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The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's First Steps

For the week of Monday June 9, 2014

On June 11, 1940, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet staged its first full-scale show at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. The performance was such a success that one critic predicted the company would “become a pinnacle of artistic achievement.” This statement proved prophetic, as the ballet troupe now celebrates its 75th anniversary.

Arnold Spohr and Lillian Lewis performing in the ballet company’s formative years, 1940s.
© Courtesy of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, originally the Winnipeg Ballet Club, was founded by Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally in 1939 after they immigrated to Canada from England. The ambitious dance teachers expanded the program by offering free classes and hosting demonstrations to attract public interest. The group’s performance in a pageant honouring King George VI revealed the dancers’ potential. It also introduced a model for their repertoire, with productions featuring ballets in a variety of styles to appeal to the broadest possible audience.

In the late 1940s, the Winnipeg Ballet began touring extensively to establish its reputation and, in 1949, was incorporated as a non-profit organization with a board of directors and salaried performers. It was the first professional ballet company in Canada and the first Canadian ballet company to tour America and the Soviet Union. Today it is the second-oldest company in North America; only the San Francisco Ballet is older.

Evelyn Hart in Swan Lake. Known for her expressive dance style, she starred in other RWB productions, Giselle and Romeo and Juliet.
© David Cooper

The Ballet was granted the title Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) in 1953, but in the following year its buildings burned down and the RWB suffered financial difficulties. After years of upheaval, former principal dancer and choreographer Arnold Spohr became artistic director in 1958. Over the next three decades he solidified the RWB’s international reputation as a company with a distinct Canadian identity and a unique dance style that New York Times critic Clive Barnes called “prairie freshness.”

The company established an integrated dance school in 1970, producing performers for both the RWB and many international companies. One of the school’s most distinguished graduates is the famous ballerina Evelyn Hart. The RWB continues to tour nationally and internationally, showcasing traditional and contemporary works that excite audiences as much as they did in 1940.

The Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the RWB held its first performance, is a national historic site.

To learn about this grand theatre, please see Opulence Takes the Stage and Something for Everyone. To discover another Canadian ballet company, read Tutus at Eaton Auditorium.

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