Ballet, eh?

Royal Winnipeg Ballet flees the frozen prairie with 'Sleeping Beauty.'

Early one recent morning, the temperature in Winnipeg was 20 degrees below zero.

"That's just the official temperature," reported André Lewis, the Quebec-born artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, via telephone just before a 9 a.m. rehearsal. "With the wind chill, it's negative 40 degrees."

If these temperatures raise the question of how ballerinas can even hope to warm up for their workout, they also suggest another: How did a world-class ballet company develop in the wind-swept prairie of central Canada?

"In 1939, two ladies from England ... fell in love with the city, started a school and turned it into a company," said Lewis of the Winnipeg Ballet, which lands in sun-kissed Tucson this weekend for two performances of the sumptuous fairy-tale ballet The Sleeping Beauty. "They didn't think it would become an international ballet company. It slowly grew into this organization."

The young Princess Elizabeth saw the troupe dance shortly before she acceded to the throne in 1953. She was so enthusiastic that one of her first acts after becoming queen was to bestow a "royal charter" on the company.

The dance world is no less a fan than the queen. The Royal Winnipeg routinely dances around the globe, including in such far-flung locations as the Middle East, Asia and South America. After Castro's revolution in Cuba, they were the first Western troop to brave its Communist environs, and in 1968 won the distinction of being the first Canadian troop to dance in the Soviet Union.

Nowadays, Lewis declared, it's "one of the leading companies in Canada," along with the Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and the National Ballet of Canada. And at age 63, it's indisputably the oldest. Best known for its romantic ballets, the company dances The Sleeping Beauty in classic Russian style to the music of Tchaikovsky played live.

"We just did 13 sold-out performances in Atlantic Canada (the maritime provinces) and we had 13 standing ovations," he said in French-accented English. "The production is very much back to the traditional version of Petipa. Our sets and costumes are quite stunning. The combination of the music, dance and costumes comes together as a whole."

Arranging for live music is "not an easy task," he said, but "if we can have live music, we prefer it."

The 1890 ballet tells the familiar tale of Princess Aurora, who pricks her finger on a spindle and awakens after a 100-year slumber to the kiss of Prince Désiré. Full of dancing fairies and royals flitting about a castle that evokes ancien régime France, The Sleeping Beauty is one of a trio of fairy tale ballets that choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Tchaikovsky teamed up on in the 1890s. (The other two are The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.) The choreography, re-staged for the Winnipeg by the Russian-trained Galina Yordanova, incorporates French court dances of the 17th and 18th centuries, a fitting adaptation in a work based on a French fairy tale.

"It's danced on pointe," Lewis said. "It's the epitome of classical dance in its present form." A Vancouver critic noted that in this concert "the company has never looked more resplendent, more assured, more ravishing."

Lewis, 47, moved from his native Quebec to Winnipeg years ago to train and then dance with the company; he became its artistic director in 1996. "The majority of our works are classical dance," he said, "but we do very contemporary work as well." For instance, right now in its repertoire the company has Balanchine's Serenade, a brand-new Anna Karenina and Requiem 9/11, a piece in honor of those killed in the attacks. A Canadian Nutcracker incorporates hockey players, Canadian Mounties and landmarks from the Ottawa skyline. "People love it," Lewis said.

As a soloist with the company, the artistic director said he danced "many different roles in a wonderful career" and has no regrets. And he finds plenty to like in the frozen prairies.

"There are lot of French in Winnipeg," he said, "and a lively French quarter called St. Boniface."

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