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Ballet in Canada - A Brief History

Ballet is one of the oldest forms of theatrical dance still in use today. In today’s post, we’ll give you a brief rundown of how this gorgeous art form made its way to Canada and what happened when it did.

First Contact

French settlers first migrated to the land we now call Canada in the 1600s, which was around the time that ballet was gaining popularity in Europe. These voyagers enjoyed ballet (likely because it reminded them of home,) and began to stage small performances here and there throughout French Canada. Despite their love for the art, the French Canadians preferred to host dance companies and performances from other countries instead of staging the shows themselves. One of the first Canadian ballet teachers on record didn’t show up until the mid 1700s, when a man name Louis Renault owned a studio for about a decade. After that studio closed, the ballet scene in Canada mostly consisted of touring companies visiting to perform and didn’t evolve again until the 1900s.

Five Ballet Dancers

International Influence

Canada is known around the world for being a multicultural, diverse, and welcoming society. We have these factors to thank for today’s ballet industry in Canada. In the early 1900s, two small ballet companies were started: one in Toronto by Russian immigrant Boris Volkoff, one in Winnipeg by English immigrants Betty Farrally and Gweneth Lloyd. Both companies eventually merged in Winnipeg along with a third troupe from Montréal (started by Polish-German immigrant Ruth Sorel) and became the Winnipeg Ballet. In the following years, Toronto saw Winnipeg’s ballet company and wanted one of their own, so English immigrant Celia Franc was invited to move to Canada and create a company for Toronto. This company emerged 3 years after the establishment of the Winnipeg Ballet and called itself the National Ballet of Canada. Winnipeg didn’t like this since they saw themselves as the top ballet company in Canada, so 2 years after the National was created, the Winnipeg Ballet applied & were granted the right to officially change their name to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Meanwhile in Montréal, a Russian-Latvian-German immigrant named Ludmilla Chiriaeff created Les Ballets Chiriaeff, which eventually became Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (which was initially met with confusion because the ballet wasn’t that “Canadian” OR grand in the eyes of the public).

Canadian Ballet Blossoms

Each of these 3 ballet powerhouses grew and evolved to have their own unique perspective on what ballet was and what an audience wanted from a ballet.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet

The RWB stayed relatively small, making it easy to travel and perform. They were known for their balanced and diverse approach to the shows they put on each season, including classics, newer ballet pieces, as well as completely different styles to appeal to a wide audience. In 1965, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet became the first Canadian company to perform in London, England. Throughout the following years, they made use of their compact troupe and traveled to Paris, Moscow, and eventually Australia, Asia, and South America.

The National Ballet of Canada

This Toronto-based company was modelled after the creator’s former company in the UK, focusing heavily on classical ballet and mixing some 20th century pieces here and there. They toured the US and Europe throughout the 1960s. In the early 1970s, they took a risk and put on a production of The Sleeping Beauty that was so lavish it almost bankrupted the company. Luckily, it paid off and the production was thrust into the global spotlight, bringing the company newfound prestige and revenue.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens distinguished themselves as more avant-garde from the beginning, typically opting for brand new ballets over classics. Throughout her time at the helm, founder Ludmilla Chiriaeff ensured that the company stockpiled a number of the ballets created by the great George Balanchine. During the 1967 Expo in Montreal, they staged Carmina Burana and the rock-opera Tommy, which were smashing successes in the global eye.

Ballet in Canada is still relatively young, and has a bright future ahead of it. We encourage you to take a look at any ballet happening in your area and see if anything appeals to you. Art like this has been able to flourish from the support of people like you over the decades.

If you have any questions related to dancewear, feel free to reach out and let us know.

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