Edited by Selma Landen Odom and Mary Jane Warner
by Rosemary Jeanes Antze
My experience with Madame Toumine as artistic director began when I was invited to work with her company in children’s roles in The Nutcracker during the Christmas season of 1961, and in Maria Chapdelaine in May 1962. I had the thrill of swinging on the arm of David Moroni (later premier dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and director of the school) as one of a pack of wolves moving in to kill Jean, the romantic lead. Rehearsals took place in the spacious second floor studios on Rideau Street where her school had moved the previous year. The senior dancers became a “Concert Group” and would work on into the evenings after the daily advanced ballet class. Then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons dancers would be called at various hours for full company rehearsals.
These long rehearsal hours provided a stimulating education in dance, in part because there were opportunities to watch senior dancers, led by Joanne Ashe and David Moroni, rehearsing their roles. By the early 1960s, Toumine had trained a full generation of dancers since her first foray into teaching in 1946. The more talented dancers were committed to her dream of a professional company in Ottawa. By 1961 the Classical Ballet Concert Group of Ottawa had twenty-five members who worked at office jobs or attended university locally in order to be able to devote their evenings and weekends to dance. With the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal still in their first decade, the Ottawa dancers expected to become the next professional company, especially since, unlike the other companies, the director was a native of her city, Canada’s capital, and the talent was home grown.
Although Toumine was very much an Ottawan, the source of her vision was the Ballets Russes companies with which she had worked in Europe and New York. We danced the classics, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake Act II, Giselle and Coppélia, as she had danced them. As a teenager, I had the privilege of learning Les Sylphides, Les Elves and Prince Igor at only one step removed from their creator Michel Fokine, since Toumine had rehearsed these ballets under his direction.
This direct link with the legendary figures of the Diaghilev era was also sustained by her husband, Sviatoslav Toumine. A former dancer with Anna Pavlova and with the original Ballets Russes, he would come to the studio on weekends when he was home from his design job in New York. In his capacity as Artistic Director of the company, he sat in on rehearsals to develop his scenic and costume designs for Nesta Toumine’s choreography. He also brought a critical eye to our dancing; it was especially evocative the way he would comment on how a great ballerina of the past, perhaps Alexandra Danilova, had danced a certain role. The famous Russian dancers, many of whose autographed photographs lined the walls of the studio entrance and sitting areas, came alive for us in a gesture or story, which in turn inspired us in our own dancing. When Mr. Toumine took on character roles such as Dr. Coppelius in Coppélia, his sense of stagecraft and the dramatic animated our performances and provided continuity with the past.
An important feature of Nesta Toumine’s versatility as a director was the dual nature of her repertoire. Her company performed the classics and significant recent ballets that she remounted from memory. Yet she also produced a steady flow of new works that ranged from the dramatic Medusa to the abstract Gymnopédies, from Pas de Quatre’s characterizations of the rivalry amongst the ballerinas of the Romantic era to the technically demanding Shostakovitch Ballet Suite. These ballets were already part of her repertoire of over forty works when I joined her company in the mid-1960s. In addition, I remember the excitement of walking into the studio and being part of the choreographic process. It was impressive how well she knew the music before she began creating on her dancers, and how she drew her inspiration from a variety of sources, such as Rodin’s sculptures of the Burghers of Calais for the groupings in her Holberg Suite.
She was also a master at using her resources to best advantage and at bringing out the special talents of her dancers. In the French-Canadian story ballet Maria Chapdelaine, she created a number of dramatic roles for members of the family, in which the acting talents of mature performers who played Maria Chapdelaine’s parents contributed to the atmosphere on stage. She cast a young boy, who was an exceptional step dancer, in the role of Maria’s brother and gave him opportunities to display his virtuosity in the middle of the square dance, just as might happen in a rural Quebec dance party. She put great effort into coaching her performers to animate their characters, while she also choreographed challenging sequences for her stronger classical dancers.