My first exposure to dance began in 1935 with the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. My sister was a film buff; collected the movie magazines, and in most cases took her young brother to the films.
I did not try to emulate the movement, but was fascinated by the music and the rhythms.
The extent of my movement was to march around the front room carpet, to the music being played on our wind up gramophone.
My mother noted my ability to follow rhythms, and thus arrived lessons on the violin and the piano. They were both a disaster, and soon left us.
1938 was the pivotal year. It was the year of Swing Time the last of a group of six Astaire films.
Mother and I were travelling on a streetcar into downtown Winnipeg. Just as we passed the Osborne Movie House, I noticed that a film of the infamous book, Mein Kampf was playing. That memory has stayed with me over all those years.
At that precise moment, my Mother turned to me and said “David, would you like to take dance lessons?”
There was a small pause, then came the affirmative “Yup”
It was there and then settled.
There had been an advertisement in the daily papers, looking for dancers, especially male dancers. A company was being formed, and they needed dancers.
The above event took place in the summer.
It was not until winter that I heard any more about the dance.
I was to appear at the Time Building, 7th floor, on a certain day.
I had all but forgotten about the initial question, which by the way did not specify what kind of dance, even in the audition notice.
I was not yet ten, but would be shortly.
Mother and I went by streetcar to the Time Building.
The journey to the seventh floor was to say the least, rough. The open cage elevator bounced off the walls as we climbed to the top floor.
We were met by a rather stout young woman who introduced herself as Betty Hey.
I was to get changed in to my dance things.
There were no dance things, just the layers of clothes that one wore in a Manitoba winter.
In a small room, off the main corridor, I was confronted with a group of men, all much older that myself, in various stages of undress.
Being a shy young lad, I refused to take off my clothes.
Finally after much talk, I was persuaded to take off my sweater.
We were all escorted into a large room that faced on to Portage Avenue, windows on that side.
To our left there were sticks fastened to the wall, which later I would learn to call barres.
In the corner sitting at a table was Gweneth Lloyd, the director of the company.
She had a dog sitting under the table. I thought she must be okay if she had a dog.
Miss Hey lined us up at the sticks, I was placed with an adult on either side so I could watch.
We did a few things, holding with our right hand then our left.
I watched my adult neighbours very carefully and followed as best I could.
A few things without the sticks, facing the windows, then we were each asked some questions.
When asked to give my name, I mumbled.
It was over, and we left.
Still nothing about what kind of dance it was.
Again a pause. Finally a phone call to ask if we had a son who wanted to take dance lessons. The answer was of course , yes. They were overjoyed, and announced that I had been chosen to be a member of the Winnipeg Ballet Club, and was to report for my first class in a week.
There were also instructions as to what I should wear for that class.
At the audition I had seen those tight pants on the other dancers, these had to be acquired from Mallabars, plus some kind of shirt. The footwear would come later, because they had to be ordered from Europe.
Ballet dancer? what did they do? was it like Fred Astaire? I had no idea.
A remark by my father that he hoped I would not become–“one of them”–, was not understood, but did not help matters.
The day arrived. I went on the streetcar by myself, after all I was ten!
Up to the seventh floor. I was met at the elevator like a long lost friend, they seemed so pleased to see me.
“Put on your dance things and come into the studio to meet your fellow dancers”
Same changing room, but I was alone. No other boys??
Putting on tights for the first time in your life is quite an experience, but I managed., they were black. I also of course wore a shirt and socks on my feet.
Now dressed for the occasion, I went in to the studio.
I was confronted with a room full of young girls, all dressed in a kind of uniform, a light green top and skirt, tights, but pink, and tight fitting shoes that only covered part of their feet.
The truth hit me, I was the only boy, OH my!!
Miss Lloyd was there, but Miss Hey was to teach the class. We went to the barre.
Thus began a process that would be an important part of my life, as a dancer and as a teacher for over sixty years of my life.
It somehow did not seem to take long to get the hang of it.
French was the language, and the reasons for that were carefully explained.
When I think back to my early training I am grateful for the thoroughness with which it was taught.
They have both shuffled off this mortal coil, but thank you Betty and Gweneth, you gave me such a good foundation.
Saturday was the Junior Ballet Club day, but we were soon asked to come on another evening to start work on a ballet for a performance during the Royal Visit. We would be working with the big people.
The notice board told us that we would be performing two ballets, Grain and Kilowatt Magic. We would be part of a celebration called Happy And Glorious to commemorate the arrival in Winnipeg of King George the sixth and his queen.
In Kilowatt Magic I was a young boy who could not read properly because we had no light. In Grain I was a farm boy. I had a few steps to do, nothing dramatic.
I did sense that the performance was a very special occasion. The Royals did not come to our performance, but the theatre, the Playhouse, was full.
We were only a small part of a very long show, with a lot of performers.
New reference points for me–costumes–make-up–dressing rooms–backstage–an orchestra–a stage manager.
Everyone seemed very pleased with how we had done our ballets.
Soon we were back to our Saturday classes and learning new things at each class.
I soon had a vocabulary of French terms for ballet.
I became aware of a talent which had not come to light prior to the ballet performance, I had, have, a very good musical memory. I sat one afternoon on our front porch and whistled my way through the entire score of Kilowatt Magic and Grain.
All of this time, of course, I was attending school.
I had managed to keep the dance side of my life quiet, until I forgot, and mentioned what I was doing on Saturdays to a school chum. It spread like wild-fire, I was in real trouble.
One other talent saved me–I could run faster than anyone in my school, they could not catch me.
My teachers were fascinated with my outside occupation, so, one year, while we were having a special day at the school, I did a dance for them all.
My problems were over. No one else could do what I was doing, no one else had the courage to get up in front of the whole school and perform. I was accepted as a dancer.
We moved, so a new school had to be broken in. This one was near the high school, which had a theatre. It was there that I began dancing for school shows and choreographing dances for my fellow students. My special was a dance about a newspaper boy, danced to a Harry James recording, it always got an encore.
We began working on syllabus classes, something called the R.A.D., nothing radically different, we just had to memorise the class for a given grade. I was told that grade 4 would be for me.
1941 was the year for the R.A.D. Examiner to came to Winnipeg, her name was Adeline Genee and she was coming from the British Isles.
We were in the early stages of World War 2. There was rationing and we knew men who had gone to fight.
There were occasional dramatic newspaper articles, and at school we were being trained to march and use weapons, with live ammunition, but the war was not on our doorstep. It seemed almost unreal.
Genee was absolutely delightful. A tiny woman with grey hair but with energy plus.
When I took my exam she smiled throughout.
I received a very good mark, which seemed to please everyone. At school I always got good marks, so I could relate to a degree, except most of my school marks were higher.
This part of the story has a delightful addition. In 1967 while living and working in the British Isles, I was invited to dance at a gala performance. This was part of being a principal dancer in Festival Ballet. The Gala was for the opening of the Adeline Genee Theatre in East Grinstead, Sussex.
Galina Samsova and I performed the Spring Waters pas de deux, one of those Russian big lift jobs.
It was a Royal affair, so we all went to the stage after the performance to meet Princess Margaret.
She was followed by none other than the great lady herself, Adeline Genee. She was escorted by Anton Dolin.
Galina and I were at the front of the lineup, so were introduced first to the Royals then Dolin and Genee.
Dolin I had known for years, but I was not sure if Genee would remember me.
She did and even knew that she had examined me in an RAD exam in Winnipeg in 1941.! She was thrilled to meet me again and see me dance.
Circles within circles.
but to continue—-
I was beginning to grow finally. I even got my first paying job, working in a mushroom plant. Mushrooms are grown in manure, need I say more?
My dance roles were always governed by my size. Miss Lloyd was very clever in using her only small boy in various roles. Some of these with the Junior Ballet group, some with the Senior group, such as –the Knave of Hearts, the Hero in Alice in Wonderland, a Gendarme in An American in Paris, the Valet de Chambre in Finishing School.
After a growth spurt, I finally found my self partnering some of the girls, doing pas de deux.
The relationship with the girls in the company was interesting, it was almost like sisters and brother, not at all like the relationships which happened at school.
I could not have one girlfriend in the company, they were all my girlfriends, it was in fact very healthy.
1942 was for most of us in the company, a very important year for another reason, in that year the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo performed in Winnipeg. We saw an actual ballet company perform, something which did not happen very often, as a matter of fact between 1938 and 1946 when I left Winnipeg, this was the only ballet company to perform in Winnipeg, apart from our company.
The circles within circles continued. One of the dancers in the Ballet Russe was Nicolas Beriosov. I would dance with his daughter, Svetlana Beriosova, in the Metropolitan Ballet in England in 1947 and 48. We became quite well known in that period for our performances in Design with Strings by the American choreographer John Taras.
Soon I found myself doing the leading roles in a lot of the ballets.
During 1944 there was talk of going on tour, which excited all of us. We were now known as the Winnipeg Ballet officially, no more Club.
February 1945 saw this dream come true. We went by train to Ottawa to do two performances. We stayed in the Chateau Laurier and were treated, or so it seemed, like Royalty.
For many , it was the first time away from Winnipeg. First time on a long train journey, first time of sleeping on a train, first time in a hotel.
We knew how the audience in Winnipeg would respond to our dancing, but to have the same happen in Ottawa, meant we were getting somewhere.
November of 1945 made the dream larger. We went on tour to Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton. We would travel a total of 10,000 miles to accomplish these four cities.
It was on this western tour where a happening made a far reaching influence upon my entire dance life. We were invited to view some films of Russian Ballet.
I saw Ulanova doing the act two pas de deux from Swan Lake, but more important for me was the dancing and partnering of Chabukiani. His strength, his musicality had such an effect upon me. It took some time before I was able to transfer what I had seen to myself.
That image stayed with me for years. I did not want to copy him, I needed to make my audiences feel what I had felt that day. By the way, after the films were over, a man stood up and began speaking. Turns out we were at a meeting of the Communist Party. We made a hasty exit.
Back in 1936 another Canadian Ballet company had gone on a long tour, but to Europe. The Volkoff group performed in Berlin at the Olympics. Our mileage was greater.
The Winnipeg Ballet was making an historical move, which has since faded in to the background as an event that for some is nothing special. It was very special for those on that tour, and those who saw the performances.
Even as early as 1940 I had decided that this was to be my chosen profession.
I of course was told that this was folly and would never work. As mentioned earlier in this work, sixty years is not bad for folly.
I think I made the right choice.
The talent of Gweneth Lloyd in creating works to suit the abilities of her dancers, the energy and enthusiasm of the dancers and all who worked towards the performances was quite incredible. Some of the so-called professional dancers of this time in history would benefit from that drive.
We were called amateurs, but only because we were not paid for our work. Money does not create a professional, the standard of the work does.
My introduction to the ballet world was unusual as were my early days within it. I would not have missed one second of those days.