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A ballerina's swan song?

The Globe And Mail
Shannon Rupp

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s current tour of Giselle, which opens in Vancouver tonight, looks suspiciously like Evelyn Hart’s unofficial farewell tour. But it’s best not to mention the “R” word to her -- that’s retirement. Although she will be 46 in April, Hart says that the idea of beginning any performance knowing that it will be “The Last One,” is more stress than she can bear.

 “With all the pressure I put on myself, it would be too difficult to cope, knowing that this is my last chance to make an impression,” Hart says, with a shudder that can be felt down the phone line from Toronto, where she was dancing at a fundraising gala “My idea is to just do my last performance, call my family and say, `Come for a party!’”

 It’s not she thinks she can dance indefinitely, but Hart doesn’t want to be one of those dancers who quits before she’s ready, and then comes out of retirement whenever a nice role comes along.

 “I know this might be my last Giselle. But there also might be an opportunity to dance it again with another company, maybe as a guest. You just don’t know... So I don’t want to say anything definitive.”

 This tour, which includes Vancouver Island and Ottawa, marks the 20th anniversary of her debut in the ballet that has become her signature piece. Ludmilla Bogomolova, the Russian teacher who taught Hart the major pas de deux when she was barely out of school, famously remarked that “That girl doesn’t dance Giselle, she is Giselle.”

The Romantic-style ballet, which premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1841, tells the story of a peasant girl who falls in love with a nobleman-in-disguise. When she learns he is engaged to another aristocrat, Giselle goes mad and either commits suicide or dies of a broken heart (depending on the director’s interpretation). Her spirit becomes a “wili,” a class of female ghosts who have been jilted by their lovers and murder any hapless man who happens upon their haunted forest.

 Hart recalls Bogomolova’s comment as the first indication that Giselle was a role that might suit her. Certainly Hart looks the part: her slender frame has an ethereal quality, even in street clothes. And there is something haunting in her long, pale face framed by dark hair. At least when she’s on stage. In person, Hart quickly dispels any idea that she might be a 19th century drama queen with a ready supply of quips that suggest her next career should be in stand-up comedy. But she admits that she also sees the similarity between herself and Giselle.

 “She has a sense of mischief, like mine. And there’s her naiveté -- she is very trusting,” says Hart, noting that her own willingness to be too trusting puts her at a disadvantage when it comes to office politics. “And, of course, Giselle puts everything of herself into one thing...like me.”

Not that the quick-witted Hart is fixated on some unworthy man; she is alluding to her own single-minded passion for dance. Although she began serious training relatively late, at 14, Hart has never made a secret that ballet is the great love of her life. In Max Wyman’s 1991 biography Evelyn Hart: An Intimate Portrait, he notes that while other teens at her local ballet school in London, Ontario were scrawling the initials of their latest crush inside hearts, Hart was writing “EH loves BP” -- her shorthand for Ballet Practice.

 But she says that while she loves dancing as much as ever, she finds being a mature dancer in an art form that worships youth isn’t easy. “You have to fight to stay on stage,” she says, explaining that while younger dancer are given repertoire to develop their talents, older dancers are ignored.

 “The idea that you will have to leave soon is always a shadow there in the background,” Hart explains, joking about the horrified looks she gets from some people when they hear her age. “So as a dancer you start to mistrust yourself. You need people you can trust to be your eyes, and tell you if you shouldn’t be dancing a role anymore.”

Which is why she has been grateful that Peter Wright came to coach the company in the Giselle he first set for them in 1982. She trusts that he will tell her the truth, regardless of her age.“He does what I believe in -- movement to create an atmosphere or express the way I feel -- he gives us permission to focus on the artistic. I’m not interested in higher kicks or faster turns. Technique is important, but it’s not the whole reason you are there.”

 That said, Hart also worries about maintaining her technique.

“If I’m going to dance a role, I don’t want to dance it because of my reputation, I want to dance it because I deserve to dance it,” she says. “I respect audiences enough, and ballet enough, that I don’t want to go out there and dance something that’s not of value.”

 Not that there is any danger of audiences feeling short-changed by anything other than Hart’s limited number of performances. Last week, a Vancouver newspaper reported that a local balletomane, Willie Easton, took her disappointment to reporters when she found Hart would not be dancing the Friday February 22 show (which feature’s up-and-coming soloist Vanessa Lawson in the lead). “I just feel that somebody has the responsibility to say there are Hart-free performances,” said Easton.

Part of Hart’s longevity can be chalked up to good luck, or perhaps, good genes: she has never been plagued by the hip, back, and knee injuries that force many dancers into retirement --- something she attributes to her relatively late start in dance. “I’ve only had soft tissue injuries. I have some pain in one ankle because of serious injury I didn’t take care of -- but I haven’t been grinding away at my joints, since I was 7, like most dancers.”

But the real key to Hart’s enduring brilliance is that she is an artist, not an athlete. Her talents are the ones that develop with experience: her musicality is unmatched, as are her dramatic abilities. She makes much of her own technical inadequacies, mentioning that her jumps aren’t high enough and her feet could be prettier. But that is never what audiences notice. She is one of those rare dancers who dazzles both jaded reviewers and novice dance-goers.

In December, caustic British critic Clement Crisp, 70, was quoted in ballet.magazine dismissing most of the 20th century’s famous dancers as little more than soloist-rank performers were who promoted above their talents. The technical genius Sylvie Guillem is condemned for being “closed minded, artistically.” Gelsey Kirkland? A “neurotic” who should have stayed with George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. Even the legendary Suzanne Farrell is considered little more than “interesting” by the tart-tongued critic.

But when he recalls Hart, it is with awe.

“One of the most transcendent moments of my entire career was seeing [Evelyn Hart] dance ‘Giselle’ in Vancouver,” Crisp told the British e-zine. “If I talk about great Giselles, I say, there were three or four. Like [Russian-trained English dancer, Alicia] Markova, [Kirov Ballet star, Natalia] Makarova and Evelyn Hart too.”

 It is that elusive “transcendent moment” that Hart believes is the purpose of dance, and she will stay on the stage as long as she can achieve that.

“But I won’t continue if I can’t dance on my own terms,” she says. “I can’t go out there if it isn’t worthy of the art form.”

 

25 Feb 2002