On the day we spoke Evelyn Hart, the legendary Canadian prima ballerina, was investigating the costumes in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s spacious ‘closet’.
She’s working on a project for her students and she wanted some ideas.
“I had to pick out colours. (Costumes) are my favourite thing. My motto is you can never have too much sparkle — inside or out.”
Her career is certainly a sparkling one. And it carries on in the RWB’s production of Vespers where Hart, for the first time in her career, gets to dance with a horse.
Vespers is a creation by her good friend, James Kudelka. The two have worked together many times. This one, though, is pretty unique. It debuted in Winnipeg last season and is coming to the National Arts Centre this week.
In Vespers, we are treated to the world before and after the fall of Adam and Eve and the end of the Garden of Eden.
Act I is before the fall, Hart said, and Act II is after.
In Act I all God’s creatures are on the same wavelength, happily living together, she said.
In Act II the animals and humans are separated. That’s when Hart steps on stage in Act II where she plays an every woman.
“I am a woman who senses this other spiritual element as represented by the animals.
Kudelka is dealing with big themes, she said.
“It’s not a story per se, but there is a narrative in it. I don’t think it is necessary to know the narrative. This is what is so brilliant about the piece.”
Kudelka’s piece is based on music written by Claudio Monteverdi in the early 17th century. In addition to the dancers and the NAC Orchestra, there is a live choir and soloists on stage.
“I don’t know how he hears a piece of music and then uses the dancers, but he is now at a stage in his life where he is interested in movement and texture and being authentic. Vespers is not so much a ballet; it’s more about movement and creating visual music.”
It is certainly breaking down conventions, she said.
“It’s always a mystery to watch him work. What he hears and how he structures things is phenomenal.
“For me, he is respectful of the fact that I am of a certain age and what I get to do (in the performance). I feel very expressive. I have two men who lift me and take care of me through the whole thing and I love that that I get to feel like a dancer because I am being lifted and carried.
“It’s a journey for me from the beginning of the second act to the end.”
It’s not that the piece isn’t demanding. It certainly is, she said.
“Every time I do this piece I feel emotionally spent. It isn’t so much what I am doing physically, but that I am responding to what I hear.
“You have to be completely aware the entire time and engaged in this whole situation. Part of it is this women is in a very confused state so it’s no wonder I am a bit exhausted by the end. But it is such a glorious feeling.”
Vespers is the latest in a string of projects with Kudelka.
“It began with a piece called The Winter Woman in the Four Seasons. Then he invited me to do Love, Sex and Brahms, which we did in Ottawa three or four years ago and now Vespers. Next he’s going to do a new little piece called Four Old Legs that was supposed to be for him and me, but he has chickened out.”
Hart is not chickening out though.
“I am so grateful and overwhelmed by the opportunity to do this. I have to put out of my mind the fact that I am old (in ballet years). I want these kinds of opportunities but I didn’t expect them at all. James has been generous and magnificent in that he has offered these to me. It is really a gift to be on stage and expressing myself.
“It is where I feel the most useful. That is my purpose. I am in my element and I am so happy to be doing this.
“I have to just go out and feel and enjoy and live the experience and be grateful. I never know what tomorrow is going to bring and for a control freak that’s an issue.”
At 62, she’s not dancing in pointe shoes any more.
“I have ankles that are worn out and aches and pains that happen. The hardest thing is that it takes much longer to warm up. It used to take 20 minutes, now it takes 90 minutes.
“There is a certain amount of anxiety about that. You go back and remember what it feels like to move in a very smooth manner, that I find difficult.
She still, she says, warms up at a ballet bar every day and she does a lot of jogging and a lot of squats.
After all she has to jump on and off a massive table that is the stage in Act II of Vespers.
“I am warmed up, but I worry that I may not be warm enough.” Still after two runs of Vespers, she is finding the physical demands easier.
These days, her principal job in Toronto where she lives is as a teacher of dedicated young and aspiring ballerinas.
Teaching has been another gift for Hart who loves having the opportunity to share what she knows about her art.
“The more you teach, the more you learn, the more you know, the more you can give back.”
She has spent her life in the studio.
“That is too much work to just lose. The difficulty with the arts today is time is money. There is so much there isn’t enough time for. Dancers are being asked to do such a wide range of things that they never really get to go as deeply into the classical ballet art form as they used to.
“I think it is a real challenge for the dancers of this generation. Stradivarius was a master who worked on only one thing for his entire life and he created these amazing instruments. Today, dancers are asked to be good at many things” but masters of none of them.
Hart had thought at one point she might want to take a leadership role in a company that she left in 2005 but she likes being in the trenches and she has found she has an aptitude for teaching and coaching.
Being surround by all the animals in Vespers isn’t convincing her to get a pet, however.
“I’m not an animal lover, I’m a gown lover. I’d far rather create a gown than walk a dog. I have always been interested in costumes. I got into ballet because of the costumes.”
When Hart was young she went to see Faye Dunaway perform as Elizabeth I at the Stratford Festival.
“I wanted to be an actress then. I still remember the gown Faye Dunaway wore in 1966 I saw it, and that was it. I didn’t care how, I just wanted to be in that dress.
“That is still on my bucket list. I just need to try it on or maybe be an extra in a Merchant-Ivory movie.”
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Choreography by James Kudelka, featuring Evelyn Hart
NAC Orchestra conducted by Andrew McAnerney
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov 1-3 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and more information: nac-cna.ca