NAC to open doors wide to the public to mark 50 years

Some of the crowd on hand to explore the brand new NAC, May 31, 1969. Courtesy National Arts Centre.

On May 31, 1969, some 40,000 people walked through the then brand new National Arts Centre in an open house that preceded the official opening night on June 2. Those people wanted to see inside Fred Lebensold‘s brutalist palace of the performing arts.

The National Ballet of Canada gave that very first performance. The dance was called Kraanerg. It was choreographed by Roland Petit, with music by Iannis Xenakis, and it featured dancers such as Veronica Tennant and Mary Jago and guest soloists Georges Piletta and Lynn Seymour.

Veronica Tennant was the star of the very first performance at the NAC on June 2, 1969. She starred in a performance of Kraanerg by the National Ballet of Canada. Photo courtesy Veronica Tennant.

In those early years, the NAC had, among many other things, a 45 member orchestra, resident acting companies, summer programming and an opera festival. Today there is a 61-member orchestra and new departments including the rapidly growing concert series called NAC Presents and the world’s first Indigenous Theatre that will start presenting shows in the fall.

Over five decades, Ottawa’s — and the country’s — performing arts centre has hosted some of the greatest artists of the 20th and early 21st century from Luciano Pavarotti to Bob Dylan, Margot Fontaine and Christopher Plummer. Dozens and dozens of their signed pictures line the hallways that connect the dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces.

The centre’s archives contain some 20,000 programs which detail the extent of the dance, music and theatre programming that has taken place inside the centre, said the NAC’s Robert Vanderberg, who is the archivist and the curator of the centre’s visual arts collection and was part of a media tour of the backstage on Tuesday.

From the left: Fred Lebensold, James Langford and the NAC’s first director Hamilton Southam look at the architect’s model of the NAC in 1964. Courtesy NAC.

On Sunday, 50 years to the day, the NAC, newly refurbished with a glittering glass addition and updated performance spaces, will open itself up to whomever wants to wander through its backstage rooms and corridors.

It’s a rare opportunity to see behind the curtain. Most patrons only see the performing spaces — Southam Hall, the Azrieli Studio and the Babs Asper Theatre, along with the lobby and the new public spaces that open onto Elgin Street. But the NAC has about a million square feet of building space and less than half is public.

The last time the NAC opened so much of its backstage to the public was 25 years ago. But the day will also include music, theatre and dance workshops; pop-up performances by Canadian artists and activities for the family. The open house is in partnership with Doors Open Ottawa.

The actor Marlene Dietrich, the American band leader Mitch Miller and the legendary singer Rosemary Clooney are seen in this signed photograph. Courtesy NAC.

The tour will begin at 10 a.m and run until 4 p.m. It starts on the stage of Southam Hall, still one of the largest such stages in North America. It will take visitors to the scenic shop, the Asper Theatre and backstage dressing rooms. It is first come first served but capacity is limited. Last entry is at 3:30 p.m. 

At the same time there will be choir, dance and theatre workshops led by professionals: 

• Bollywood Contemporary Fusion Workshop
Babs Asper Theatre
10:30 to 11:45 a.m.
Montreal choreographer Roger Sinha blends contemporary dance with the energy and magic of Bollywood – perfect for anyone who’s ever wanted to be part of an epic dance number.

• From the Turtle’s Back: First Nation Storytelling. Brittany Johnson and Emily Séguin
Azrieli Studio, in English
11:00  – 11:40 a.m.; 12:20 – 1 p.m. 

How to Become an Actor in 30 Minutes with Marie-Ève Fontaine
Azrieli Studio, in French
11:40 a.m.- 12:20 p.m.; 2:20 – 3 p.m. 

Classic Canadian Songs Workshop
Babs Asper Theatre
12:30 – 2 p.m.

Lee Hayes, leader of Ottawa’s 613 Casual Choir, teaches Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night and Robert Charlebois’ J’t’aime comme un fou. No musical training necessary. Lyric sheets will be handed out, and the songs will be taught by ear.
1 – 1:40 p.m. 

The National Arts Centre building today.

Fall Down & Get Back Up (and Other Mysteries of Acting) with Kristina Watt
Azrieli Studio, in English
1:40 – 2:20 p.m.; 2:30- 3:45 p.m. 

Pow Wow Step Groove Workshop
Babs Asper Theatre
Josée Bourgeois, an Algonquin dancer from Pikwakanagan, leads a high-energy workshop that combines traditional Indigenous dance movements with hip hop and contemporary dance moves.

There will be several free performances in the Canal Lobby Stage:
• Maude Parent and Timothé Vincent from Les 7 doigts, 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
• Damien Robitaille, 12:30 p.m.
• ILAM, 1:30 p.m.
• Kelley McKinlay and Mariko Kondo from Alberta Ballet, 3:30 p.m.

And don’t be surprised if you see some pop-up performances by Silla and Rise, the Bank Street Bon Bons, dancers Josée Bourgeois, Geoffrey Michaël Dollar and Nikita Kamblé-Bagal, musicians from the NAC Orchestra and more, the NAC said in a media release.

Then prime minister Pierre Trudeau is backstage with actor Jan Rubes following the first production in the Studio in 1969. Courtesy NAC.

There will also be:

• An exhibition of costumes from NAC productions. You can even try some on;
• Make something inspired by traditional Indigenous birch bark baskets;
• Read through scripts from the centre’s Script Library
• Look at 
photos and memorabilia from the NAC archives.

Finally the evening will feature a concert by the NAC Orchestra along with performances by pianist Alain Lefèvre, violinist Blake Pouliot, Kelley McKinlay and Mariko Kondo from the Alberta Ballet, singer-sognwriters Leela Gilday and Sylvia Cloutier and soprano Measha Bruggergosman. The concert is sold out.

Parking at the NAC is free on Sunday. Free parking is also available at Ottawa City Hall and the World Exchange Plaza.

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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.