Cherishing the Memory and Legacy of Joanne Nisbet and David Scott
by Veronica Tennant, C.C.
It was heart-breaking to hear of the passing of our beloved Joanne Nisbet this month. Although not unexpected, the finality of the news brings back flood-waves of memories of Joanne’s unflagging kindness (in a milieu that is not always so), of her whimsy, her gently brilliant teaching and coaching, her wit and constancy. She was a beacon for me during all the ups and downs of my 25 years, and I know this is shared by all of us who were graced by her at The National Ballet of Canada. Her husband and fellow Ballet Master, David Scott died in August 2018 at the age of ninety and now we bid sad farewell to Joanne.
Never to be forgotten, is the dedication of Joanne Nisbet and David Scott, who came from England in 1958, invited by Celia Franca to join her fledgling National Ballet of Canada as dancers. They soon found, or Celia saw in them, their mutual calling to head up her ballet staff. Conducting rehearsals, teaching class, delivering post-performance corrections – these roles essential to a ballet company were given the age-old hierarchical titles of ‘Ballet Master and Ballet Mistress’. Joanne transitioned from dancing and took on her position first. Later, she would relish in recounting a press caption, which read: David Scott, Ballet Master and his Mistress, Joanne Nisbet.
David and Joanne were unstinting in their commitment, indefatigable in carrying out Celia Franca’s vision – they were her officers of excellence. Joanne gave classes, which were, whether in the studio or onstage, much more than ‘warm-ups’. She was acutely mindful of our injuries and fatigue, our “glass ankles” as she aptly called them. In my 25 years I came back from many injuries and could not have done so without her compassion and help.
David was possessed with the devil of detail. He missed nothing, in essence a craftsman charged with the fundamental refining-points of ballet technique in performance. He could be demanding and sometimes harsh in his pursuit of what he felt should be enforced in a classical ballet company. Each coached and rehearsed and taught the company dancers – Corps de Ballet, Soloists and Principals - every step of the choreography, every nuance for Celia’s well-chosen ballets. They served all the visiting choreographers, starting with Anthony Tudor, John Cranko and Erik Bruhn, with unconditional commitment and respect.
David once told me that he didn’t always agree with Celia on her choices in casting dancers, (I often wondered if he meant me!). Yet he spoke emphatically about his belief in her standards of excellence for the National Ballet. He and Joanne took on as their mandate, the implementation of professionalism, uniformity of style and our specialized movement language. Ballet dancers have a certain level of excellence, essential in defining a company of the first rank. For example, a ballet company is judged by its Corps de Ballet, in works such as Swan Lake, La Bayardère, Les Sylphides; the ability to create sweeping single movement-arcs with two dozen or more separate bodies. In pioneering a professional ballet company, David and Joanne were at one with Celia’s insistence on reinforcing group endeavour, a support system of coaching, applied motivation and a pooled knowledge propelled by a deep love of the art.
For Joanne and David, The National Ballet of Canada was wholly their life for the crucial four decades of the company’s formation, and its mainstay when times were rough (and they were rough). They are ‘Unsung Heroes’ of the National Ballet and we are deeply indebted to them. To bid adieu to Joanne brings sadness, yet her gifts to us prevail, and the combined legacy David and Joanne have left us, is visible, proud and strong.
Veronica Tennant, C.C.
Filmmaker, Producer/Director, Writer; Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada, 1964-1989