Dancer tells graduating fine arts students to ‘break a leg’

Rex Harrington hobbled on crutches to the podium to accept an honorary degree yesterday and launch graduating fine arts students onto the world’s stage.

Right: Dancer Rex Harrington receives an honorary doctorate from York Monday, as announced by Chancellor Peter Cory (right) and bestowed by University Secretary & General Counsel Harriet Lewis 

Cheered every step of the way, the man widely considered Canada’s finest male ballet dancer told an adoring audience that if he hadn’t severed his Achilles tendon on the opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance in Toronto a month ago, he might have danced for them instead of giving a speech.

“I would just like to know who was the wise guy who coined the phrase ‘break a leg’,” joked Harrington, whose 21-year career as principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada was injury-free. Among performers, “break a leg” means “good luck”.

And “break a leg” was what he wished the music, theatre, dance and visual arts – and graduate – students gathered under the big white tent Monday morning for the first of 10 convocation ceremonies at York this week. Just as they cheered him, he cheered them and talked about what it means to be an artist in the world today.

Left: Fine arts graduands cheered Harrington as he hobbled on crutches to the podium

“I truly believe now that more than ever there’s a great need for artists,” said Harrington. “We’re increasingly becoming a society that is isolated by technology: the Internet, iPods, wireless networks that link people around the globe in an instant. But more and more people are talking to the machine instead of each other. The arts take a different path. They speak to the heart. They tap into our deepest and finest sentiments.

“We have always looked to the arts and artists from painters to poets, from actors to dancers to help lift our spirits and move us beyond our daily lives,” said the dancer who partnered with Canada’s prima ballerinas Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart and danced for the Queen. “There is a reason that a Shakespeare sonnet moves us today as it did when it was written. It touches that part of us that is human and allows us all to feel connected.

“The collective coming together in a darkened theatre is an experience unique to humanity,” he continued. “In times of unrest and conflict, people have fled to theatres and concert halls and cinemas to be entertained, to forget their woes and to experience a common joy. Music and film gave people a respite from depression and from war,” said Harrington. “Charlie Chaplin made them laugh through their tears, Fred Astaire’s effortless spins and élan made people want to dance and alter their spirits. Even the buildings housing the arts have often been works of art and artists and audiences have taken refuge in them. Just by entering you are moved by the architectural power and beauty of the space.”

Right: Harrington tells fine arts grads to honour their talent and reach for the stars

He compared artists to fireflies. “They shine for a brief time in the darkness giving us light and joy for that moment,” said Harrington, who retired from ballet two years ago and is pursuing a career in musical theatre. “It is a wonderful and joyous gift to possess. And it’s a two-way street, just as the artist can lift an audience outside of their everyday lives, so too the audience can lift you, the artist, to a height you never knew you could achieve.

Harrington, who has been named to the Order of Canada, said he learned from Hart that audiences deserve the best. “I do believe that as artists we have a duty to honour our talent and reach not just for the moon but beyond into the stars.” He said a life in the arts is not always an easy road to travel and he urged graduates not to waste their gifts. “Realize that you are truly one of a kind. Cherish your gift, work hard at your gift, love what you do.

“I firmly believe this world would be a darker place without your collective light,” ended Harrington. “Again I say bravo and break a leg.”

Convocation ceremonies take place this week, daily through Saturday. You can watch live webcasts of the ceremonies while they are on. Archived versions will be available a few days later.