When Catherine Taylor was five years old, her parents took her to see Léo Delibes’ ballet, Coppélia, in Toronto. Whether it was the music, the costumes, or simply the magic of the theatre, she decided then and there that she wanted to become a dancer.
Her once-a-week ballet classes were the first steps along a path that led to the prestigious National Ballet School of Canada, followed by a move to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, where she joined the company’s corps de ballet and danced her way around the world. Catherine’s story is the dream of many young people, a journey sparked with that first ballet production. “That’s how it begins,” she says.
It’s the season for The Nutcracker, and sitting in the audience, eyes wide, mouths agape, young children will be immersed in the beloved ballet; some may dream of one day being onstage, possibly dancing in The Nutcracker as the Prince or the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In Belleville those dreams begin for many at the Quinte Ballet School of Canada (QBSC).
Catherine Taylor moved from the stage to become Artistic Director of the QBSC and is now entering her 11th year at the helm. She believes that live performance is the best way to open the eyes of a young audience member to the wonders of the stage. The Nutcracker in particular is often a child’s first exposure to ballet and classical music, especially in Belleville, where access to live dance performances is limited. It’s also a fundamental part of a dancer’s education.
And from her students’ standpoint, “Performance is really important as part of their training. They need to know how to work on a piece and continuously improve it – where they take a series of steps that seem almost impossible at first and then bring it successfully to the stage.”
Since it first premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in December 1892, The Nutcracker has been a holiday classic for ballet companies all over the world. The QBSC features its own December tradition: the Holiday Dance performance with highlights from The Nutcracker. Each year Taylor and her artistic staff “renovate” the choreography to fit the number and proficiency of the school’s students; this year’s production features students from both the professional and recreational programs dancing to Tchaikovsky’s magical score.
The Holiday Dance production is the grand finale of the QBSC’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Since the school’s founding in 1972, dancers from around the world have come to study in QBSC’s professional dance training program. And since its early days, some have simply had to ask the question: what’s such a prestigious dance school doing in Belleville?
THE EARLY YEARS
In February 1951, ballerina Celia Franca was brought from the UK to Canada by three ballet enthusiasts who envisioned a national ballet company. Just 10 months later, the first performance hit the stage of Toronto’s Eaton Auditorium and the National Ballet Guild became a reality.
The three balletomanes formed a formal “Women’s Committee” with the mandate to encourage interest in the ballet through fundraising and other types of support, eventually forming a dozen active branches (or “Guilds”) in Ontario and Quebec, including Belleville.
It was the Belleville branch of the Guild that was instrumental in bringing Brian Scott to Canada in 1970, first to teach and eventually to become founding Artistic Director of the Quinte Dance Centre (QDC) above the Eaton’s Catalogue shop on Front Street. Scott had studied at the International Ballet School in London and danced with Ballets Russes, the Opera Ballet at Covent Garden, the English National Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, before a knee injury changed his career from dancing to teaching.
According to T. Lynn Miller’s book, Quinte Ballet School: 25 Years of Dance, in less than 10 years, the Quinte Dance Centre established itself as one of the best professional ballet schools in Canada.
Both teaching staff and students at the school contributed to its prestige and quality, with enrolment swelling and students routinely accepted to attend Canada’s National Ballet School.
In 1980, the school moved to new facilities at the Queen Mary Community Centre on Isabel Street. By 1982, the Quinte Dance Centre had graduated several professional dancers who were employed in various ballet companies around the world.
In 1990, Gail Lord, Cultural Master Plan chief consultant, released a report on the local arts community, noting that the QDC was a “major cultural attraction that has an impact on the city’s economy.” As the century drew to a close, the Quinte Dance Centre became the Quinte Ballet School and continued to thrive artistically, but its future was in doubt. Despite being noted as a “cultural jewel,” and despite the growing international reputation of its teaching staff and alumni, the school was plagued by financial stress due to ballooning costs and cuts in provincial funding. By the mid-90s, there were even rumours that the QBS might leave Belleville.
But the school didn’t leave Belleville; instead, in 2002 the new purpose-built 23,000 sq. ft. Leona Riggs Centre for the Arts opened on Palmer Road, offering six climate-controlled studios with sprung floors, change rooms, student and teacher lounges, a wardrobe department and a visual arts/propbuilding room.
That same year the school was renamed the Quinte Ballet School of Canada to better reflect its contribution to the arts on a national level. Catherine Taylor became the school’s fifth artistic director in 2012 and played a major role in re-establishing the school’s financial stability while maintaining its artistic excellence.
“It’s a unique situation to be taught by a former dancer. They understand your need to dance. They speak to your spirit.” ALLENA GODFREY, FORMER STUDENT
AND WHY NOT BELLEVILLE?
Today the school boasts 18 artistic staff and 100 students, including 13 in the Professional Program (this is less than half the usual number due to the pandemic). Since 1983 the school has had an academic training partnership with the Hastings County Board of Education, where students attend Centennial Secondary School, next door to the QBSC. While some professional schools house students from “away” in residences, QBSC billets dancers with local families.
Building on Catherine Taylor’s belief that performance is the best introduction to the stage for young dancers, the school plans two major productions every year, where students get a chance to wait nervously in the wings, tread the boards of the stage and have the unforgettable experience of dancing in front of an audience.
Besides the Holiday Dance in December, there’s also the Dance of Spring production in early June, where students showcase the many genres that they’ve studied over the past year, including ballet, pointe, jazz, modern, hip-hop, and even flamenco.
Alumni perform in major dance companies across Canada and around the globe, and a growing number of QBSC kids continue on to postgraduate study at prestigious schools such as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Victoria Academy of Ballet, and the National Ballet School.
The community is also invited to put on their dancing shoes: there’s a popular adult dance program, and the Dancing with Parkinson’s program, where dancers have gathered every Thursday since September 2017 for a free one-hour creative movement and dance class with live music.
So perhaps the question isn’t “Why Belleville?” but “Why not Belleville?”
“I remember as a young dancer that the location was of less importance because the training was exceptional,” says Allena Godfrey, who attended a summer dance program at age 16 with Brian Scott. “When you have teachers who have danced on the stage, had illustrious careers, know what it’s like to be on the road, living out of a suitcase on tour, that is something you can share with students,” Godfrey continues. “It’s a unique situation to be taught by a former dancer. They bring something different. They understand your need to dance. They speak to your spirit.”
It’s possible some might question the value of a dance education at all in today’s fast-paced and tech-obsessed world. But for Catherine Taylor, having progressed from a wide-eyed child in the audience to an educator of young dancers, studying dance offers much more than tights and tutus.
“I look at dancing as a life skill because it teaches you a mind-body connection like no other… It fosters using creativity as a source of problem-solving and resourcefulness,” she says. “I feel that I’m not just educating them about dance, but how to be strong human beings; how to be resilient; how to have courage; how to continue.”
In the early days, founder Brian Scott said, “The school’s uniqueness comes from the breadth and depth of its dedication to seek excellence, rather than size, which is achieved by hard work and self-discipline under dedicated teachers.” This dedication has been unwavering for the past 50 years and shows no signs of stopping under the direction of Catherine Taylor and her staff. And just as QBSC grads contribute to the cultural life of Canada and beyond, the Quinte Ballet School of Canada is stitched into the cultural fabric of Belleville.
Whether it is the comical dolls of Coppélia, the rhythm of a hot Latin jazz number, or the sugarplum sweetness of The Nutcracker, the world of dance will continue to inspire dreams for those lucky enough to visit it. Future stars today in the audience at the QBSC will one day be in the wings, awaiting their chance to dance under the lights with costumes flying and glorious music swirling beneath their feet.