Of all the performing and language arts, professional dance might be the most daunting for a casual viewer. Whereas a book can lead you by the hand into a new world, and a movie can grab you by the lapels and pull you in, dance can only indirectly guide you into its story. How you could express anything as subtle as Swan Lake with nothing but rhythmic movements and an orchestral score is almost impossible to explain. Yet Tchaikovsky’s heartfelt tale of desire and loss, the fear of being trapped in the wrong life, cut off from your true self, continues to affect modern audiences as powerfully as it did in the nineteenth century. In some ways, ballet ages better than books, music, plays or movies: its language never sounds dated.
The flip side is that, once a dance is over, it’s gone. A book sticks around, to be shared, studied, and passed along, so that we can trace the ancestry of modern and traditional stories with relative certainty. As for movies and music, especially in the age of Netflix and iTunes, we can take it for granted that there are archives of recordings at our fingertips, and that everyone can experience them exactly as we did. Even live drama is anchored in written language that makes it accessible outside the theatre. Ballets have intricate written choreography, but very few people can “read” this the same way you’d read, say, Romeo and Juliet.
Any evidence a ballet leaves behind is indirect, and usually captured only in secondary sources like paintings, writing or film. Often it isn’t saved at all. The original performance of Swan Lake contained a legendary dance solo written especially for prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, but after the production ended, this “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” was lost without a trace for nearly eighty years.
That’s why it’s so important, particularly for dance companies, to have people dedicated to capturing their history and ensuring that a rich record survives for future generations. Without the work of people like James Neufeld, the early years of the National Ballet of Canada — its makeshift beginnings on the tiny stages where it debuted — would have been lost in the shuffle. Thanks to Neufeld, as the National Ballet enters its sixth decade, we can still look back on the days when it was a young and vulnerable troupe sustained by passion alone. If you’re planning on seeing the National Ballet perform this season, you might well consider “setting the stage” by learning about the history of the company and the people whose drive and courage brought it this far. After all, only the dedication of passionate artists and observers can ensure that, even after the dancing ends, the Ballet goes on.