Breaking New Ground
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 15 May 2003, p. 494-504
Staines, Mavis, Speaker
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Item Type
How alumni of Canada's National Ballet School are key figures in the community, and NBS an invaluable resource to the entire country. Many Canadians unaware of the existence of the NBS despite an international reputation. Some history. Policies. Tracking the success of alumni. Working with gifted people. Improving practices within the profession, with some details. Some important tenets of the education of students at the NBS. The speaker's ideas as Artistic Director and how they were met. Benefits of some systemic changes. The importance and activities of the corporate side of the NBS. Going from Dickensian to world-class. Inviting the audience to think again about the NBS. After some concluding remarks, a video on the NBS' latest initiative was shown.
Date of Original
15 May 2003
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Full Text
Mavis Staines
Artistic Director, Canada's National Ballet School
Chairman: Ann Curran
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Anne Fotheringham, Owner, Fotheringham Fine Art and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Ashley La Fond, Grade 11 Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute; The Rev. Prue Chambers, St. Nicholas Anglican Church, Birchcliffe; Jennifer S. Fournier, Alumni, Canada's National Ballet School and Resident Guest Artist, National Ballet School of Canada; Jeannie Butler, President, Positive Changes and Chair, National Ballet School; Robert Sirman, Administrative Director, Canada's National Ballet School; Bernard Ostry, OC, Vice-Chair, Board of Directors, Canada's National Ballet School and Cabinet Member, Project Grand Jete Capital Campaign Cabinet; Heather Ferguson, Director, Development and Alumni Relations, Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Catherine A. Delaney, Former Board Chair, Canada's National Ballet School and President, C.A. Delaney Capital Management Ltd.; Marie C. Rounding, Chair, Board of Directors, Canada's National Ballet School; and Allan P. O'Dette, Director, External Relations, GIaxoSmithKlme.

Introduction by Ann Curran

I now have the pleasure of formally introducing our guest speaker.

May 15, 2003

Mavis Staines, born in Quebec's Eastern Townships and raised in Vancouver, received most of her training at Canada's National Ballet School, where she has been Artistic Director since 1989.

Upon graduation from NBS, Staines studied in Paris and London for six months before joining the National Ballet of Canada.

After five years, she joined the Dutch National Ballet and danced for three years under the direction of Rudi van Dantzig until an injury cut short her performance career.

On her return to Canada, Staines reinvested her training and experience back into NBS as a teacher. She enrolled in the school's Teacher Training Program, joined the staff as a teacher in 1982 and became Associate Artistic Director under Betty Oliphant in 1984. Five years later, on Oliphant's retirement, Staines became Artistic Director.

Within and beyond the National Ballet School, Staines is now devoted to improving ballet training to preserve the best of traditional schooling while adding to the curriculum elements young dancers need today to advance both their careers and their lives.

She has been responsible for bringing many renowned dance specialists to NBS, including Hamburg Ballet Artistic Director John Neumeier, the legendary Irma Trofimova of St. Petersburg's Vaganova Academy (school of the Kirov) and American neuromuscular specialist Irene Dowd.

Staines served as juror for the Prix de Lausanne, Switzerland, the world's most prestigious competition for young dancers, in 1993, 1994, and 1995 and headed the jury as Chairman in 1998 and 1999--the first person in the Prix's 25-year history to head the jury two years in a row.

In 1997, Staines was a presenter at the Prix de Lausanne Symposium and in 1998 was a workshop presenter at the IOTPD Conference in The Hague, Holland.

Staines' Lausanne presentation was published by Dance Magazine in June 1997 under the title "Going Beyond Classical Tradition." In February 2001, Staines was named Artistic President Designate of the Prix, only the third since the competition's founding.

Over the years, Staines has served in various capacities with a number of dance-related organizations, including: DANCE/USA, Philadelphia, 1994; Dance Advisory Committee, The Canada Council for the Arts; The Dance Community of Educators, Toronto; and Kala Nidhi Fine Arts of Canada, Toronto. In 1998 Staines won the Toronto Arts Award for the Performing Arts.

A famous philosopher once said an impassioned sense of purpose is the key to realizing the quality of life. Alumni and students of Canada's National Ballet School irrefutably prove this theory, yet too often it is assumed that classical ballet dancers must be neurotic and anorexic to fully realize their talent.

In her address to us today, Ms. Staines will speak to the ongoing evolution of the school's overall training practices and educational philosophy and why these have resulted in NBS graduates being leaders within the international dance community and the school's training theories adopter) worldwide.

Mavis Staines

American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi cites an impassioned sense of purpose as key to realizing quality of life. Alumni and present students of Canada's National Ballet School irrefutably prove his theory. So, too, do all of you seated here today, although our individual sense of purpose may vary widely.

A strong sense of artistic purpose is relatively rare in Canada, and its value--along with the value of artists committed to pursuing its ends--is frequently marginalized. Yet never has the role of art and artists been more important. One just has to look at the number of self-help books proposing strategies for achieving spiritual awareness and inner peace to recognize the limitations of purely material goals.

I hope my comments today will demonstrate how alumni of Canada's National Ballet School--far from being marginal players--are key figures in the community, and NBS an invaluable resource to the entire country.

While Canada's National Ballet School is highly regarded on the international dance front, there are still many Canadians unaware of our existence. Therefore, I will preface my remarks with some historical background.

Celia Franca, the remarkable dance artist invited from England in 1951 to establish Canada's first fully professional national ballet company--The National Ballet of Canada--was acutely aware that Canada needed its own professional ballet school. Up to then, the most promising dance students were forced to leave the country to complete their training generally going to New York City, Russia, or England's Royal Ballet School. This geographic uprooting often led to their abandoning high school before graduation--an especially troublesome outcome given that most gifted ballet dancers are extremely bright, and a career as a professional ballet dancer never lasts to the age of 65.

Celia knew this well in 1951, but it was not until eight years later--1959--that she and Betty Oliphant--an exceptional teacher who was ballet mistress at the National Ballet of Canada--established a school.

From its inception, Canada's National Ballet School included an academic program that met provincial standards and was operated on site to ensure that Canadian children could fully explore their talent without compromising their academic education, a residence to respond to Canada's geographic realities and, of course, a rigorous dance program.

To this day, NBS remains the only professional ballet school in Canada delivering all these elements.

Over its first decade, NBS subtly but significantly shifted its orientation from being the school of the National Ballet of Canada, to being the country's national school, freeing graduates to dance in any company suited to their particular interests and talents. Even today this is an extremely rare model among professional ballet schools.

One of the strengths of NBS is its policy to accept students into the school based entirely on talent. Each year my colleagues and I visit over 20 Canadian cities coast to coast, screening approximately 1,000 young people ranging in age from 10 to 18. While auditions are not scheduled outside Canada, video applications stream in from around the world. From this initial 1,000, around 150 are invited to our four-week Summer School, which serves as the final and much more rigorous phase of our entry evaluation. After a month of intensive study, around 50 of these students are identified as flourishing both emotionally and physically, and are offered a place in the Professional Ballet/Academic program.

Alumni of this program are now dancing in over 35 dance companies around the world, with many having achieved soloist and principal status. One of our standing jokes is that when travelling to other dance centres, no matter where they are located on the globe, it is impossible to avoid meeting NBS alumni.

Since a ballet dancer's career normally draws to a close when they are in their late 30s or early 40s, the school's 44-year history has given us an opportunity to also track the success of alumni in their "post-performance" careers, and their achievements are equally impressive. Career choices range from doctors, lawyers, artistic directors, choreographers, film stars, festival directors, visual artists, and research scientists.

I know all of you have met gifted children. But how many of you have met a gifted child with a sense of their calling? For many adults it is hugely unsettling to meet a young person who knows with absolute certainty that nothing matters more than fully expressing themselves through dance. It certainly is hugely unsettling for the majority of parents I meet. Unlike many other nationalities, Canadian parents rarely aspire to their child's becoming an artist. Their concern about potentially low salaries is often partnered with a holdover from past stereotypes, especially those that tar individuals pursuing stage careers with questionable morals.

Even today, journalists will ask me if all ballet dancers are, by nature, hysterical, neurotic, and the women inevitably anorexic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gifted ballet students are focused, intent, impassioned, and multi-talented. While they do not want to be average at anything they attempt, the quality of their day is always measured by what they feel they have achieved in the studio, or on stage. Meanwhile, many parents continue to pray their multi-talented child will "come to their senses" and choose a respectable career-a factor which makes the quality of our academic program the top prior-ity for most parents.

Another big hurdle for parents is the need for those students beyond commuting distance to board away from home-and in Toronto no less, the city most Canadians love to hate. Then, of course, there is the issue of money. Even with carefully considered fees that reflect high levels of government and private-sector subsidy, a targeted means test shows that over 50 per cent of families require financial assistance from the school.

Yet in spite of all of these factors, plus pressure from relatives and neighbours horrified by the unusual, the majority of parents supports their child's impassioned dream, and accepts the invitation for their child to attend NBS.

Working with this gifted population is truly a privilege. Ironically, however, the students' willingness to follow any directive they believe will guarantee their future success as professional dancers makes them unusually vulnera-ble, and requires a very specialized approach from staff.

During my own years as an NBS student and then per-former, I never imagined having the opportunity to implement systemic changes within the school's artistic programs. But during those years I certainly reflected on how practices within the profession could be improved.

Since starting in this job, my priority as NBS Artistic Director has been to ensure that the best of the profes-sion's traditions are cherished while rejecting those practices I believe limited and even destructive. Systemic changes have been implemented which touch on the physical, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the stu-dents' lives, and are designed to channel the students' Potential as effectively and beneficially as possible.

To begin with, our training methodology interweaves traditional classical ballet with ongoing research from the field of dance medicine, thanks particularly to New York-based neuromuscular specialist, Irene Dowd. Dowd describes her international colleagues as incredulous that a classical ballet academy embraces new scientific infor-mation as a powerful, liberating means of improving pedagogical skills and better assisting individual stu-dents.

Our physiotherapy department and conditioning pro-grams also are designed to improve performance. Injury is seen as a signal that students' personal strategies for realizing a particular movement-as well as teachers' explanations-should be reviewed.

The long list of consulting psychiatrists working with NBS is not an indication "that all NBS students are crazy," as I was once queried by a journalist, but rather how much NBS honours the students' talents, and invests in increasing their self-awareness to make their perfection-ism a blessing and not a curse. As recognized by Olympic coaches decades ago, there are specific mental skills. that allow performance pressure to be stimulating, rather than overwhelming.

It is also within this program that body image issues are addressed. Thanks to specific recommendations from all the consultants, and in particular, eating-disorder spe-cialist Dr. Niva Piran, body-image distortion and eating problems at NBS are less prevalent than in society as a whole. Perhaps because all NBS parents sign a contract stating that should their child start to display the early stages of these problems, he or she can only stay at NBS if the family plays an active role in the child's recovery.

Within all areas of the students' education, it is of par-ticular importance to me that they become skilled, thoughtful communicators, and develop a clear sense of the responsibilities and privileges inherent in being gifted. And while their primary focus will be on fully exploring their potential as world-class professional dancers, they will also develop a confident sense that after this career,

they are well-positioned to make the transition into fur-ther education and a wide variety of alternate professions.

In the early stages of my tenure as Artistic Director, my ideas were considered highly suspect. Colleagues around the world feared I was promoting mediocrity, and artistic directors of companies could only imagine that dancers who were skilled communicators would undermine orga-nizational morale.

Now, 14 years into this process, I am thrilled that NBS serves as a role model within the international dance community. An apt comparison might be that of a teach-ing hospital. Teachers, physiotherapists, and psychologists from around the world regularly visit NBS, and, in turn, NBS faculty are invited to other organizations as artistic consultants.

Equally satisfying were comments from the 14 artistic directors of the world's largest ballet companies attend-ing a dance summit hosted last May by NBOC's artistic director, James Kudelka-also an NBS graduate. These directors were impressed by both the beauty of the stu-dents' work on stage, and their wonderfully respectful means of asking astute questions after thoughtfully con-sidering feedback.

My first-hand experience with the benefits of these sys-temic changes has involved me in a variety of national and international conferences, competitions, and festi-vals. Particularly satisfying has been my work with the Prix de Lausanne, a European-based international dance competition held annually for 15- to 17-year-olds. Considerable debate took place before I could convince my colleagues at the Prix to develop and implement a health policy, supported by the conviction that ignoring the plight of excessively lean candidates was actually a form of colluding with eating disorders. My subsequent appointment to the voluntary position of artistic presi-dent of the Prix de Lausanne board means I can continue these efforts in the international arena, and keep in close touch with activities and attitudes around the world.

To this point, I have only referred specifically to the school's Professional Ballet/Academic Program. Nevertheless, the systemic changes I have mentioned underlie virtually all NBS programs, including: the Junior Associates Program which provides after-school and Saturday classes for Toronto area 6- to 11-year-olds; a three-year Teacher Training Program which partners with dance departments at Simon Fraser University and York University; evening and Saturday Adult Classes; a Teachers' Professional Development Program; an annual week-long international teachers' seminar; and our out-reach activities-workshops for teachers and musicians and open classes for local children, realized in the 20-plus Canadian cities we visit annually.

I have been able to focus intensively on the artistic needs and NBS's evolution, thanks to the school's adop-tion of a co-directorship management model. Rather than having a single CEO, the National Ballet School has two-one responsible for programs, and the other for corporate well-being-with both of us reporting directly to the Board. This model is common in the Canadian cul-tural sector but often controversial-and, to be fair, there are many instances where it has failed. At NBS, it has proven to be a great strength, particularly because of the special relationship I enjoy with the school's Administrative Director, Robert Sirman.

For every advance I have made on the training side, Bob has broken new ground on the corporate side. After years of deficits, the school has operated in a surplus position for nine consecutive years. A parallel foundation has been created to hold endowed funds to support school programs in perpetuity. And NBS has built up what the Toronto Arts Council has identified as the largest working capital reserve of any arts organization in the city.

Because of this, my colleagues and I have had the lux-ury to think truly outside the box, and are engaged in our biggest groundbreaking yet-the creation of dance train-ing facilities in Toronto to rival those anywhere else in the world.

Anyone familiar with NBS will know of our laughably inadequate physical plant. We put on a good public face with the wonderful Betty Oliphant Theatre on Jarvis Street, but enter our main facilities at 105 Maitland Street and you will see why the last evaluator, sent by the Department of Canadian Heritage called them "Dickensian." While our programs are highly admired, the promise of new facilities is now key to parents' allowing their children to attend NBS, and to sustaining our inter-national reputation.

But how do you go directly from Dickensian to world-class?

Slowly-we have been working on upgrading our facili-ties for 10 years now.

Carefully-we have undertaken five feasibility studies, three with government funding.

Communally-we have formed partnerships with all levels of government, a private developer, and a broad range of individual and corporate interests.

And confidently-we branded the project Grand Jete (a dance term for big leap) to capture the scale of our vision, and initiated the second-largest private-sector fundraising campaign ever seen in the performing arts in Canada. The campaign is headed by Wallace and Margaret McCain, and is second only in size within the performing arts sector to the Canadian Opera Company's campaign for a new Opera House.

Whatever you thought about the National Ballet School, please think again. We are breaking new ground on all fronts, and to give you a glimpse of what this means, I would like to conclude by screening a short video on our latest initiative. Technology willing, may I direct your attention to the video monitor(s). (Four-and-a-half minute video, followed by credits.)

As you can see, breaking new ground takes place on many dimensions at NBS. I am delighted that I have been able to share some of these dimensions, as well as my passion for this profession and my unwavering belief in the significance of Canada's National Ballet School to our country.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Heather Ferguson, Director, Development and Alumni Relations, Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Breaking New Ground

How alumni of Canada's National Ballet School are key figures in the community, and NBS an invaluable resource to the entire country. Many Canadians unaware of the existence of the NBS despite an international reputation. Some history. Policies. Tracking the success of alumni. Working with gifted people. Improving practices within the profession, with some details. Some important tenets of the education of students at the NBS. The speaker's ideas as Artistic Director and how they were met. Benefits of some systemic changes. The importance and activities of the corporate side of the NBS. Going from Dickensian to world-class. Inviting the audience to think again about the NBS. After some concluding remarks, a video on the NBS' latest initiative was shown.