To everything there is a season, and even the most beloved ballet dancers must eventually choose to hang up their slippers and exit the stage forever.
One of those is Royal Winnipeg Ballet soloist Tristan Dobrowney, 32, who announced his retirement from the 81-year-old company in late July.
In addition to growing concerns about the omnipresent global pandemic, he cites his desire to spend more quality time with his cherished, 16-month-old daughter Olivia and his wife, Elena Dobrowna, an RWB corps de ballet dancer, for driving his decision, as he now leaps into building a new, more family-friendly career in computer engineering with online courses through the University of Manitoba.
"Ever since my daughter was born, family’s been my No. 1 priority. I love dance and have always pushed myself and tried to do the best that I can; however, my perspective definitely changed at that point in my life," the soft-spoken artist reveals during a telephone interview.
"At this point in my career I was pretty satisfied, and felt I had accomplished everything I wanted to. My five-year retirement plan was already there, COVID-19 just accelerated it…"
The Saskatoon-born artist — known for his charismatic performances, elegant lines, impeccable technique and natural movie star looks — first arrived here in June 2002 at age 14 to begin the journey of rigorous training at the RWB School Professional Division, after a childhood spent doing Ukrainian dance. He was accepted into the company as an apprentice in 2008, and was later promoted to the corps de ballet in 2011, and second soloist in 2014.
Dobrowney left the Prairie troupe for wider horizons in 2015, moving to his ancestral homeland of Ukraine, where he joined the Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet, proceeding to enthrall local audiences with his lead portrayals in Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Scheherazade and Coppélia, among others.
Three years later he met his ballerina wife, who had also joined the Lviv company. It was love at first sight, as both artists recognized they would become partners onstage and off.
Longing for greater stability, the now married couple returned to Canada in 2018, first performing with Moncton, N.B.-based Atlantic Ballet Atlantique Canada for one season before being invited by RWB artistic director and CEO André Lewis to come home to the RWB, with Dobrowney newly promoted to soloist.
"Tristan’s abilities were rarely surpassed onstage," RWB associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle says via email. "A beloved RWB Professional School graduate, Tristan’s career as an artist has been a tremendous gift to the company, Winnipeg, and the larger dance community… he will always be part of the RWB family and be greatly missed on the stage and in the studio."
During his tenure, Dobrowney performed numerous lead roles in high-profile ballets and premières, including Gordon in Mark Godden’s Going Home Star, Curdie in Twyla Tharp’s The Princess & The Goblin, and as dreamy painter Matthew in the last staged RWB production prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Jorden Morris’s Moulin Rouge — The Ballet, presented in March.
He also danced in other favourites, including Rudi van Dantzig’s Romeo and Juliet, Godden’s Dracula, Val Caniparoli’s A Cinderella Story and Mauricio Wainrot’s Carmina Burana, among many others.
Last October, he realized his lifelong dream when he performed Prince Solor in the RWB première of Marius Petipa’s La Bayadere. The regal role had been on his personal ballet bucket list for years, after he was introduced to the classical masterpiece set in ancient India while still a student.
"It’s very grand and there’s this real beauty to this exotic Eastern world that’s appealing to me," Dobrowney explains. "A lot of ballets like Swan Lake and Giselle are about women, but La Bayadere is a ‘man’s ballet,’ and really pushed me technically, as well as artistically.
"It was very fulfilling and I honestly think it was also the hardest ballet I’ve ever done," he adds with a chuckle.
In addition to quintessentially classical roles, the versatile artist also performed extensively in acclaimed Canadian choreographer and RWB School alumnus Peter Quanz’s Q Dance, as well as several Quanz ballets staged by the RWB. Dobrowney appeared as guest principal artist with Wuxi Song and Dance Theatre under Quanz’s artistic direction, travelling to Wuxi, China, in the summer 2015 — while based in Ukraine — where he performed the world première of Quanz’s The Red Crowned Crane, and its subsequent tour of China and North America in 2016.
"I chose Tristan to go to China because I felt that he had the inner strength needed to serve as a Canadian cultural ambassador, in a vastly different environment than what he knew," Quanz says via text from his Baden, Ont., home, where he is working remotely via Zoom with China’s Harbin Ballet. "Tristan always brought a positive energy to the studio, combined with a great sensitivity towards his fellow colleagues, making him a trusted and valued member of our team."
Touring remains a particular career highlight for the artist, including international RWB tours to Israel, China and Europe. He credits spending hours on the road in a bus with his fellow dancers with forging even stronger bonds between the close-knit troupe often described as a family.
Asked if he’d like his daughter to someday follow in her parents’ artistic footsteps, Dobrowney, like any proud papa, says he’ll support whatever her heart desires. Olivia has seen "all the shows," experiencing her first ballet from the wings in Moncton, N.B., in 2019, when she was just 10 days old. She’s since added RWB Ballet in the Park, Nutcracker and Moulin Rouge productions to her dance card.
Once live performances resume after these unprecedented times, she’ll be watching her mother perform onstage from her father’s arms in the audience.
As he now jetés into his next chapter, Dobrowney — who, with five siblings himself, says he would welcome "many more" children into his young family — reflects on what he will miss most about the RWB and his glorious, nearly 20-year professional dance career.
"The RWB has been my second home and I’m grateful to the company for everything they’ve done for me over the years, and for all the opportunities and trust and faith they’ve placed in me," he says graciously. "The support from the community has also been overwhelming, and especially during these challenging times.
"I’ve had a great time living here and performing for everyone, and just want to say, ‘thank you.’"