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Postcard #39, From Canmore: Life is not Ballet


I’m in the second last row of the theatre at artsPlace in Canmore. It used to be the public library, and before that a grocery store. But I’m watching the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet mash their toe shoes, hands on hips, and toss a comment over their shoulders. I’m so close I can see the stitching on the tutus, and then I’m so far I can see the whole, barrel-shaped theatre with its gold tassels and red velvet curtains.

The overture to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite begins. The partygoers parade onstage. And I am astonished.

When I grew up, a dedicated ballet student, we knew that our city of Edmonton was the farthest north of any on the globe, other than Moscow. Moscow might as well have been the moon —except for ballet.  Galina Ulanova came to dance at the Jubilee Auditorium when I was nine. I saw her toe shoes, the ones she’d worn out dancing her Dying Swan across the country.

Along with ballet, the Russians had Sputnik. Dad and my sisters and I watched its stately untwinkling light move among the stars, from the sun porch. Put these marvels together and today the beloved Russian-born snow-bound Christmas ballet is beamed live, from Moscow into our bleacher-seats here at the edge of the Rocky Mountains.

How do they do that?

The huge deep stage is crowned with a giant Christmas tree. The dancers’ technique is perfect; the corps is in faultless unison, the pas de deux partners breathe as one.  The nutcracker in his red tights is a hinged puppet, and then seductively alive and male. The women have perfect feet, boneless arms, and after their grand jetés, land like snowflakes.

At intermission, girls and boys in their sparkly sneakers and tiaras are twirling on their toes. This seems to be universal. Also the popcorn and the wine, but maybe not the chat about the local elk herd.

Back in the theatre, the flowers are waltzing. The choreography is of the ‘twice to the left, turn around, twice to the right, turn back’ variety. It’s classic– from 1966 and even then based on Petipa’s version of the 1890’s. We sink into the music, the masked faces on beautiful bodies. We zoom to the magician’s hands, watch the defeated Mouse King disappear into a hole in the stage. There are little pauses in the transmission, minuscule crackles and frozen frames where the feed is lost. We gasp. It comes back. Even this tentativeness is perfect.

I got to Moscow once, and took a seat in that legendary theatre. The tickets were cheap, in our currency. But the average Russians had no chance of getting them.  Today as I hear the audience at the Bolshoi clap and thunder and demand the soloists reappear, I wonder– who are those others, clapping in real time across the world? The oligarchs? Or the ordinary? The artists of the ballet reappear, and toss arms full of stage snow in each other’s faces.

Whoever they are, Canmorites clap along with them, for a long time, then gather up their puffy coats.

It’s over. I am still standing.

Life is not ballet. We aren’t weightless and princes are not noble and little girls grow up.  We are far from this dream of toy armies jousting bloodlessly and the costumes of real life are a serious let-down.  That’s why, as the theatre empties both in Moscow and Canmore, I am still applauding, in real time.

Merry Christmas, happy snow times, best to all, Katherine


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