A Moving Conversation with Rex Harrington

Collisions Dance Festival
Part I - Moving Conversations with Rex Harrington
Continues today (December 12) at the Young Centre, Toronto

The Collisions Dance Festival brings something unique to the Toronto dance calendar, in that the festival spotlights not only performance, but the creative process itself. I tried to cram in as much variety as I could, which wasn't a difficult task given the varied programme. Here's part I. 

Moving Conversations: Rex Harrington featured the renowned dancer interviewed by actor William Webster, who introduced him as "Rex the King Harrington". The conversation that ensued was full of reminiscences that covered the evolution of dance and ballet in the city. Rex's career took off at a time Canadian dance really came of age, and he worked with a succession of renowned names - Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, James Kudelka - along with partnering with iconic ballerinas Evelyn Hart and Karen Kain, the latter now his boss in his current gig as artist-in-residence at the National Ballet.

"Aside from being known as a great soloist," William began, "you were a great partner."

"I wasn't a great technician," Rex acknowledged. He was drawn to dramatic and expressive roles like that of Romeo, and also to the fine art of partnering, in contrast with many of his fellow male dancers. "A lot of guys don't really want to practice partnering," he says. Among the challenges and rewards - "Working with both Karen Kain and Evelyn Hart, and keeping both great egos happy," he laughed.

He started dance lessons at a local stripmall dance school at age 14. "I did it because my mother made me," he said. He had thoughts of Broadway and musical theatre, but once he began to get recognition as a dancer, and was offered more interesting roles, ballet became his focus. Still, he retained that leaning towards theatrical roles. "I hate pure classical dance," he admitted.

The conversation turned towards the figures who had influenced his career. He credits Erik Bruhn for seeing his potential and pushing him further in his career - not that the memories are necessarily warm and fuzzy. "A good director has to strike fear in his company," he observed, remembering Erik as an intimidating legend in black glasses.

Of James Kudelka: "We had a love/hate relationship for years," he recalled. He described him as having a very intense presence during rehearsals, although he was another person elsewhere. "He had a wicked sense of humour - outside the studio."

Dance legend Rudolf Nureyev was another larger than life figure. "He liked to beat the dresser!" Rex laughed. "He was a very dynamic man." Seeing Rudi dance beyond his prime brought thoughts of his own retirement from dance a few years ago. "I didn't want to be an old man in tights," he said.

After a couple of years outside the dance world, and when ex-dance partner Karen Kain took over the helm as Artistic Director of the National Ballet, Rex felt it was time to come back. What good was all his experience, after all, if it didn't get passed on to the next generation? He talked about adjusting to his new role as instructor, and having to sometimes instill the fear of God in his charges, something that didn't come naturally. His easygoing approach takes his own experience into account. "You're treated like a child your whole life," he said of a dancer's life.

In the end, Rex credits Evelyn Hart with having the most influence on his career of anyone. Laidback and naturally sociable, Evelyn's ultra serious and hardworking approach was in direct contrast to his. "Evelyn was so exacting and drove me nuts," he said. Rex says she had such a keen ear that choreography on occasion would be altered because of a facet of the music she'd brought to the conductor's attention. It was her high standards that led him to be able to appreciate working hard.

Here's a video of the two of them in performance.

With a sad childhood that included the mental illness of his mother and an acrimonious divorce, he says it was dance that saved his life. "I always said I was happiest on stage," he notes. "You're completely in control of the moment."