Through a New Lens
Tanya Howard, Jenna Savella, Tina Pereira and Jordana Daumec in costume for Symphony in C.
As part of the National Ballet of Canada’s ongoing focus on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) as core institutional values, we are committed to examining ballet practices, traditions, choreography and stories in partnership with cultural consultants and creative collaborators to lead positive change in dance. Hope Muir, Joan and Jerry Lozinski Artistic Director, has prioritized this work as part of her planning each season, as the company applies a new lens to the repertoire with a growing understanding of issues around representation, cultural appropriation and other barriers to inclusion. There is no destination for this work – it is an ongoing process of listening and learning. However, the impact is evident in the Winter and Spring seasons, reflecting a collaborative effort to apply key learnings and share outstanding dance for today.
As one of this country’s largest performing arts organizations, the National Ballet has a responsibility to look closely at the stories it shares. The immediacy of dance and its expression through the body – by dancers who are living today – makes it impossible to relegate even legacy works to the past. Live performance is never purely historical. It always lives in the present moment, for artists and also for audiences.
To navigate this issue, the National Ballet is working with cultural consultants who specialize in EDI and can provide guidance on specific aspects of choreography, narrative and characterization, or help to contextualize older works. With the full participation of the creative teams, the National Ballet has examined selected repertoire from the Winter and Spring seasons in consultation with Nova Bhattacharya, an award-winning artist trained in Bharatanatyam, and with Phil Chan, co-founder of Final Bow for Yellow Face, an organization that advocates for positive and nuanced representations of Asians in ballet. This work has been conducted in a spirit of openness and commitment to change and incorporates learnings from the National Ballet’s ongoing partnerships with Theresa Ruth Howard of MoBBallet and Charles Smith of Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario.
With the support of our Equity Advisors, discussions have taken place with our dancers, choreographers, designers, and stagers to discuss the works we are presenting, examining the difference between intent and impact. While we believe the stories we share, especially those made in another time, were created with good intention, our society has evolved, and the impact on others may no longer be aligned with the original intent. These discussions are meaningful and empowering, and often result in changes to better reflect and align with the kind of world we all want to live in.
Taïs Vinolo in costume for Symphony in C.
In addition to examining the stories we tell, a new lens requires attention to every detail of a production, not least of which are costumes, makeup, shoes, props and hair. This winter, the National Ballet became the first company ever to perform George Balanchine’s Symphony in C with the dancers in tights that match their skin tone, a change Hope Muir initiated through the School of American Ballet in New York City. Progress of this kind can seem delayed to those outside the ballet world, but it is part of a wider shift in mindset that carries enormous significance for the art form and overrides deeply entrenched traditions. To wear tights and shoes in your skin tone is to know there is a place for you in ballet and sends a message to the next generation of dancers that they are welcome, too. The visual impact for Symphony in C is powerful both aesthetically and ideologically.
On March 14, 2023, the National Ballet presented a Relaxed Performance of Act II from James Kudelka’s Cinderella, welcoming neurodiverse and disability communities to the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts for a mainstage experience. With the help of Relaxed Performance Consultant Rachel Marks, this special event within the company’s community engagement portfolio is part of a larger movement to improve access to dance.
The National Ballet is grateful to the artists, consultants and audience members who have been such willing and generous partners in this journey. The learning process is continual, and no doubt mistakes will be made. But productive dialogue, self-reflection and a sense of responsibility will continue to move the needle forward for ballet, creating a richer and more inviting experience for all. For those interested in following our progress, please visit our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion section.
If you’d like to provide comments or suggestions related to our EDI work, please email us at EDIfeedback@national.ballet.ca. This feedback will be shared with our management team, Equity Advisors, and our EDI Task Force. As you watch our performances, let us know if this work visible to you. What might we do differently? Was the experience fully welcoming to you – both the art and the experience of engaging with it? We are grateful for your feedback!