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Ballet
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The Show Must Go On
by Karen Kain
Updated April 20, 2021

The Nutcracker programme cover (1967)

Dealing with the unexpected is part of life in live performance. Technical issues, faulty props and wardrobe malfunctions come with the territory and, like it or not, they contribute to the excitement of live events. As artists, we have to be nimble, quick-thinking and humble in the knowledge that the stage is a world unto itself and anything can happen there. Which is why the old saying – “the show must go on” – has such traction. There’s no better way to capture the willingness of artists to fulfill their obligation to perform, come what may.

The National Ballet of Canada is no stranger to adversity and there have been many times when this company has pulled out all the stops to see a show to completion. In fact, I made my debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake under just such conditions, stepping in at the last minute to replace Veronica Tennant, who had been injured. In that very same show, the curtain stalled halfway up. We danced our hearts out anyway.

Karen Kain as OdetteOur founder, Celia Franca, had no shortage of tenacity or resourcefulness, but both were keenly tested the night of December 31, 1966 following a performance of The Nutcracker at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. The company was preparing to travel with the production to Vancouver for a series of performances when the freight car carrying the sets and costumes broke down. No commercial airline or the Canadian National Railway could guarantee they would arrive on time. Refusing to give in, Celia phoned the only person in Canada with the power to help – the Minister of Defence, Paul Hellyer. He immediately dispatched a Hercules transport plane from Cold Lake, Alberta on a rescue operation titled “Mission National Ballet” to ferry our production across the country. The Nutcracker opened at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on January 4, 1967 with full sets and costumes.

An example from our recent history also bears mentioning. A young Tina Pereira and Keiichi Hirano were competing for the Erik Bruhn Prize in 2007 when disaster struck. Keiichi tore his Achilles tendon in the midst of his Le Corsaire solo and was forced to leave the stage. Tina carried on alone, improvising, and earned a standing ovation for her efforts.

Tina Pereira and Keiichi Hirano

But with the contemporary pas de deux still to come and Keiichi unable to perform, Tina was in dire need of a partner. Thankfully, Principal Dancer Guillaume Côté was sitting in the audience. In minutes he was dressed, warmed-up and onstage to partner Tina for the remainder of the competition, showing a level of solidarity I will not soon forget. Tina won the women’s award that night and all three dancers continued their brilliant careers.

Significant obstacles like these join the many smaller mishaps that help make a life onstage – temperamental sets, props and lighting effects, torn costumes, missed cues and minor slips and falls. All try our patience but none have stopped a show.

Only rarely has the National Ballet cancelled a performance outright. In 1977, we lost a performance of Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty following a power outage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Then, in 2016, we cancelled our performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale in Washington D.C. due to a snowstorm, the first weather-related cancellation in our history. There has never been a year that we were unable to perform The Nutcracker, even with our Canadian winters.

This season is different. The global pandemic is by far the greatest challenge we’ve faced as an organization, resulting in cancelled performances for March and June 2020 and the loss of our entire 2020/21 season. What used to feel like a somewhat cliché phrase – “the show must go on” – now carries a deep and bewildering urgency.

But we are nothing if not resilient, and we are doing everything in our power to keep ballet alive and accessible. Our dancers are training responsibly and creating exciting new work for the digital space. Our Expansive Dances series of short films found a wide audience and showcased the camaraderie, dedication and resourcefulness of our extended family of artists and friends. Going forward, we will continue to share high calibre dance through social media, small performances and our virtual season – the first of its kind for this organization.

Dealing with the unexpected is a team effort. Our wellness team, wardrobe and production staff, artistic leadership, staff and dancers are prepared to come together when challenges arise. COVID-19 is no different. I’m amazed at the lengths this organization is willing to go to create, share and enjoy dance in new ways and I’m grateful to have you in the (digital) audience, cheering us on. Thank you for staying the course with us – for sharing our commitment to put on “a show.” You fill us with hope and give us the drive to carry on, no matter the circumstances.

Watch New Voices, a programme of commissioned works.
Enjoy Now >

Watch short programmes of excerpts filmed before the pandemic.
Spotlight Series >

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