for Ballet in the Park in 2018.

Stephan Azulay will be reprising his role of Champion Roper in Rodeo, but his role within the RWB has changed: Azulay has been promoted from second soloist to soloist heading into this season, which will be his sixth with the company.

“I just feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunities, and I guess I must have done a decent job,” he says with a laugh.

Born in London, England, and having trained in Sydney, Australia, Azulay, 29, came to the RWB in 2017 after three years at the Nevada Ballet Theatre. Unlike many of his colleagues, Azulay didn’t come up through the RWB School.

“It’s the opportunities I’ve gotten that have kept me here,” he says.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

RWB dancers rehearse for Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo at their Graham Avenue studio Monday.

Generally, in his career Azulay hasn’t been attached to a place unless it’s feeding him artistically.

“If there’s any point where it feels like I’m not getting enough out of it, I do move,” he says. “I think it speaks to my journey here at the RWB that I haven’t really thought about (moving).”

Azulay’s promotion isn’t the only move within the ranks. Elizabeth Lamont will also be moving from soloist to principal artist, while Jaimi Deleau will join Azulay as a soloist from second soloist. Apprentices Kyra Soo and Logan Savard will enter the corps de ballet, while aspirants Julianna Generoux, Maggie Weatherdon and Cleighden Butler join the company as apprentices. The RWB has also hired Vancouver’s Zachary Rogers as a second soloist.

“There’s very fun amount of energy in the company right now,” Azulay says. “I would say it’s in a fruitful place in terms of talent and artistry. It’s really exciting to be in it and see what happens next.”

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press Files

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s annual free outdoor performances were initially called Dancing in the Park.

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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