You may not immediately think of strength, endurance and muscled male torsos when you think of ballet, but all of that will change if Northern Lights School of Dance (NLSD) gets its way.
“It’s a recreational activity that’s as physical and as… inspiring as playing football or any other sport,” says Deborah Lemaire, who recently retired after 14 years as NLSD’s artistic director, but continues as a consultant to the school.
“We want everybody to feel that they’re comfortable, whether they’re male or female. We want them to come because they love dancing, and they love music.”
Jake Ruddy resembles a cross between a pliable rag doll and a soccer player in the first few steps of a sinewy rush into a windmill kick.
His 17-year-old, muscled frame holds precise form, but when the music stops his laboured breathing becomes apparent. It’s obviously not as easy as it looks.
“Boom, boom, boom, boom,” calls out Julio Hong, mimicking the staccato rhythm he’s still waiting to see Ruddy and his dance partner, Odessa Beatty, commit into movement.
When the music begins again, Nick Jeffrey hoists fellow dancer Grayson Vanderbyl onto his shoulders and winces through pain. It’s been a long rehearsal and the signs of strain are showing.
“Give me some power!” Hong bellows to the dancers over the music.
After an unsuccessful attempt at a particularly challenging movement, the music ends and Hong sends his dancers for a water break. When they come back the pep talk begins.
“Remember… you’re always preparing for the magic to happen,” Hong says to Jeffrey and Ruddy.
Hong’s enthusiasm pours into them and they seem re-energized through the next run through of the pas de deux from the Tchaikovsky classic, The Nutcracker. [Pas de deux, put simply, is the ballet term for a duet.]
The Nutcracker is NLSD’s traditional Christmas offering. This year’s performances will take place December 9 and 10 at the Yukon Arts Centre.
For the past few years, it has also been something of a tradition for Hong to assist with the show.
The Cuban-born dancer and choreographer – whose full name is Julio Cesar Ortiz Hong – studied at the National School of Ballet before going on to complete a Masters degree in drama and theatrical art at the École Nationale des Arts.
He first came to the Yukon in 2001 with Marie Chouinard’s Montreal-based dance company, and later forged a relationship with Lemaire and NLSD when he came up to perform in The Nutcracker.
Hong has since worked with several of the NLSD students to help prepare them for the annual performance. It’s clearly a partnership that both the school and Hong value.
“Every time I come to Whitehorse I feel that the dancers are hungry for information and for inspiration,” Hong says with excitement.
“I feel that they empty me. I empty information that I have in my body – I give and give and give – but I see the results. I see the digestion of the information into their bodies and that’s the best gift for me.”
And the results are something that Lemaire has seen as well.
NLSD has had difficulty finding permanent male dance instructors in the territory and Lemaire hopes Hong will continue to work with students here to continue to strengthen the quality of male dancers coming out of NLSD’s programs.
“They get a tremendous amount out of having Julio up here,” she says of her male dancers, particularly Ruddy and Jeffrey.
“Not only are they learning what’s required to be a male dancer but they’re learning performance skills, and it’s important that they have that male role model to do that,” Lemaire explains.
“They love having him here. He pushes them.”
She pauses pensively for a moment, then continues. “When he’s been here they’re more confident, they’ve improved their skills, they’re stronger.”
Lemaire hopes this feeling of accomplishment and confidence is something she can bring to more male students in the territory.
NLSD is currently offering a 50 percent discount for first-time male students. It’s part of a larger campaign to combat the stigma that exists for male dancers outside of the dance community.
“Dance for men has been a taboo in society for many years,” Hong acknowledges.
Despite the enthusiastic response worldwide to ballet superstars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov – and the wild popularity of the film and stage musical, Billy Elliot – certain stereotypes of male ballet dancers persist.
But it’s not something Lemaire is comfortable with.
“[Dance] is just as manly as playing football,” she says – and you can hear the frustration and hope at odds in her voice.
She would like NLSD to be a place of sanctuary and artistic growth for all students. Bringing Hong in to work with her students is one of the commitments that she’s made to provide this environment.
“Kids come in with all their issues that they have… and the studio is a place for them to focus on themselves and not to worry about anything else like homework or family or problems at school,” says Lemaire.
“They can come and focus on their dance and the physicality and the creative process.”
Her love of dance is obvious and it’s clear that the challenge of encouraging male dancers is one she has worked hard on.
“There’s always potential for being teased [for being a dancer] but we don’t see it that way and we want to get that across,” says Lemaire.
“And we’re getting there…”