Governor General’s laureate Mavis Staines proves those who teach also can do

Mavis Staines hard at work with a male student at the National Ballet School.

Mavis Staines was consumed by ballet as a child.

“My very first lesson was in Ottawa in a community centre. The shoes I was wearing had been purchased on food stamps. I was transfixed.

“I came home after my second class and said to my mother ‘I’m going to be a professional ballet dancer’ and she said, ‘You don’t even know what that is’. But Staines did know and she told her mom “‘Yes I do and I’m going to be one’.”

Ballet “felt like my language right from the start,” she reflected in an interview with ARTSFILE. This week the current artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School is being formally recognized this week for her work as a passionate dancer and teacher with a lifetime achievement award in the performing arts from the Governor General. She will be fêted in a series of events culminating in the annual Gala on April 27 in the National Arts Centre.

Mavis Staines. Photo: Johan Persson

In those early days, Staines lived in Manor Park. When she was eight, her family moved to Vancouver.

“My mother was a British war bride. My parents met during the Second World War. My father was a gunner placed on the rooftop of the home where my mother and grandparents lived.

“When my mother came to Canada in 1947 to marry my father, he was living in a tiny farming community in the Eastern Townships where I was born.”

The family lived on the side of a mountain. Her father’s family were farmers and maple syrup makers. There was no electricity, no running water, the nearest library was in Montreal and there was wood stove.

It was, she said, one heck of a transition for a young woman who had grown up in London.

Her mother suffered in the cold and eventually her father got a job in Vancouver which was a much warmer option.

On the journey, young Mavis heard tell of Canada’s National Ballet School. And she piped up and said ‘I’m going to the National Ballet School.”

Her parents said “‘Over our dead body. No daughter of ours will be a ballet dancer. No daughter of ours is going to a boarding school’.

It took her until she was 13 to convince her parents and “I had to threaten a hunger strike. But I prevailed.”

It is an intimidating thought to have a young person leave home to study in a city far away, but Staines believes that in some cases it is appropriate.

“I think we make a mistake by assuming that you have to be a certain age to have a sense of a calling. In the world that I live in it is clear that such a calling is not age specific.

“It was much tougher on my parents than me.”

When Staines was at the school, she went home to Vancouver four times a year.  Today with social media and opportunities for FaceTime contact it is easier.

The school has a structure that is similar to European schools. Every six or seven weeks, she said, there is a one or two week holiday.

This means the students get home more often. The students come from across Canada and from all around world. The majority are Canadian.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Staines was on a career path to be a ballet dancer.

After graduation from the school, she would become a first soloist with National Ballet of Canada. When Celia Franca retired, the new artistic director told Staines flat out he was not a fan.

“I was fortunate he was forthright about it. He said ‘Not my cup of tea’.”

Staines had an option fortunately.

“I had loved working with the director of the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam and his two choreographers. I had always wanted to live in Europe, so I went there.”

Staines was with the National Ballet for six years and with the Dutch National Ballet for nine more years.

Then she had The Accident.

Staines was looking after a friend’s apartment and dog. One humid day, she was pulling hard to close a swollen door when the knob came free. She lost her balance and fell backwards down some stairs.

“I didn’t want to hurt my legs so I threw out arm to catch my fall and badly shattered the bones in my wrist.”

She had surgery and pins were implanted. It took a year to get movement back in wrist and longer to get full movement. It was career-ending.

“People say you don’t dance on your wrist, but you need full dexterity for partnering work and just for the aesthetics of the upper body.

She thought she could come back at first, but “I was in complete denial.” When she saw the shape the arm was in after surgery she knew “this was probably the end.”

She did work hard to regain movement in the wrist. her ballet training helped.

“I was prepared to work through discomfort. As a dancer you don’t think of that as punishing.

But, “I was 30. It took about 3 1/2 years to get mobility back and I knew by the time I had it back that making my way back into the classical ballet world was unlikely.”

It was make a career change or not.

“Part of why I recognized I had to make that decision then was that my accident happened just after both parents had passed away of cancer in a close period of time.

“I was pretty depleted emotionally. I just needed to be back in Canada, close to home base. And I thought I had to be practical about what was realistic.”

So she started teaching.

“I went in teaching because the National Ballet School had a fabulous teacher training program. I thought it had been a long time since I had been in school and I loved school.”

So she asked the legendary Betty Oliphant if she could audit part of the teacher’s course.

Staines said she found the course fascinating but she was still missing performing. She was on the verge of leaving the school when a teacher went on maternity leave and Oliphant asked her to step in.

Staines was nervous but Oliphant said, ‘We’ll help you.'”

So she stepped in and fell in love with working with kids.

Some months later, Oliphant said “‘I think you have a gift for this. Do you want to keep going?'” She did keep going. Another year later, “Betty called me to her office saying she had just come from a board meeting. She said, ‘the board and I have been discussing that I need to identify a successor because I plan to retire in the next four or five years. Would you like to apprentice with me to become the next director?'”

Staines said yes immediately. “I knew I had to give it a try.”

Four years later, in 1989, she assumed the role she holds today. In many ways she is continuing the tradition started by Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant, two other Governor General’s Performing Arts Award laureates.

“I was lucky to know Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant really well. They were both brilliant and my goodness, they had to be tough to pioneer things. That was a time when everyone in authority was formidable. It didn’t matter what profession.

“Both women were wonderful people. It’s perhaps more interesting to talk about their formidable sides and how scary they were and they could be scary. But they were nice too.

“What Betty recognized in me was that I loved the art form passionately and I also loved the school. I was a person who cherished tradition: I cherished the master’s fire but I do not guard the ashes.”

Today Staines works in an institution where the skills that develop when one studies with discipline and rigour are high level and easily transferable to other professions.

“Our graduates do well when they move to other areas of work. We are still the only ballet school in North America with its own on-site residence and on-site ministry of education inspected academic program.”

The National Ballet School follows the Toronto District School Board’s curriculum. Nearly all grads go on to university after their dance careers end, Staines said.

Staines has worked with many of the current stars of the National Ballet of Canada including Guillaume Cote, Elena Lobsanova and Jillian Vanstone, along with other dancers who have gone onto careers with other organizations such as Emily Molnar, the artistic director of Ballet BC.

Staines still goes into the classroom two hours of every day.

“That is where I recharge my soul and stay close with students and staff. Generally I find the age I am particularly fascinated by is between 13 and 16. I help them give themselves the permission to become young adults and use their voices responsibly. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

The GG award is also providing a wonderful feeling.

“It is a beautiful acknowledgement of the importance of the role of education and teachers.”

Staines recalls a moment in time involving Betty Oliphant.

“Betty was one of my teachers when I was 15, 16 I remember one day watching her come into the studio and saw that she was arriving just as class about to start. That’s not what any teacher wants to do.

“She looked exhausted. I thought I would never ever want her job, but thank god she’s doing it because she’s doing it so well.”

Now she wonders what her students think when she comes into work. Who knows one of them might be in her chair one day.

The 2019 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Gala is April 27 in Southam Hall. The event is sold out.

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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.