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Ballet veteran Mavis Staines wins Governor General's Performing Arts Award

TORONTO — When a loose door handle sent then-ballet performer Mavis Staines toppling down a flight of stairs in an accident that would cut short her rising career, she thought her time in the spotlight was over.

Little did she know, that dream-crushing fall would launch her on a path towards becoming one of the country’s pre-eminent dance figures as the artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School for the past three decades.

In a strange twist of fortune, Staines believes that ill-fated turn of the handle is at least in part to thank as she receives a $25,000 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award recognizing a lifetime of artistic achievement.

“Sometimes, what seems like the worst catastrophe in your life opens doors that wouldn’t open otherwise,” Staines said in an interview before Thursday’s awards reveal.

“Had it not been for the accident, I would not be sitting where I am today after 30 years of realizing dreams that really matter to me.”

Staines may not be as big a name as some of her fellow 2019 laureates, such as political satirist Rick Mercer or actress Sandra Oh. But in cultural circles, her behind-the-scenes efforts to democratize dance for Canadians have elevated her to sage status at home and on the international stage.

Hailing from Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Staines graduated from Canada’s National Ballet School in 1972, where she danced as a first soloist before joining the Dutch National Ballet.

After her accident, Staines said she intended to attend university, but between her shattered wrist and the back-to-back deaths of her parents, she felt unmoored. Ballet had always provided a sense of stability, so she decided to return to her alma mater to enroll in the teacher training program.

Staines had found her calling: Even now, the 64-year-old still teaches dance two hours per day.

“It is the time in the studio with the students that I think is probably the most consistent and important daily lesson in my life,” said Staines. “I attribute so much of what I learn and have been able to put into place to how the students inspire me.”

In her tenure as artistic director at Canada’s National Ballet School, Staines has implemented these lessons to empower professional and amateur dancers alike.

Ballet has long been rooted in hierarchical pedagogy that Staines said can serve to “infantilize” dancers by treating them as vessels for instructed movement rather than artists with their own ideas to express.

Staines shifted the school towards “student-centred” education, which aims to nurture not just dancers’ bodies, but their minds and wellness.

“I think when people are united through an impassioned sense of purpose, as people find their voice and work to build a community, it actually does bring out the best in each individual,” she said.

A list of her former students suggests there may wisdom to this approach.

They include leaders in the dance community such as Karen Kain, the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada; Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar; David Nixon, the artistic director of the Northern Ballet in Leeds, U.K. and Harvard University dance director Jill Johnson.

Others have gone onto to thriving careers on the stage, including National Ballet of Canada dancers Jillian Vanstone, Guillaume Cote, Elena Lobsanova and Siphesihle November.

While she was training soon-to-be ballet stars, Staines was simultaneously working to open up what had long been perceived as a stuffy art form to all Canadians with community programs and classes to help them find their dancing feet.

In receiving a lifetime artistic achievement award, Staines feels that all those who have shared in her devotion to dance over the years are also being celebrated, as well as the country as a whole.

“This honour has reinforced my pride in being Canadian,” she said. “I feel like I’ve won the nationality lottery.”

Also among the 2019 laureates are Montreal-born concert pianist Louise Bessette; Colm Feore, a veteran actor of Canadian screen and stage productions; Lorraine Pintal, artistic director and general manager of Montreal’s Theatre du Nouveau Monde and former “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” comedian Mercer.

“Killing Eve” star Oh is receiving the National Arts Centre Award for extraordinary work by an artist in the past performance year.

Montreal arts patron E. Noel Spinelli is also being recognized with the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts.

Two Indigenous filmmakers, Alanis Obomsawin of Abenaki Nation and Mi’kmaq Gop Bartibogue of eastern New Brunswick, have also been inducted into a mentorship program aimed at fostering mid-career artists.

This year’s honourees will be feted at two events in Ottawa, culminating in a gala at the National Arts Centre on April 27.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press