The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is whisking local dance fans to their happy place this week — namely, leafy Assiniboine Park — for its annual Ballet in the Park production, which kicks off tonight. The free summer showcase runs 7:30 p.m. nightly at the Lyric Theatre stage Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, offering something for everyone with a penchant for pointe shoes.
"This year we’re performing a really positive, uplifting program. There’s going to be some comedy, some virtuosic classical ballet, and just some good energetic dancing," says RWB School director Arlene Minkhorst of the 63-minute evening (including intermission), which showcases both the RWB company dancers as well as students from the RWB School’s professional and recreational divisions. "It really shows what our organization is all about."
Originally established by former artistic director Arnold Spohr in the 1970s, the al fresco shows draw up to 20,000 audience members, including "newbies" experiencing the ethereal art form for their first time as well as die-hard balletomanes who regularly flock to the park each summer.
Throughout its 40-plus year history, the annual shows have been designed to appeal to all ages and tastes, in keeping with Spohr’s renowned programming savvy that put the RWB on the international map.
This year, jazz dance fans will enjoy a medley from 1978 blockbuster film Grease, performed by 10 students from the school’s recreational division.
Those who prefer their tutus neat will also be treated to a classical pas de trois from The Fairy Doll, performed by a trio of Professional Division dancers. The 19th-century story ballet, inspired by E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Sandman, tells the tale of a mechanical doll that comes to life, and will be performed en pointe.
Another highlight will be seeing company rising stars: corps de ballet dancers Saeka Shirai and Yue Shi reprise their Don Quixote pas de deux that earned them a silver medal last July at the 2016 Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria — hailed as the Olympics of the ballet world. The pair notably won the coveted prize out of 104 competitors in the senior category, with the duo the only Canadians to have made the finals.
The evening ends with a bang as the full professional company performs excerpts from Lila York’s Celts (1995), included in the RWB’s regular season last year. The high-octane fusion of ballet, modern, classical and Irish folk dance, evoking the popular Riverdance shows, includes a pastiche score featuring music by the Chieftains, Mason Daring, William J. Ruyle, Bill Whelan and Celtic Thunder.
There are also plenty of pre-show activities, including face-painting, games, colouring and a chance to win a pair of tickets to the RWB’s season-opener of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and The Goblin.
Once again, early birds will be given a rare opportunity to see the dancers warming up onstage before the show. The evening also includes a fascinating "behind-the-scenes" lecture / demonstration at intermission, showing how the artists perform tricky ballet techniques, hosted by Minkhorst.
One key ingredient to Ballet in the Park’s success has always been its laid-back atmosphere. Wriggling tots (and adults) are welcome to come and go, eat, sleep, dance, or simply sit back and relax while enjoying the performances.
"I think we all have a warm spot in our hearts for Ballet in the Park, which has been an important part of the RWB’s history for so many years," Minkhorst says, revealing that the first RWB show she saw after arriving here from Toronto to train at the RWB School in 1976 was BITP.
"Just being able to dance in a different kind of venue, in a beautiful park on a beautiful summer evening makes it very special," she says
"Many audience members have made it their annual family tradition, while others just stop by before playing in the park with their children — and that’s part of its charm as well."
Check the forecast, and then check the RWB website, rwb.org, or call 204-956-0183 in case a show is cancelled due to inclement weather.