En Pointe 06 - May 9

May 09 2020 | Posted in Blog, En Pointe

80 Years – Seventh Symphony

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 80th anniversary season was originally planned to conclude with a one-of-a-kind performance featuring three monumental ballets celebrating the artistic directors who brought them to our stage. Unfortunately, owing to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures inherent to stopping the spread of the virus, the performance called 80 Years – A Retrospective was cancelled. The RWB cherishes our history and although we can’t perform these pieces, we still want to share pieces of these memories with you. This week, En Pointe has prepared a special retrospective on the creation of Toer van Schayk’s Seventh Symphony, one of the beloved performances planned for 80 Years – A Retrospective.

Dance is powerful. It strengthens the immune system and can altogether avoid tension, fatigue and the debilitating effects of stress. Through movement, the language of the body, dance stimulates the mind and connects people across cultural boundaries without even a word. Dance can also help us heal from and process loss, and for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s original cast of Seventh Symphony in 1989, healing was just what they needed.

Earlier in 1989, when the RWB Company was on tour in Banff, RWB Artistic Director Henny Jurriëns travelled back to Winnipeg to pick up his wife before heading to the United States. Along the drive, Henny’s vehicle was involved in a crash near Letellier, Manitoba, and both he and his wife, Judy, a former soloist with the Dutch National Ballet, were killed.

Henny was born in the Netherlands and began his training in ballet at age 8. After studying, dancing, and teaching at the Academy of Dance in Arnheim, he joined the Norwegian Opera Ballet in 1966, before joining the Dutch National Ballet in 1970 where he performed the duties of company school coordinator and assistant ballet master before eventually taking on the role officially.

In 1982, Henny began dancing with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet as a guest artist. Beloved by fans and other dancers alike, he soon joined the company as a principal dancer in 1986. Henny was very popular at the RWB, and in June 1988, he retired from the stage after a unanimous vote by the RWB Board of Directors selected him to succeed Dr. Arnold Spohr as the RWB artistic director.

Henny’s death in April 1989 was one of the darkest days in the RWB history, and for the dancers in the company it was heartbreaking.

“Henny was everything I dreamed an artistic director could be,” recalled Laura Graham, former principal dancer at the RWB, who knew Henny as a dancer, director and friend. “He laughed a lot. Henny would give these wonderful big hugs and always made you feel included. He treated everyone like a peer.”

Before his death, Henny had done significant work to arrange the RWB’s 50th anniversary season. He arranged five new ballets to premiere at the RWB over the 1989-1990 season and chief among them was Toer van Schayk’s newest ballet, Seventh Symphony.

At the time, van Schayk had become a prolific choreographer with the Dutch National Ballet and knew Henny from his years with the company. His latest, a ballet inspired by the Beethoven symphony of the same name, was a beautiful ballet, fueled by the music, incredible colour, and a zest for life. Henny saw it as the perfect way to kick off the RWB’s 50th season with aplomb.

“[Van Schayk] created a beautiful vocabulary of movement for Seventh Symphony,” says Graham, who featured prominently in the original cast, “It’s about art and expression. How Toer expresses the music, using dance steps in different ways, we can see the music in the body. That’s what is taking place in Seventh Symphony.”

Much like the music that inspired the ballet, Toer van Schayk’s Seventh Symphony features four distinct sections, each with their own distinct emotion and feeling. From grace to stoicism to lightheartedness and ending an explosion of energy, the choreography mirrors the music, adding nuance and understanding to Beethoven’s opus. The dancers, along with the audience, go on a journey through the music, each one contributing their own interpretation of the piece until it takes on a life all its own.

For Graham, Seventh Symphony remains a powerful ballet, one that will always remind her of Henny. She can still remember all the emotions of the opening night. “I remember crying on stage, taking it all in,” says Graham, “We loved Henny so much. Our hearts were open that night, and the incredible love for our art form is what kept us going, in spite of that loss.”

Toer van Schayk’s Seventh Symphony is a timeless work, featuring an enduring score and incredible, expressive choreography, it’s a rare ballet experience that allows us to reevaluate and reappreciate dance in its purest, most expressive form. It’s also a ballet steeped in this history of the RWB, one that reminds us that even in the most difficult and challenging times, dance has the power to transcend, to elevate us above any pain. It reminds us that in mutual appreciation and celebration of dance we are never alone.

The RWB had hoped to relive the memory and contributions of Henny Jurriëns during its performance of 80 Years – A Retrospective, which was planned to open this week. Many patrons and dancers alike were looking forward to celebrating our anniversary and seeing their favourite ballets danced on stage again. Although unable to dance for you today, when we can all come together in shared appreciation of ballet, the RWB will perform again and through which offer everyone a chance to find healing in the power of dance.

An earlier version of this story stated that the RWB Company was in Minneapolis at the time of Mr. Jurriëns death when they were in fact in Banff. This article has been updated to reflect the correct information.