Lady of the dance

One tends to be slightly intimidated when venturing on an interview with an icon – especially one sometimes portrayed as uncompromising, feisty and opinionated. My apprehensions were immediately dispelled by the warm welcome I received from this gracious lady, and, over coffee and cookies, I began my conversation with Betty Oliphant, the grande dame of Canadian ballet.

Oliphant’s achievements in the ballet world are awesome – Associate Artistic Director and Ballet Mistress at the National Ballet of Canada; founder of the National Ballet School; lecturer, examiner and auditioner at many venues across Canada and abroad; member of the jury at Ballet competitions in Russia and Switzerland; Order of Napoleon by the Maison Courvoisier, France (she was one of the first female recipients). Her many awards include Officer of the Order of Canada, The Molson Prize, Companion of the Order of Canada, Toronto Arts Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and, in November 1997, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

Born in England, Oliphant extensively trained in ballet from the age of six. Dancing was her life, but her indomitable spirit and entrepreneurial side surfaced whent 17 she started her own dancing school. Married to a Canadian solder, Oliphant moved to Canada after the war. Economic necessity and her creative urges led her to find work in Toronto’s artistic community and she began to teach everything from ballet to tap to ballroom dancing… at 50 cents a lesson.

During this period, Oliphant’s eldest daughter, Carol, who had contracted tuberculosis of the spine and had been bed ridden, was given a spinal fusion. She was then in a body cast for many years with various complications. Despite anxiety for Carol and her own health problems, Oliphant continued to take on projects – her artistic soul could not be stilled. But fate had something else in mind.

It all began when a famous English ballerina, Celia Franca, was invited to Canada to help form a National ballet company.

A meeting in Oliphant’s home with members of the Canadian Dance Teachers Association started the ball rolling, and she was appointed Ballet Mistress at the new National Ballet of Canada. In 1959, another dream became reality when she founded the National Ballet School.

Her achievements are all the more incredible considering that 40 years ago it wasn’t as easy as it is today for women to successfully develop such ambitious projects. Oliphant envisioned a school combining professional ballet training with an education of the highest quality to ensure students would be equipped to handle a second career if a career in ballet did not pan out. The school’s curriculum would also stress the related arts – music, art, drama and visual art. For 30 years, the National Ballet School, under Oliphant’s tutelage, and the dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, gained international renown.

Among the early graduates who went on to enormous success on the world stages were Karen Kain, Ann Ditchburn, Martine Van Hamel, Vanessa Harwood, Frank Augustyn and Veronica Tennant.

Vanessa Harwood was the very first student to enrol in the National Ballet School, and to her, Oliphant was a teacher, a mentor and a life long friend. And, as Harwwod says, “Her enthusiasm inspired and spurred us on to do our very best… to excel. She was like a mother to us.”

Frank Augustyn, one of Canada’s foremost male dancers, began his studies with Betty at the School when he was just 12 years old and entered the National Ballet Corp at 17. “She was a pioneer,” he says. “There were schools, but there was not an institution set up for high calibre dancers as was the National Ballet School. When dancers from the National Ballet went on to other companies around the world, we carried the mantel of the National Ballet school, and would not have been accepted unless we were good – Betty was obviously doing something right.”

Augustyn also teaches now, and has recently co-produced and hosted a series about ballet on BRAVO TV.

Oliphant was invited to visit Russia in 1965 and was asked back in 1969 to be a jury member of the International Ballet Competition. In 1981 she returned not only as a jury member but with six competitors from the National Ballet who brought great honour to Canada by winning silver medals.

A theatre where students could actually perform and develop stage presence and confidence during their training years was another of Oliphant’s dreams. In October, 1988, that dream too was realized when she stood on the stage of the Betty Oliphant Theatre to accept the accolades of former students, associates and an enthusiastic audience. She later wrote: “There are rare moments in one’s life when one is filled with a deep sense of joy… with nothing to mar one’s happiness.”

William Littler, music critic for the Toronto Star, said of that memorable evening: “Every last one of those choreographers and dancers was a past or present student of the National School and over the course of a single evening, they presented just about the most eloquent demonstration imaginable of the School’s impact on dance in this country.”

In her recent book, Miss O: My Life in Dance, Oliphant chronicles the triumphs and tragedies of her remarkable life. She also gives a candid look backstage, with fascinating anecdotes about working with Rudolph Nureyev, Michail Baryshnikov (who wrote the foreword), and many other luminaries of the dance world, as well as the many people who helped her along the way.

In talking with former students, associates and friends, the one characteristic they all mention is Oliphant’s total honesty.

A forthright and uncompromising nature does not always make life easy, but sticking to her ideals and principals has sustained her through the highs and lows of a long and illustrious career.

Although now retired, Oliphant “keeps her hand in” by showcasing some of the former stars of the National Ballet in short dance programs presented at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. Not lavish presentations but, as one would expect, they are done with the usual elegance and style of “Miss O.”