Kent Suss (far right) with RWB Aspirants on the Connections Tour (Phase I)
Photo: Bruce Monk
It is the final day of Phase II of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Connections Tour project, and the students are in a state of focused concentration as they meticulously apply their zombie makeup. They are about to perform a program of dance, theatre, and their own original music for an invited audience of family, artists, and well-wishers. Not one of them will admit to being nervous.
The thirteen students from Northern Manitoba are an adventurous bunch. They have acted on our invitation to spend three days living in the RWB dorms and participating in workshops from morning until night in a variety of arts disciplines. In the evenings they have visited Manitoba Theatre for Young People at The Forks and The Graffiti Gallery in Point Douglas. They have seen two very different faces of Winnipeg; the industrial concrete and grinding traffic of Point Douglas stands in sharp contrast to the prevalence of greenery and cobblestone at The Forks. The RWB’s downtown location strikes yet another urban mood – it is late June and throngs of sun-seeking office workers and shoppers fill the surrounding plazas and coffee shops.
These artists-in-training from the north see the surrounding urban landscape only in glimpses, however. They are too busy to do much sightseeing – they spend an hour per day in each of the modes of performance (music, theatre, dance), plus an hour of visual art, an additional hour in the discipline of their choice, and the evening field trips have included workshops in drawing, stage makeup, and theatrical lighting. The RWB Aspirants are keeping pace, joining workshops in every discipline, but it is a packed schedule, and everyone is tired in that exhilarated way you can be after three days of hard work when you’re about to step into the spotlight.
It is the end of a long road. Over a year in the planning, Northern Connections Phase I brought a busload of artists zig-zagging through Northern Manitoba (Norway House, Waterhen, Mosikahiken, Waboden) in just thirteen days this April. Ten dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Aspirant Program, their Director, Stephane Leonard, an RWB production team, and a crew of local artists added up to twenty of us travelling together. I was along to teach drama, and to incorporate students at our host schools into a short play I had written over the winter with the RWB Aspirants. Students made discoveries in their art form of choice, and displayed or performed their work. The visiting artists pointed out the most enthusiastic and productive students at each school, and those elite students were invited to Winnipeg for Phase II. In Phase II every student would work in all the disciplines, dancing, composing electronic music, playing in a band made up of hand-crafted and found instruments, and rehearsing the zombie play.
By the time Phase II came to a close today, I realized that the Aspirants were the true stars of the artistic team, and probably had been all along! Sure, I was indispensable as the writer/director of the play being performed, but the Aspirants rose to the challenge of befriending the young participants, coaching the actors, and delivering top notch character portrayals onstage when called upon. The Aspirants also played in the student band and danced along with the students, exemplifying professionalism, enthusiasm, and excellence every minute of the project. They were the ones who stretched artistically and embraced new art forms, and it was between the Aspirants and the northern students that the most personal connections were made.
The performance goes very well! The offbeat, cheeky play about zombies gets laughs (always a gratifying experience for a playwright). Every word is heard, every line delivered with commitment. Each zombie stays in character, even through the scene transitions and exits. Gabriella Rehak’s modern dance piece achieves a sublime beauty, made eerie by her use of neutral masks, enhanced by Mark Cameron’s haunting score. The student dancers are focused and energetic. Mark’s band of musicians are tighter than they’ve ever been.
Their smiles are wide as they bow again and again, and their heads are high as they exit the stage. After the performance they meet us in the lobby to have juice and cookies and admire the murals they have made with visual artist Nereo Eugenio. The students politely accept a few congratulations, then gather together around a giant TV screen to watch Bruce Monk’s video montage of our April Phase I visit to their schools, laughing and pointing out their friends, already reminiscing. Some have promised to come back, to move here, and to take more courses in the arts.
I’ve heard it said that the Universe does not waste energy; energy is conserved. Likewise, the work put into Northern Connections is over, but not done. This work persists as potential energy, and will come back in synergistic forms and works of art imagined but not yet seen. Who knows what possibilities have blossomed in the minds of these young people, what life-changing decisions are already being considered by these artists of the north?
Kent Suss delivered the drama component of Northern Connections, Phase I and Phase II. He directs the theatre school at Manitoba Theatre for Young People.