Former Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal dancer Tara Birtwhistle only spent two of her formative years in Red Deer, but they were years that launched her much-lauded career.
Birtwhistle, who retired this week after 20 years on the professional stage, reflected on her beginnings at the Red Deer School of Ballet in the mid-1980s.
While the Vancouver native had begun tap and jazz classes at age five after her family moved to Sherwood Park, it was only at age 12, after moving to Red Deer, that she started liking ballet.
Birtwhistle credits her former teacher, Irene Toma-Reynolds, for making it more fun by talking about the story lines behind the dances.
“The way she approached it is she made a story out of it.”
And pretending to be somebody else appealed to Birtwhistle, who enjoyed the acting part of ballet dancing almost more than the dancing itself.
She doesn’t remember much about the youthful productions she did in Red Deer, but recalled Toma-Reynolds accompanying her to her Royal Winnipeg Ballet audition in 1986.
She got into the company’s professional training division at age 14, joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet corps at age 19 in 1991, was promoted to a soloist in 1995, and became a principal dancer in 2000.
In the process, Birtwhistle racked up a pile of glowing reviews for her expressive style, which was as unique in the world of dance as her short, trademark hairstyle.
Birtwhistle maintains she never cut her hair to be a rebel, “it just worked out that way.” She wore wigs when roles called for more traditional upswept hairdos.
Reviewers routinely described Birtwhistle as “stealing the show,” and “spinning magic.” Dance International Magazine wrote in 2005: Her final embrace of a stage partner “took the choreography to an emotional place that some dancers never reach in their entire career.”
Birtwhistle particularly shone as Lucy in Mark Godden’s Dracula, Rita Joe in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, and the Cowgirl in Rodeo, Myrtha in Giselle, and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Her favourite roles were Lucy and Juliet, she said, because “that’s what I like, joining dance with emotion. . . . Having a character and acting made dancing more fun for me. That’s why I did it. It was more the acting than the actual dancing part that appealed.”
Among her many parts were the most famous in ballet — the dual roles of the white and black swans in Swan Lake.
While this feat was stretched to ridiculous proportions in the thriller Black Swan, which won Natalie Portman an Oscar, Birtwhistle said there was some truth underlying the fantasy in the film.
“In its exaggerated way, it touched on some of the things dancers have to deal with. Dance is very competitive and it takes a lot out of you,” said Birtwhistle, who recalled that dancing Swan Lake was particularly stressful.
But as with every exhausting role, Birtwhistle said, “I felt like I left part of myself on stage.” And that was one of the reasons that she decided to retire from performing at age 39.
Another is that she felt she wasn’t able to dance the way she used to.
“Dancing is like being an athlete,” she said. “You don’t see too many hockey players on the ice in their 40s. . . .”
While it hasn’t sunk in yet that “I won’t be out there anymore,” she said, “I’d rather have people asking me why I’m retiring than having them ask me when I plan to retire.”
Along with her family responsibilities — Birtwhistle is married to a fellow RWB dancer and has a two-year-old daughter — she intends to keep busy with a new career as a dancer master, or instructor, with the company.
She will often think back to last weekend, when audience members wrote touching comments in a guest book for her, and when her former Red Deer dance teacher came out from her home in Calgary to watch her final dance.