Katie Bonnell typically starts each of her days with a one-hour-and-15-minute ballet dance class at 9:30 a.m., followed by another three-hour rehearsal at 11 a.m. After a late lunch, she then goes into another three-hour rehearsal at 3 p.m. and ends the day at 6 p.m. In the weeks leading up to a production, the long days — seven or more hours of practice — can be exhausting, but Bonnell says that, for her, this is “absolutely a dream come true.”
The Oakville, Ont. native is an apprentice at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company, the longest-running dance company of its kind in North America. After three years of training in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s professional division, she completed a two-year aspirant program and was then formally invited to join the company, an honour that brought her to tears.
“It sounds so corny, but it’s so true,” she says. “What’s amazing for me is being able to dance with the people that I grew up in the school watching. All of a sudden I’ve gone from an admirer to a colleague and that still blows my mind a bit.”
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet was founded as the Winnipeg Ballet Club in 1939 by dancers Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally. Today, it operates in the downtown of Manitoba’s capital and consists of the school’s recreational and professional divisions, which together total more than 1,500 students, and the company of 27 dancers (and one guest artist), which puts on productions. The cast is divided into groups of principals, soloists, second soloists, corps de ballet (group dancers) and apprentices, like Bonnell.
Since its beginnings, it has transitioned from performing only short-length, classical pieces to including full-length, contemporary works. André Lewis, the company’s artistic director, introduced many of these changes after assuming his current position in 1996 after joining the company as a dancer in 1979.
Lewis, who, too, says he is “living the dream,” introduced popular, full-evening, contemporary productions such as Dracula, Moulin Rouge and one of which he is particularly proud called Going Home Star, the season’s opener that Lewis commissioned for the aboriginal people of Winnipeg. It is a ballet about a First Nations woman living in an urban city, a story by Métis novelist Joseph Boyden that features performances by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The production has received the approval from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and rave reviews from the press, some calling the ballet “the most important dance” in the company’s history.
“We’ve been certainly open to taking risks and taking on difficult topics,” he says. “[Going Home Star] is a statement about Winnipeg, about Manitoba, about Canada.”
This summer, the company continues its 75th-anniversary season, a milestone for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which has received overwhelming support from the community.
Earlier this year, the company started a fundraiser to replace 28 worn-out tutus for its Swan Lake production, which has since 1987 been a regular production in its repertoire. A single, hand-sewn tutu costs about $2,000, takes up to 60 hours to create and is built to last up to 25 years. The fundraiser brought in more than the intended goal of $60,000, a success that, according to Bonnell, says more about the fans than the ballet itself.
“It’s so reassuring to know that ballet is still something that people want to go see and want to support,” she says. “I’ve been afraid that ballet has become a dying art form. It’s certainly not as popular as it used to be several decades ago, but seeing support from our community like that. … It makes the dancers feel so good to know that we have that kind of support.”