It’s mid morning on a weekday, and the Level 5 students in the Ballet Academic Program in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Division are in a pointe class. The seven young women here are working very hard to achieve a big dream: to become professional ballet dancers.
Training the next generation of dancers (and dance teachers) has been the goal of the RWB School since it was founded in 1970. The Ballet Academic Program is a full-time, seven-level training program designed for school-age students of all genders who want to seriously pursue a career in ballet. Upon successful completion of the ballet academic program, students can continue their training in the post-secondary Aspirant Program.
The RWB School serves as a feeder for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, so the company can employ dancers of its own training. Many Professional Division graduates spend their entire careers with the RWB; currently, grads make up 70 per cent of the company.
It’s a world-renowned program, attracting students from Winnipeg as well as all over North America and abroad. Admission is by audition only. The 18-city North American audition tour for the 2020-21 school year began in Kelowna, B.C., in October and will wrap up in Thunder Bay on Sunday. The Winnipeg auditions will be held on Friday, Jan. 24 from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. (Prospective students can still audition; visit rwb.org for more info.)
This is not a program for a casual dancer. It’s for kids who sleep, eat, and breathe ballet. On a Friday in January, the Free Press followed two such Level 5 students, Taisi Tollasepp, 15, from Toronto and Elisha Woo, 15, from Winnipeg. This is a morning in their life.
The first ballet class of the day starts promptly at 8:30 a.m., and the dancers begin at the barre. Every class practises to a live pianist.
Seven Level 5 students, including Taisi and Elisha, are uniformly clad in navy bodysuits, white tights and ballet slippers. Already, they look like the professionals they’re training to become, their ages only given away by the occasional mouthful of braces. Their teacher, Johanne Gingras, is getting them warmed up for a morning of ballet. They’ll be dancing for the next two and a half hours or so. Students usually clock about five or six hours of dance a day if they have evening rehearsals for upcoming shows, six days per week.
The day has already started, of course. Both Taisi and Elisha wake up in the hour of 6 a.m., giving them time to roll out their muscles, stretch out their feet with a resistance band and, of course, pin their hair up into ballet buns before making their way to the studio. Taisi comes from the school’s residence; Elisha lives at home in Winnipeg.
Gingras is warm and often funny. "You like that barre — you’re going to like your partner when you do pas de deux," she tells a dancer who is white-knuckling the barre. "Remember: you like him, but not that much."
This work is all about precision. The body awareness required is incredible, and Gingras sees everything. "Fire the back of your leg," she tells a student. Another: "Watch your knee." Later, when they come off the barre to practise pirouettes and jumps, Gingras notices some of the dancers’ heads and shoulders have fallen out of sync during rotation, so they practise whipping their heads around. Eventually, they become fluid; seven bunheads on swivels.
The lessons they learn in the studio will take them far outside of it. One student exits the practice area with her eyes downcast, clearly frustrated with her performance.
"Don’t leave a stage like that," Gingras says firmly. "Don’t apologize on stage. We’re dancers. We keep going."
As the dancers swap their slippers for pointe shoes during the short break between classes, Gingras beams with pride about her students.
"Most of them have been dancing for a long time and are developing into their skills," she says. "When you look at how they dance every day, they’re motivated, they want to dance, they have good skills already, their maturity level is there. They are working very well together. As a group, they’re very talented."
Gingras knows talent when she sees it. This is her 35th year with the RWB School, and she has been director of the Teacher Training Program, which she was instrumental in developing, since 1997.
What does she look for in a dancer? For prospective auditioning students, it’s less about the dancer they are and more about the dancer they have the potential to become.
"We look for people who will have mobility, flexibility, where the joints are going to be loose enough to do things like pointing their feet. These elements are important because if you don’t have that to start off, because of the intensity of the work it can also become injurious for the dancer," she says.
"There’s a sort of fluidity you’re looking for, co-ordination, musicality. Are the dancers able to respond to music? And, of course, do they enjoy it? Is dancing part of their DNA? The training of a professional dancer is very intense. It’s a slow process. It takes a long time to be able to develop the technical and artistic skills."
The training of a dancer or a teacher, Gingras says, is a process.
"I love seeing them grow in that process, develop their technical and artistic skill, but also who they are as people," she says. "The joy, of course, is to eventually see them succeed at what they want to do. Sometimes it’s a career in dance, and it might be something else. As a teacher, that’s the best thing you can do: give them tools to take upon whatever they want to do."
And then it’s off to lead the same group of Level 5 girls in their 10:15 a.m. pointe class. There are a few shaky legs, but the students manage to look like serene music-box ballerinas while pulling off demanding feats of strength.
The students pull on sweatpants and sweaters, and free their feet from their pointe shoes. There’s a bit of a break before they head off to a Pilates class. Conditioning is necessary to build strength and prevent injury.
Both Taisi and Elisha began dancing at the age of three.
"I think, from a really young age, I knew that I loved it," Taisi says, "The movement of it, and expressing myself. I decided to come to Winnipeg from Toronto because I heard the training was outstanding."
As a Winnipegger, Elisha grew up with the RWB. "I’d always see the company productions and I’d always be amazed."
For Manitoba students enrolled in Grades 6 to 8 in the Ballet Academic Program, the cost of the program is about $10,000 for both dance tuition and academic tuition for 11 months of training. For Manitoba students enrolled in Grades 9 to 12, the cost is slightly higher. Financial aid and scholarships are available.
Seeing Clara in Nutcracker was formative for both girls, and both have since performed with the RWB as Young Clara (Elisha in 2017, and Taisi in 2018). Both would like to be company dancers someday.
There are sacrifices required, of course. Taisi and Elisha have had to give up activities such as skiing and snowboarding to avoid injury. And, of course, a rigorous training program comes with days that are tougher than others.
"Sometimes staying positive can be a challenge," Elisha says. "When you get corrections, it can seem like a negative thing, but it’s actually positive and it’s helping you get to where you want to be."
"I try to breathe and relax and try my best, so I can walk out knowing I did my best, even if a pirouette wasn’t working," Taisi says.
"It’s one day at a time," Elisha says. "You can’t go back to the day and re-try it. It always goes forward, so you have to keep going. As the teachers always say, if you’re having a bad day, leave it at the door."
Taisi and her roommate, fellow Level 5 student Tess Pepetone who is here from Hamilton, Ont., head upstairs to residence before lunch (it’s Thai stir-fry today). Their dorm room is neat as a pin. They’ve decorated the spartan brick walls with string lights and collages of smiling photos of family and friends.
For students like Taisi and Tess, pursuing their dream meant leaving home at a young age. About 60 students live in residence, which is fully supervised. "The residence is really like a home and a family," Taisi says. "Everyone is really connected. The teachers are always there and want you to succeed."
Taisi was only 11 when she moved to Winnipeg with her then 13-year-old sister Nyla to live in residence and study at the RWB School. She loves the independence. "I Facetime my parents every day. But it was hard when I was 11. I feel like having my sister there really helped."
Nyla has since gone on to dance in Germany. Her white tutu, however, remains hung up on Taisi’s dorm-room wall.
The students have transformed from Level 5 ballet students to regular Grade 10 students. The buns have been let down, the pointe shoes have been swapped for boots and sneakers. They’ll walk over to the University of Winnipeg Collegiate, where Grade 9 to 12 students complete the academic portion of their day. They have a math quiz this afternoon, and are currently doing a poetry unit in English. (Starting in September 2020, Ballet Academic Program students in Grades 6 to 8 will study at St. John Brebeuf. Their day is flipped; they attend school in the morning and dance in the afternoon.)
For the students who live in residence, the evenings are either spent eating dinner, dancing, doing homework, or hanging out together in the common area playing board games and talking. They also love making videos on TikTok, and baking (although the cookie dough is often eaten before it has the chance to become cookies). As Gingras says, it’s important for them to have a balance, and be able to be the teenagers they are.
And then they’ll wake up and do it all again tomorrow.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
As the first female photographer hired by the Winnipeg Free Press, Ruth has been an inspiration and a mentor to other women in the male-dominated field of photojournalism for over two decades.