Former dancer Lillian Jarvis, 83, reinvents her body

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Former dancer Lillian Jarvis teaches students how to hold their bodies properly. Photo by Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images

When Lillian Jarvis, 83, watches the National Ballet, she’s more aware than most people of how dancers’ bodies move.

“I’m glued to the bodies,” she says. “The technique is so demanding and so dependent on the body being able to do it.”

She explains, “It’s futile if you’re trying to become a world class ballet dancer with an inadequate body.”

Jarvis, a principal dancer with the company in the 1950s, insists she never had the right body for ballet.

“I had difficulty through my whole ballet experience,” she says. “It was a big frustration.

“Back then, there was no school and Celia Franca (NB company founder) went to corner ballet studios to find somebody she could work with. That’s how I came to be in the company. If I tried to get into the company now, I would never get in with the body I had then.”

Nevertheless, Jarvis returned to dance the lead in Romeo and Juliet when she was 45 years old, at the National Ballet’s 25th anniversary, even though she hadn’t been on pointe for 13 years.

And she was only able to do that, she says, because of the physical work she’d been doing. “Working on the floor for two or three hours, laid back focussed work,” is how she describes it. “I had this incredible drive to somehow make my body work in the way it was supposed to work.”

When Jarvis left her dance career, she didn’t leave it behind her. She moved beyond it.

She developed an approach to body awareness and movement that’s based on mindfully and intimately experiencing every muscle and physical action. She calls it Biosomatics — “life in the body.”

It began with her attraction to modern dance. “What I saw bodies doing was so expressive, so full of movement,” she explains. “It was totally different from ballet, which is about placing your body in the right positions, a very external way of working.”

Along with teaching Biosmatics for more than 30 years, Jarvis has been working on videos and training manuals so others can learn about and teach Biosomatics.

She says it’s something like Pilates or Yoga but also unique in approach and practice.

“There are aspects of both in my technique,” she explains, “but it’s not just a series of isolated exercises. It has a lot to do with understanding what you’re working for, with bringing the body alive.”

Jarvis says ballet has changed somewhat since her day. “Now a lot of dancers do go to Pilates and do these other kinds of exercises and they’re more athletic and physically expressive. Also, they have bodies they can work with.

“It’s still difficult for dancers to do these technical evenings of dance. Actual ballet technique itself hasn’t changed.”

Jarvis says she doesn’t get to National Ballet performances as often as she’d like.

But if she’s at the Four Seasons this season, when the company performs Romeo and Juliet, a ballet she knows with her body and soul, she will be, she says, “glued to the bodies.”