Alumni Memories

Your Story is Our History

Read Cherishing the Memory and Legacy of Joanne Nesbit and David Scott by former Principal Dancer Veronica Tennant

"One of the many memories from my 36 years as a musician with the company involves our beloved Associate Conductor, John Goss, who died tragically in 1986 in a traffic accident while vacationing in Barbados following a run of The Nutcracker.

While touring the east coast of Canada we were both attending a costume party for the dancers and musicians and John came dressed as a ‘backwards conductor’. I can’t remember exactly how he achieved this effect, but I presume he had on his tux jacket with the buttons at the back, or some such thing. We were touring Giselle, which features a short horn call in act one played in the pit and mimed on stage by Hilarion. Inspired by John’s choice of costume we conspired to play the horn call (which involves alternating two notes a fifth apart) actually ‘backwards’ at the next performance he was to conduct. Furthermore, to add to the effect, and to include his active participation in the ‘event’, he would turn completely away to cue me, in effect, conducting me ‘backwards’.

It seemed a good idea at the time, but as the moment approached the burden of responsibility began to weigh more heavily upon me. Not that the call was particularly difficult to play, but in its inverted ‘backward’ form, it did start on a higher note, and not the best note to hit every time on the french horn. The moment arrived, John turned away from me to conduct some phantom horn player on the other side of the pit, and I tooted away in reverse, wondering what was to become of us for our mischief that night. To my relief the altered call was a success, much to the undoubted confusion of my fellow musicians. While I’m sure they all noticed that something seemed ‘different’ that night, we’ll never know just how many members of the audience, or indeed the dancers were aware that they were there to experience the one and only ‘backwards’ Giselle horn call in dance history.

John was a wonderful human being, dedicated to the National Ballet, and all of us who knew him were incredibly saddened by his untimely passing, and will always miss the years we may have shared with him."

- Mr. Gary Pattison, Orchestra Member, 1977 to present 

"Although at the time it was not funny to me this has now become one of the funniest stories that I tell to people. I think it was either as an Apprentice or my first year in the corps and we were performing Coppélia. One of my roles was as the Columbine Doll in the toy workshop scene and I was determined to be the best Columbine ever. To my memory the act is quite long when you are just standing there like a statue. After being wound up and doing a short dance with my Harlequin all the dolls settle back for what seems like an eternity while the Principal Dancers perform. After about five minutes of absolutely no blinking (this was a personal challenge) and staring at the red exit sign on the wall located in the audience, I started to feel a little peculiar. Now, I had been told the stories of a few dancers over the years fainting during this scene, but I was not going to be one of them. I probably had my weight back on my heels too much and my head started to fog over. I started seeing spots and before long I was losing consciousness. Now anyone who knows me knows that I don't give up easily and so passing out for me was certainly not an option. I didn't want to be another dancer pulled off the stage by their ankles by a Stage Hand after dropping to the floor. So as the blood left my head I stubbornly fought to stay alert, in the process of fighting this natural consequence I proceeded to stagger around half conscious with locked knees at the back of the stage during Karen's (Kain) solo like a demented possessed Frankenstein doll never dropping my stiff bent arm position. This staggering felt like it lasted some time but it was probably just a minute as the lurching around luckily brought me back to my senses and I made my way back to my original spot on the stage. I resumed the pose and like the consummate professional I am I never batted an eyelid (which started this whole darn problem!) After the act was over I made my way backstage completely mortified and apologetic and I think I may have shed a tear. I remember Joanne Nisbet quickly coming to meet me at the back and ask if I was alright. It was lovely how she told me not to worry and made me feel better telling me that during the event she had turned to the person next to her and exclaimed in her British accent ..."Oh look, Amber's gone for a toddle." Thank you Joanne, for being such a gem."

- Miss Amber Armstrong, Alumni, Dancer 1986-1997 

"As a fledgling actor I performed in The Holly and the Ivy in the Toronto Library theatre and another member of the company was Doris Tennant, Veronica Tennant's mom. One day she announced that she had a spare ticket for The Nutcracker with Veronica and Jeremy Blanton - my first ballet. Years later, as Chairman of Actors Equity Association I headed the team that negotiated the new contract with the National Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg with 3 National Ballet dancer reps - Charles Kirby, Alastair Munro and Leonard Stepanick as part of the association team; a great chance to see more ballets and make some great friends. So... in 1975 when I was offered the position of Company Manager I jumped at the chance. Since we had met as equals during the contract negotiations, I became one of the few members of the team that called Celia, Celia, rather than Miss Franca like all the rest.

On my first day on the job, the company gathered in Studio 1 to be introduced to the new Company Manager. In typical Robertson fashion and wanting to be seen as one of the group I entered the studio and swung my leg up onto the barre unfortunately my heel hit one of the bolts that held the barre to the turn buckle. So throughout the company meeting I could feel a trickle of blood running down my ankle into my sock.

The first place I took the company in my new role was The Metropolitan Opera House in New York. As an actor I followed opening night tradition and placed a split of champagne on every dancer’s makeup table. The fundraising department had been organizing a project involving copper medallions featuring Rudolf Nureyev designed by Dora de Pedery-Hunt. It was decided to present #1 to Rudolf himself and  I was asked to arrange a meeting at the intermission for Assistant General Manager Jacques Mizne to make the presentation. I accompanied a very nervous Jacques to Rudolf's dressing room. The medallion set in a suede frame was dutifully presented and in the transfer the medallion fell out and rolled across the floor. Luckily Jacques did not pass out but he certainly lost a lot of colour in his face."

- Mr. Hamish Robertson, Alumni, Staff 1975-1978  

"When I used to play the harp in the National Ballet Orchestra I was able to watch part of the show from the orchestra pit. The final performances of Celia Franca's Nutcracker were always hilarious, in particular the improvised mayhem during the battle scene. I don't know whether the audience was aware that the Three Blind Mice (complete with dark glasses and canes), and the inept Laurel-and-Hardy Stretcher Bearers for the cookie were not part of the usual choreography. I was always captivated by the humour of this production. The Mouse King was killed by being scared to death by a stuffed cat. After the scene with the fantastic dancing dolls, (carried off, stiff as boards), two gentlemen did the "After you, Alphonse" routine until one finally had to get off the stage. I have not seen a Nutcracker since that I love as much as this one."

- Mrs. Elizabeth Volpé Bligh, Alumni, Orchestra Member 1976-1982 

“I joined The National Ballet of Canada Orchestra in September 1980 on trombone. My first performance with the company was in Montreal on the 1980 fall tour. I have been to many places in the world that I wouldn't have gotten to if it were not for the ballet tours - Newfoundland to British Columbia, Germany four times, Italy, Luxembourg, and the United States. I even went through Checkpoint Charlie before the Berlin Wall came down. My 31 years with the company have been a terrific experience. I have performed The Nutcracker 642 times with the National Ballet. Fortunately it is terrific music.”

- David Archer, Orchestra Member, 1980 to present 

"As the Wardrobe Coordinator for the National Ballet I spend most of each performance wandering around in the dark backstage waiting for things to go wrong. I am armed with a plethora of safety pins, a handy pair of sharp scissors, a flashlight and several already threaded sewing needles. I clearly remember several vivid moments of several ballets, and not necessarily because of the dancing! In the early days of The Merry Widow there was a very memorable wardrobe moment. There is a very romantic Pas de Deux danced by Valencienne and her beaux Camille (performed for us that night by Caroline Richardson and Peter Ottmann) danced out in the garden by the gazebo. On this particular Sunday matinee, Valencienne's lace hem got caught on the row of military buttons on Camille's uniform jacket. Quick on his feet, Peter tried to rip off the lace hem to detach himself from Caroline, but this just led to more lace coming off the hem because the lace was very strong. As they danced more and more lace unravelled from the dress and it started to look like festive bunting draped all over Caroline's legs as she arabesqued. Both Peter and Caroline must have been completely distracted trying to figure out how to deal with yards of lace entwining them as they danced but it never showed. I, in the meantime was watching from the wings. I knew I had my scissors handy but was not about to make my National Ballet stage debut to go to them and help cut the lace off. As I watched more lace unravel I sent someone to get my larger scissors, in case they decided to come to the wings for my assistance. But no, they kept dancing. They finished the Pas de Deux as if nothing had happened, Peter bent down and gathered up an armful of lace, they bowed for a standing ovation and thunderous applause from the entire audience and slipped away into the gazebo to continue their secret rendezvous.
The next day we cut all the lace off all the Valencienne dresses.
I still meet people who tell me they were there for the show with all the lace. My Mom was in the audience and will tell you what she saw and Peter Ottmann tells the story wonderfully from a whole different perspective."

- Ms. Barbara de Kat, Wardrobe Coordinator, 1985 to present 

"Celia Franca, Founder and Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada in the early years, was to us dancers both formidable and much to be respected. She was not a tall woman – perhaps 5’4” - and wore her long black hair drawn back severely into a bun at the nape of her neck. She was always fully made-up: pancake base heavily applied, plucked and penciled-in thinnest of arched eyebrows, painted perfect lips in a dark red colour, à la Clara Bow, and darkly mascara-ed eyes outlined heavily in dark kohl. Her prominent nose dominated her narrow face, but it was her cobra-like eyes which mesmerized me, a very young dancer keen to please. She was slender in size, but without an ideal dancer’s body. She had slightly bowed legs (which gave her wonderful elevation), and truly ugly feet - poorly arched and with large bunions. You would never guess the illusions she could create onstage as a dancer when you saw her stationary body.  
Celia, or Miss Franca as we always called her, was still dancing when I joined the company in 1956, and she was the only artistically mature dancer in the company at the time. She must have realized that we young inexperienced dancers needed a role model to learn from. I would watch from the wings in awe as she portrayed a tragic Giselle in Giselle, a comic Swanilda in Coppélia,  the mature Woman in His Past in Lilac Garden, the witty Operetta Star in Offenbach in the Underworld, the Italian ballerina in the satiric Gala Performance, or a bereaved parent in Dark Elegies. She displayed amazing range and an intuitive sense of timing. No other dancer in the company (or perhaps elsewhere) had this dramatic ability or profound musicality."

- Mrs. Jocelyn (Terell) Allen, Alumni, Dancer 1956-1964 

"Here's a little anecdote from my four years with the National Ballet. As I recall, it was 1956, my second season with the company, and our U.S. Tour was coming to an end. We were performing one dreary night in Buffalo, with a scattering of filled seats in the audience, and I was performing the role of Dr. Coppélius in Coppélia. At a crucial moment, I open a curtain slightly upstage to check on Coppélia (danced then by former Artistic Director Celia Franca) sitting in a chair. To my astonishment I see not Celia, but Stage Manager David Haber resplendent in Coppélia's costume, his hairy legs protruding below the dress! Needless to say, I quickly closed the curtain, and the next time I opened it to my relief, the real Coppélia was sitting in the chair. I couldn't help noticing the dancers in the wings trying to stifle their giggles... and I desperately made the same effort on stage!"

- Marcel Chojnacki, Alumni, Dancer 1955-1959 

In memory of Beverly Banfield Lowe, 1941-2011 (Dancer 1956-1960): "In the spring of 1956 Celia Franca was faced with the dilemma of 10 dancers leaving the budding National Ballet. One of the most difficult tasks for the company in those days was to find dancers who had compatible styles so that a uniformity was developed. Fortunately Betty Oliphant's school on Sherbourne Street provided students with just such a requisite. That year, far too early for us to start our professional careers, Celia, pressed to the wall, invited a number of we "babies" well under 18 to join the National Ballet. Two close friends, Beverly Banfield and Cathy Carr, were billed as "the heavenly twins" both being only 14 years of age.
Reading was our schooling, but receptions taught us the facts of life, a difficult grappling for any teenager, yet Beverly seemed to ride it like a seasoned surfer cresting the wave. She was always of good humour ready to make sure everyone else was up to their challenges. She had a natural beauty and talent and her warmth lit up the stage in many roles.
Sadly Beverly is the first from that particular era to leave us. She will be remembered in such roles as the Young Girl in Offenbach in the Underworld, the Pas de Quatre in Les Rendez-vous, and a Friend in Coppélia
After marrying and settling in Maine, Beverly was determined to carry on her love of dance and ran her own ballet school for many years. Her husband Ralph their three children and her ballet friends will sorely miss Bev."

- (Penelope) Anne Winter, Alumni, Dancer 1956-1961 

"It was about 1959, during Celia Franca's final performance of Giselle. It was also my last performance as I, a member of the Corps de Ballet, was leaving the company. The memory of tears streaming down my - and Miss Franca's - face is vivid all of these decades later. Along with the emotion at that time, how blessed I have always felt, to have shared that amazing experience with such an ICON of the Canadian ballet world."

- Mrs. Gloria Hutchinson, nee Bonnell, Alumni, Dancer 1956-1959 

"Celia Franca, the consummate professional, adapted intelligently to whatever sized stage we were on-whether in opera house, high school auditorium, or hockey arena - stages varied hugely in size and surface, wing space and crossover space. While we usually had a warm-up class onstage before the show, taught by Celia, sometimes the scenery trucks had arrived late and the stage wasn’t ready for use. Celia then taught us how to warm up in the front of the house, holding on to the plush back of a seat for a barre - often on a sloping floor - and doing our pliés and grands battements there. If the stage became clear, we would continue our class onstage. She never missed a warm-up, and we learned to follow suit, although it was not always easy after a whole day on the bus. We also knew that she would notice if we didn’t. She didn’t miss anything."

- Mrs. Jocelyn (Terell) Allen, Alumni, Dancer 1956-1964 

"I remember a special performance that I was in while I was in the Corps de Ballet. We were on a US tour and Rudolf Nureyev was our Guest Artist. We were performing Coppélia in Florida. Nureyev was dancing the lead role and he had just finished his first act solo. All of the corps were placed in very specific positions on stage during and after Nureyev's solo. When he was finished he turned his back to the audience and started walking towards me. All of a sudden he told me to get up off the seat where I was posed so he could sit down. For a split second I didn't know what to do because I had been told where I was supposed to be positioned on stage and was afraid to move. But then I came to my senses and figured that if Nureyev was telling me to get up I better listen. So, I got off my seat and he sat down and then put me on his lap. Boy was I excited. I will never forget getting a chance to sit on the lap of one of the most famous dancers in history."

- Miss Donna Rubin, Alumni, Dancer 1984-1988 

"My Memory: I was cast in the ballet Kettentanz. I was a Corps de Ballet member and I had not danced anything in a solo role yet.  I was injured and very nervous on the night of my first performance. After the performance, Karen Kain came backstage and gave me the nicest pep talk."

- Ms. Kathleen E. Trick, Alumni, Dancer 1972-1975