From Gatineau to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet: André Lewis’ amazing journey

André Lewis has been a part of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet for some 45 years. The RWB is celebrating its 80th season this year.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is celebrating its 80th season this year and André  Lewis has been part of the company for 45 of those 80 years.

The Gatineau native has been artistic director for 25 years and was a dancer for another decade. He has also held other posts in the company’s administration. And he started as in the RWB school. It has been an amazing run, but if it hadn’t been for his sister, Marie, it might never have happened. More about that later.

Working at the Royal Winnipeg is always exciting and always changing, Lewis told ARTSFILE in an interview.

Today the company confronts a dramatically changed environment for live performing arts.

“What confronts us today is certainly increased options in this world. There is so much available today, it makes it more difficult. You can’t simply have, as the artistic director, the broccoli approach to programming which is ‘Eat it, it’s good for you. Come and see it, it’s good for your soul.’ These are good goals, but in specific amounts.

“This is why something like Nutcracker is so important. I consider it to be a work of art of course, but, more than that, it brings new people to the art form. Thank God we do have something like Nutcracker that we can put on every year. It sustains the organization.”

Dancers of the Royal Winnipeg are seen here in a scene from Nutcracker which opens in Ottawa this week.

The RWB’s version of Nutcracker, with its polar bears, Mounties, and a pond hockey game, opens Dec. 4 at the National Arts Centre. The RWB will also bring a production of The Wizard of Oz to Ottawa in the new year and it has a similar outreach, he said.

“(Oz) is a beautiful work of art, but it tries to speak to a broad base of people, not just erudite patrons of the arts.”

In a way, productions such as these show that what might be considered an enjoyable story can be a work of high art, he believes.

“This is what we do. The Wizard of Oz is exactly that. When we did Peter Pan or Dracula, Moulin Rouge or the Handmaid’s Tale, you transform a story into something special.” That’s really nothing new. Sleeping Beauty was a popular fairy tale when it was turned into a legendary ballet.

To succeed in ballet, Lewis said, “you have to have an art form that speaks to a broad spectrum of people. Finding something that moves the art form forward without leaving a bunch of people is always the challenge.”

Does that mean compromise?

“It depends. If you believe in a certain movement that is your vocabulary, that is the way you look at dance, then you should do that. Unfortunately some people may not be able to connect with it, or find meaning in it. Ultimately what we try to do at RWB is enrich the human experience by teaching, creating and performing outstanding dance. If you don’t connect with people, then you aren’t enriching anything.”

As artistic director he brings together people who have the kind of language that is broad enough to reach as wide a group of people as possible and, who ,at the same time, are moving the art form forward.

Lewis was born in Val Tetrault, in the Hull-sector of the city of Gatineau. In those days there weren’t many houses and a lot of empty fields. He went to high school at the Polyvalent de Hull.

As a youngster, Lewis was attracted to gymnastics and sport generally. His introduction to dance happened because his sister Marie was taking classes in Ottawa at the now defunct Classical Ballet Studio. These days Marie is a psychologist. She also worked at the National Archives in Ottawa.

“They were looking for volunteers, so they asked their pupils if anybody had a sibling who could come and be part of a Nutcracker performance.

“My mother heard about that from my sister and she sent three of us to be in The Nutcracker. I was, I think, about 10 years old. And that’s how I got my first taste. I was one of the kids in the party scene.” His two brothers went onto other things. Laurent Lewis became the head of the physics department at the University of Montreal and Paul became the dean of urban studies at the same university. Another brother, David, became an astrophysicist and now teaches Japanese culture at McGill. Another brother is a physicist and the last one is an engineer. There are seven in the family.

Lewis remembers taking the No. 4 bus into Ottawa to the studio downtown. He danced for a couple of years and then he started to pursue gymnastics more heavily. But the taste for dance lingered and there came a time when he realized that he missed ballet and wanted to do it again.

“When we were in gymnastics they also gave us dance classes to make us more elegant when we performed floor exercises and I liked that.” It also reinforced his desire to dance more.

“I went back to Classical Ballet Studio, at 111 Rideau Street. I didn’t have to pay because I was on a scholarship. They were always looking for young men.” The school was run by Nesta Toumine, who was a force in local ballet until her death 1996. When he returned he was 12 years old. Most dancers start at about that age.

Eventually he wanted more.

“Four of us moved to Winnipeg to study with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. In those days its director was David Moroni, who had been a student of Nesta Toumine’s. He had opened a professional program” at the RWB. While his three friends went home, he stayed.

“My original plan was to go to Australia, stopping in Winnipeg for the summer. I just stayed.” He liked Moroni and the school was just in its infancy. These were exciting times, Lewis said.

He trained for four years in the school and then he joined the ballet company.

Midway through his career as a dancer he started helping on the administration side. He taught and he also did such things as scheduling.

“I was really good at memorizing what people had to perform. I could watch somebody and know their part.” That meant he could help the ballet master and also pass on what he had learned.

Despite this ability, Lewis never tried choreography. “It just didn’t happen. My mind also went in a different direction. Plus, I’m not convinced I could have been a good choreographer. It didn’t appeal to me. It always felt a little like jumping from the frying pan to the fire.”

But he was comfortable being a director.

“I have no regrets.” He said he does make some repairs to choreographies but he’s never done a full choreography himself.

“So much of my life is happenstance, if you look at it. If my sister hadn’t asked my mother to go to ballet, I might not have gone.

“If I didn’t like what I saw in Winnipeg, would I have stayed? If I didn’t receive the opportunities I received would I have moved on?”

At one point, Arnold Spohr, who had led the company for many years, stepped down. He was followed by a succession of three artistic directors, each of whom lasted only a short time. Lewis would be interim director in between appointments. He finally became artistic director in his own right, a quarter century ago.

And he is not thinking of stepping aside.

“I certainly want to do the job as long as I feel I can make a difference and I am fulfilled by it. I am living the dream.”

At one point, he knows, there will become a time for new leadership. In anticipation, Lewis is grooming possible successors.

“I have always tried to do the job from a basis of supporting other people to achieve their maximum and show them how I have done it.”

Lewis is not in favour of the old school discipline of the ballet.

“You don’t have to be abusive to get the best out of people. In teaching, training and coaching you just do it in a positive way. Trying to make them feel bad if they make a mistake” doesn’t work.

“I detested it when I was screamed at and I responded in the opposite of what they wanted. I would just shut down.”

Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents Nutcracker
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Dec. 4 to Dec. 8
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.