Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, has emerged as a dance education pioneer who is committed to students’ well-being and teachers’ continuing education. DT goes behind the scenes to find out what makes her tick—and what keeps NBS’ curriculum and training programs on the cutting edge.
When Mavis Staines was called to the office of the National Ballet School’s founding artistic director, Betty Oliphant, she thought she was out of a job. After a year of teacher training at the Toronto school, Staines had been filling in for a teacher on leave. She was expecting the director to tell her that the teacher was returning and that, consequently, she was no longer needed. But Oliphant had something much more dramatic in store for her. “She asked me if I would like to train to take her place [as artistic director],” Staines recalls. “I trusted my intuition and said yes on the spot. It touched something in my heart and soul, and I knew it was the right direction for me.”
In the years since, Staines has become a visionary and inspirational leader in dance education. Her compassionate approach to educating students, her focus on health and the innovative new ventures she has introduced have led NBS to the forefront of dance training. Despite her accomplishments, she remains characteristically modest. “It is such a privilege,” says Staines of her leadership role at NBS. “[As artistic director] I have the chance to draw gifted people into my ideas, then I sit in awe. They take it further than I thought possible.”
Staines herself is a testament to the excellence of the student and teacher training programs of the school she has adored since childhood. After receiving her training at NBS, Staines studied in London and Paris for six months before launching a professional career, first with National Ballet of Canada and then with Dutch National Ballet. A leg injury brought her back to Canada, and a wrist injury was the catalyst for her entry into NBS’ teacher training program.
After six years as associate artistic director, Staines became artistic director upon Oliphant’s retirement in 1989. Her clarity of purpose, contagious enthusiasm and leadership skills guided her through the transition. “At first she was directing people who had taught her, and Betty was a hard act to follow,” says Laurel Toto, NBS teacher and manager of the school’s Junior Associates division. “But in the 20 years I’ve known her, she has never disappointed me. She is a great director to work under, and I regard her as a colleague and a friend.”
Staines acknowledges that her leadership qualities were in evidence even when she was a child. “When I was playing with friends, I’d always have ideas I thought were exciting and found I could draw my friends into them. We would play imagination games that took us to other realities,” she recalls. That same imagination has been taking NBS to new heights in recent years.
Nurturing Body, Mind and Spirit
Staines has implemented changes in the school’s curriculum and its programs to help develop healthy and well-balanced dancers. She is perhaps best known for her insistence that students should not be undernourished and for protecting them from becoming overly lean. But her focus on “advancing health and excellence in tandem” goes beyond weight. “It is about individuals fully exploring [their] talent and developing self-awareness and community consciousness,” says Staines.
NBS students are required to take body-conditioning classes, and the staff includes a cadre of physiotherapists and counselors who teach classes and are available for individual consultation. Although the conditioning and physiotherapy programs were in place before Staines became artistic director, she has been active in their evolution. To help educate the NBS staff about dance students’ specific physical needs, she enlisted Irene Dowd, a neuromuscular facilitator who works with Juilliard students and maintains a private practice in New York City. Dowd visits NBS three times a year, working directly with students as well as instructing teachers.
Fostering students’ spiritual health is also central to Staines’ educational philosophy, and she looks for ways to help developing artists toward self-expression and understanding. “It’s key to keep recognizing that the body is the vessel of expression, of the spirit,” she says. “When you are educating young people, it is important to teach them to trust their instincts and sense of self-awareness. They can do this without arrogance; they can be inspired to have a sense of themselves in their community; and they can learn self-respect and thoughtful respect of others.”
Toward this end, Staines invited former Royal Danish Ballet principal Sorella Englund to join the NBS faculty in 1999. Englund had suffered from anorexia as a dancer and nearly died as a result. Her recovery included developing a new belief system that emphasized self-expression. She now works with young dancers on issues of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. In addition to serving as an open and honest role model for students, Englund teaches classes in drama and expression. “It’s a rare teacher who can get teens to dig into their souls,” says Staines. “She creates an environment where teenagers feel safe to express what they are really feeling.”
Staines is aware that by encouraging self-exploration and expression in her students, she is creating dancers who may question choreographers and artistic directors. “Mavis doesn’t want dancers to be little boys and girls who keep their mouths closed and just follow directions,” says Toto. “Artistic directors want artists, people who will collaborate with the choreographer and director, and that’s what’s happening here.” As part of National Ballet of Canada’s 50th anniversary celebration last year, the company hosted a summit of artistic directors called “Past, Present and Future.” Staines derived great pleasure from watching NBS students interact with artistic directors from leading ballet companies in a public discussion and an evening dance presentation. “They directly yet respectfully asked questions. They are bright young people, and their questioning will enhance rather than undermine the quality of our art,” she says.
Developing The Curriculum
One of Staines’ first projects as artistic director was a revision of the NBS syllabus. She used the Cecchetti and Vaganova techniques as a springboard because of their familiarity. From those, she and her staff developed what she calls “an amalgam of our beliefs about which principles and what order of presentation are most effective for dancers.” Throughout the curriculum development and other initiatives, Staines has been a strong leader who remains open to the ideas of others. She is as interested in the individual voices and opinions of the teachers on the NBS faculty as she is of students and encourages individuality within a framework of common goals and ideals. “Mavis wants us to have strong opinions, then come to some consensus,” says Toto. “No matter how much you don’t agree on something, she’ll look for a solution and try to make it work. Sometimes you want her to tell you what to do, but she insists on getting us to work through our problems, and you never feel that she’ll hold your opinion against you.” In a continuing effort to bring in new ideas
as well as nurture an international dance community, she established annual student and staff exchanges, which now involve 12 professional schools around the world.
The faculty continues to examine the syllabus and make changes, according to its growing understanding of students’ needs and the changing demands on professional dancers. “I can’t stand to do something just because it’s tradition if it’s not the most effective way,” Staines says.
Her commitment to the mental and emotional development of her dancers also influences the school’s training methods. “It’s time to remember that the entire ballet vocabulary is meant to convey something emotional and spiritual,” she says. “Athletic feats have to be driven by an interior message. All drills and technical repetition should be connected with the artistic and musical experience of ballet. The physical aspect is much better and more beautiful when the artistic [aspect] motivates your approach to technique.”
Empathy And Understanding
Because NBS is a preprofessional school preparing dancers for a highly competitive field, students are evaluated each year before readmission. Students whose bodies are not developing the flexibility and strength necessary in the top ranks of professional companies, or who do not exhibit the drive and career focus that they need to reach these ranks, may not be readmitted, despite considerable talent and skill. Staines tries to explain these factors to departing students and their parents, who may be heartbroken and confused. “I’ve sat in on a lot of parent interviews, and I can’t believe the courage Mavis has,” says Toto. Staines tries to show students and parents that there are plenty of alternatives to NBS and that not being readmitted shouldn’t be seen as a blanket judgment on their talent. Often she offers to help them get into other schools. “She tries to help parents celebrate their children’s achievement," says Toto. "Mavis is compassionate, and that's the policy we work under."
IT is possible that dealing with her own disappointments has helped Staines to be able to guide students past inevitable setbacks. When she was tapped by Oliphant in the early '80s, Staines was at a physical and emotional low. Not only had her dance career been cut short by injury, she had also lost both her parents in one year. "I thought [offering me the position] was a particularly courageous choice on Betty's part. I was depressed and withdrawn, lacking in confidence and uncertain about my place in the world," she says. "She told me that, knowing the way I loved the school and the ideas I had about educations, she knew I would do well."
Oliphant's instincts about Staines were right on target. She has been able to turn even her most difficult experiences to the advantage of the students and colleagues with whom she works. "I believe that you have to celebrate the high points in life and not count on the world always being way we want it to be," she says. "None of us achieve every dream the exact way we want to. the important thing is to express ourselves in a thoughtful way." DT
Teacher Training at the National Ballet School
Full-time programs devoted to dance teacher training are few and far between in North America, although they are more common in other parts of the world. The National Ballet School program offers a number of options for training, depending on an instructor’s previous training, teaching and performing experience and professional goals.
Graduates of the three-year program receive certification from either the Cecchetti Society or the Royal Academy of Dance, in addition to their diploma. Dancers with extensive performing experience may qualify for a two-year or one-year condensed program, also resulting in a diploma and certification. All full-time students take classes in art history, psychology, pedagogy, anatomy and music, as well as ballet, modern and character dance.
NBS offers joint five-year programs with York University in Toronto and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, through which students may earn a bachelor’s degree as well as their NBS diploma and certification. Teacher training program manager Anuschka Roes hopes to develop similar arrangements with U.S. and other Canadian universities. Because the coursework is roughly equivalent to two years of a BFA curriculum, students can transfer credits to other colleges or universities, but NBS’ formal arrangements make it easier, says Roes.
Roes works closely with artistic director Mavis Staines to ensure that the program reflects the overall philosophy of the school. Ongoing research into developmental stages and learning styles informs Roes’ management of the program, and teachers in training are offered a wealth of opportunities to learn how to encourage “health and excellence in tandem” in their future students.
“Our goal is to produce teachers who are better than ourselves,” says Roes. “Our students get resources they aren’t even aware of from their experience here, particularly the ability to problem-solve. Teaching is so much more than knowing what a plié is; mechanics are only about 10 percent of the process. Teachers who keep training are the movers and shakers of the future.”
Teachers who want to continue their professional development without enrolling in the teacher training program can also benefit from the vibrant learning environment at NBS. Five-day intensive teacher seminars are offered each summer, and include technique classes, observation of NBS children's classes, lectures, workshops and discussions. Staff for teacher seminars includes neuromuscular facilitator Irene Dowd, NBS teachers and guest teachers.
National Ballet School L'Ecole Nationale de Ballet
105 Maitland Street
Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1E4, Canada
Major source of funding: Government of Canada
Curriculum: NBS’ ballet syllabus is in continual development, incorporating elements of major traditions and the demands of ballet as it evolves. Students also take classes in body conditioning and modern and character dance. NBS’ academic curriculum results in the Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
Campus and facilities: Two downtown Toronto blocks in the North Jarvis neighborhood, including studios, residences, classrooms and administrative offices, plus the 297-seat Betty Oliphant Theatre, an indoor pool and physiotherapy department and The Shoe Room, a retail store that offers expert pointe shoe fitting. “Project Grand Jeté,” a CN $88 million capital campaign, is in the works to renovate and upgrade the school’s facilities.
Staff: includes about 20 full-time and part-time dance teachers and numerous guest teachers, 20 academic teachers, 15 pianists, six body-conditioning instructors, three physiotherapists, 10 consulting psychotherapists and six consulting doctors
Professional program: Grades 6 to 12, full-time dance and academic curriculum, approximately 150 resident and day students, 75 percent of whom are Canadian and 15 percent American. Fees range from approximately CN $4,500 to $13,000, depending on Canadian citizenship and residential versus day-student status. Each year 1,000 students audition for about 50 places.
Junior Associates program: 250 day students, ages 6 to 12, take one to three classes per week with the same NBS faculty who teach in the professional program and with a syllabus that reflects the same principles.
Teacher Training program: 20 to 30 students, mostly Canadian; tuition ranges from approximately CN $3,000 for Canadians to $11,000 for noncitizens. Housing arranged by individual students.
Intensive Dance program: Approximately 20 dancers per year, including NBS graduates and dancers from other international academies, take this post-secondary year of intensive professional training.
Summer programs: In addition to a July session required of most students in the professional program, the school offers intensive 5-day summer seminars for teachers.
Jennifer Brewer, MSEd, is a freelance writer and dance and academic teacher based in Saco, Maine.
Photography by Eduardo Patino