York professor publishes a new book on the National Ballet School

Dance Professor Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt (BA Spec. Hons. ’78, MFA ’86), York’s associate vice-president, academic learning initiatives, has published a major new work in the annals of Canadian dance.

Her book, The Ballet Class: A History of Canada’s National Ballet School, 1959-2009, traces the conception and growth of the National Ballet School (NBS), one of the world’s foremost training institutions for aspiring young dancers and teachers.

Right: Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt

The Ballet Class is organized following the structure of an actual ballet class, with chapter subtitles named after traditional ballet exercises such as the plié and rond de jambe, building up to the grand allegro.

Each chapter starts with a definition of the ballet term as a metaphor for the topic at hand. Thus adage, a term embracing slow, controlled movements that build strength and coordination, introduces “The Delicate Balance of Growth”, a chapter outlining the school’s growing pains in the early years and the push and pull between academic and artistic demands. Pirouettes – dazzling spins that require great balance and focus to execute – aptly heralds the chapter titled “The Challenges of Boys and Deficits”, about two perennial problems: a dearth of male dancers and a dearth of dollars.

Interviews and direct quotes from conversations and letters by NBS luminaries pepper the book. Featured personalities include Celia Franca, the visionary founder of the National Ballet of Canada and co-founder of the school; the formidable Betty Oliphant, the school’s co-founder and first artistic director, and Mavis Staines, the current artistic director; independent modern dance icon and NBS instructor Peggy Baker; former NBC principal dancers Nadia Potts and Vanessa Harwood; and Grant Strate, the founding chair of the Department of Dance in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. 

Readers can put faces to many of the names thanks to the book’s rich collection of archival photos from performances, classes and landmark events in the life of the school.

Fisher-Stitt herself was a student at the NBS from grade 7 to 12, during the tenure of Betty Oliphant. She subsequently joined the National Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet, touring throughout North America and Europe before leaving the company in 1975 to pursue advanced studies in dance at York, where she earned her BA and MFA, followed by a doctorate in dance education at Temple University, Philadelphia. She has been a full-time member of the faculty in York’s Department of Dance since 1992.

Above: NBS student Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt performing with fellow student James Kudelka. (Kudelka went on to become a renowned choreographer and served as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1996 to 2005. He is now the resident choreographer of the National Ballet of Canada.) Photo courtesy of Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt.

In addition to drawing on her own experience and those whom she interviewed, Fisher-Stitt collected material for The Ballet Class from the National Archives in Ottawa, the archives of the National Ballet of Canada and the NBS and Dance Collection Danse. Her research and the publication were made possible with the support of the Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada and the NBS.

The book was launched April 24 as part of the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the NBS. The event was attended by 400 of its alumni from across North America and overseas. The launch party took place in the original home of the NBS – the Old Quaker Meeting House, now known as Currie Hall, at 111 Maitland Street in Toronto.