In 17 years with the National Ballet of Canada, first soloist Tanya Howard has established herself as a powerful and graceful technician. As an Ugly Stepsister in James Kudelka’s Cinderella, she proved that she’s also a fantastic character actress and physical comedian, earning her a My Theatre Award nomination in our brand new Best Ballet Performance: Supporting or Short Program category. She took us behind the scenes in her interview, revealing what’s changed about the National Ballet in the last 17 years, what happens at the company Christmas party, and why there’s a choreographic sequence referred to as “fish sticks”.
My first question is do you remember the first ballet you ever saw?
Wow. The first professional ballet I ever saw was Giselle.
Oh, really? That’s so beautiful.
Yeah, I know. Not bad.
Where was that? You’re from South Africa, right?
Yes. So this was actually in Port Elizabeth. Which is sort of the big city close to where I live.
What is it about ballet that made you want to pursue it professionally?
That’s sort of a tough question. I initially started ballet because my mom just wanted me to get out of the house and do something, so it wasn’t actually my choice to start. [Laughs]. I guess she needed like forty five minutes to herself. But once I started doing it, it just felt so natural for me and I guess I’ve been told I have an easy physique for it, so it really became very natural for me at a very young age.
And what age did you move from South Africa to attend Canada’s National Ballet School?
I was older than most people who would make that move. I was already eighteen.
Where did you study in South Africa?
At an arts high school in Johannesburg called the National School for the Arts. It’s a wonderful high school and it’s produced so much great talent over the past, really like four, five decades. I always thought what was also so unique about that situation was we would all put on our final show at the end of the year, and my year we did Swan Lake, and I remember thinking how cool it was that the person in the orchestra playing the oboe or something was the girl who sat beside me in math. You know, because it was a very collaborative type of arts high school like that. It was just a very special scenario to experience at such a young age.
Did you apply specifically to come all the way to Canada?
You know, it was actually one of those things of being in the right place at the right time. Through a lot of random acts, I met Mavis Staines, who is currently the director of the National Ballet School, and the two of us started a connection and she sort of suggested to me that the National Ballet might be something I would be interested in. And initially I came to the school for one year. I did the post-secondary program and, in that year, I saw the company perform and was hooked and it was my mission to then somehow join the company.
Who were the performers you saw? Do you remember?
I saw a ballet called Terra Firma. It’s a James Kudelka piece that the company hasn’t done in maybe sixteen or seventeen years and I saw Rebecca Rimsay, who is currently our Principal Character Artist, she was in it. And a few other names who are no longer with us as dancers. But I don’t know, that ballet just struck something in me and I was like, I have to be a part of this.
How did you pursue that goal?
Well, actually just by doing the audition process. Being at the school, you do create a relationship with the company early on, and you develop that relationship. So that was a bit of a natural progression for me after the initial audition process.
You’ve been with the company now since 1998. In that time, what have been some of your favorite performances?
Do you know, so many people ask me this, and my answer is always I could give you maybe a top ten. We have been so fortunate with our repertoire in this company.
I love a ballet called Voluntaries. There’s a ballet Opus 19, the Dreamer. We did Balanchine’s Don Q, which I loved. We also, in this company, have a wonderful opportunity to do some more modern pieces. There’s a ballet right now that we’re bringing back [on stage now at the Four Seasons Centre]. It’s called Chroma and it’s really, really cool. And I think whether you have a dancer history or a dance background, when you’re experiencing Chroma, whether it’s the first time you watched ballet, or you’re a seasoned patron, I think you realize that you’re seeing something very different and very unique. So those would be [the] stand outs…. and Cinderella, the version we do, is probably top three for me.
Your nomination this year is for your performance as an Ugly Stepsister in that ballet. What is it that you love so much about Kudelka’s Cinderella?
I think the character study and the expression of really trying to be a character, I guess as any actor would say. But then with the twist of having it be portrayed through the physicality, it’s really unique and really a great challenge.
I’m sort of a bit of a wannabe comedian, so I loved her. I loved this character. She’s really kind of out there. I remember at some points, I was thinking about what she would do, I would often think about Jenna from 30 Rock. There was actually a moment where I had imagined that the sister is imagining her name in lights. Like on a marquee kind of thing. And it would just make me think of Jenna and how she would be like, ‘I look great on cam-er-a’. She was just a little bit off, due to her obsessive self-absorption. [That] in your face, larger than life kind of thing.
With such a comic role, how much of what you’re doing is specifically prescribed by the choreography, and how much is sort of left up to you to fill in the gaps with character improv?
With this ballet, I would say that a lot of the comedy came through the choreography. A lot of the comedy is in the timing or the rhythm of executing the step exactly the way it was created. So that’s always a very unique challenge because it’s not as much you just bringing it. It’s you trying to be so precise and so musical that the audience really sees the physical joke. In terms of facial expressions or, you know, a reaction to your partner, those things were sort of left up to you. Like when you see Cinderella’s dress, you could have chosen if you wanted to sort of be green with envy or if you wanted to throw up in your mouth a little bit.
With so many diverse parts that really play to different performers’ strengths, how is something like that cast?
You know, the casting is never really explained to us [Laughs]. But I think that’s what’s cool because sometimes you’re doing another role that you don’t even realize and your boss looks at you doing that role and says, ‘oh, I wonder if her going in that direction would lend herself more to comedy or…’ I think in my case it’s no secret I’m the girl who does the skit at the Christmas party. I think comedy was a pretty natural next step for me and also for my director to see me that way.
Do you literally do the skit at the Christmas party?
I literally do the skit at the Christmas party. [Laughs]
What’s in the skit at the National Ballet Christmas party?
Oh my gosh. Anything I want, really. Over the years we’ve done stuff like, I’ll use the Whose Line is It Anyway framework. Then we’ll do, if there was a ridiculous costume that we wore, or a ridiculous prop that we had to use, we’d make fun of that. I often do sort of a ‘Weekend Update’ news broadcast. There’s so many things. There’s so many -isms specific to dancers that are so ridiculous, you really have to laugh at yourself. You know, we have bizarre little names for sections in our dance, or sections in the music. There’s a ballet that one section, we actually call Fish Sticks, for whatever reason.
You don’t know why?
Well, the girl has to be sort of parallel to the floor. Somewhere along the line of having this ballet set, somebody thought she looked like a fish stick. So, very seriously, we’ll just stand in a room and be like, ‘oh, can I just try it one more time from Fish Stick?’ So there’s a lot to laugh about in ballet, if you don’t take yourself too seriously.
From the audience, it’s such a serious art form (maybe Cinderella aside). Would you say there’s a lot of goofing around behind the scenes and in rehearsals?
I don’t know about goofing around but we’re a very close, fun group of people that…I don’t know if we’re friends who happen to work together or which came first, but we’re a great group of people and I feel like we’re very comfortable with each other, and we work when we work and we joke when we joke kind of thing. So, there’s definitely a balance, and there’s definitely some ballets where there’s no goofing around and just we’re all like in Swan Lake mode, and there are other ballets where your character or your costume lends itself to being a little more light-hearted. But, I definitely think it has to do with what a great group we are, and how much we actually really enjoy spending time together. So it might come off as us having a lot of fun. Backstage is…sometimes we make it just a little bit more relaxed. It’s so much pressure once the curtain goes up. Sometimes it’s nice to just not be in that pigeon hole for the whole three hours of the ballet.
Who are some of your best friends in the company?
Right now, my best friend is on mat leave.
That must be [Principal Dancer] Heather Ogden. Did she have her baby [with husband and fellow Principal Guillaume Coté] yet?
She did. She had a gorgeous girl in early January.
Her and I are pretty tight. You know, there are people, myself included, that have been there for 14 plus years. Certainly in my husband’s workplace, I don’t know if anyone can say that, you know? That kind of loyalty to a company really is in my father’s generation where you stay for 30 years and you get your big Rolex watch at the end of it and that kind of thing. For many years, people have been jumping and changing jobs but I find there’s this strange thing at the National Ballet where there are people that have really stayed a long time. That kind of thing- you know someone for 14 years, we’re very comfortable. So, without naming anyone other than Heather, I have a great group of people I work with.
In that 14 years, how would you say the company has changed in its day to day operation and in a larger sense?
Well, I was just talking to my husband about this. You know, social media has really changed all of us. So I think that’s the biggest thing. We do a lot more live streaming kind of stuff. We did the World Ballet Day in October. So those kind of things have really changed the face of how accessible we are to people. Instagram and Twitter and all those things. So I feel like that’s one of the biggest ways we’ve changed, because of social media. I think we’re way more of a household name. We’re far more accessible to a greater number of people. Where, I think that maybe 20 years ago, ballet was a little bit elitist, and only certain people went to see shows, having season tickets. But now, it’s everywhere. It’s just so much more accessible, which is awesome.
In terms of your own personal performance style, what would you say is something that separates you from some of the other women in the company?
I think I’ve proven myself to be very versatile over the years- I could put on a tutu and put on the pointe shoes and look like a real ballerina or I could have my hair down and look like a contemporary dancer. It’s hard to say if that’s training or if that’s my physique, or just the experience of getting to do such a wide range of dance genres. But I feel like my versatility is something that has really kept me relevant over all these years.
Especially having that physique that’s naturally well suited to ballet as a genre, would you say you’ve had any of those classic, big obstacles that you’ve had to overcome in order to be a professional ballerina? Or have you had different ones than most people?
You know, the ballet world is pretty small. After a while, the small fish in the big pond kind of thing…you’ll meet someone who sounds like they have your exact story. My family is still in South Africa so that’s been a huge challenge for me to not go out with them like you would if you lived in the same city. I think that’s been my biggest challenge but I think a lot of people can relate to moving to a different country to join a company. So even though it is a huge obstacle for me, I have other people who can empathize and really relate and sort of, I can have my little therapy sessions with them and feel better about my obstacle. But really, that’s the big thing that comes to mind is just not being around my mom and dad.
Do they ever get to come visit?
Yes, they do. They’re actually coming in June, so they’ll be here to see Sleeping Beauty.
So if that’s the hardest part of being a professional dancer, especially over here, what would you say is the best part?
Wow. The best part is really, for me, the fact that my company has let me be a lot of things. They’ve let me be a ballerina, they’ve let me be the contemporary dancer, they’ve let me be a mom, they’ve let me be a working mom.
I feel like it’s just, maybe the growth as an artist, being in a company where you can really see yourself grow and change. Ballets come back- four years ago you did this role, and now the ballet’s come back and four years [later] you’re doing a different role, and you can really see how far you’ve come. I think those are the best moments.
For me, it’s being more than one thing. I always try and say even though ballet is an extremely huge part of who I am, it’s also just what I do. You know, I’m a lot of other things. I want to be funny on stage, and I want to be serious on stage. So it’s really given me the chance to be a lot of those things.
How does the balance between motherhood and being a wife and being a whole person outside of your career, plus having this really demanding, sort of life-defining job, how does that balance work in your life?
It’s completely insane. I feel like, in my house, it’s all hands on deck all the time. I have the most incredible, supportive husband who is more than capable so, when I’m not able to be at home, I know he’s picking up the slack. But it’s nuts. I often wonder how are we doing it? But we’re certainly not the first. And it’s kind of part of life, it’s part of what makes you get up in the morning. The challenges, the logistics of trying to get your day done- it’s not unlike being a dancer, where you have to get yourself organized, because there’s an opening night date. You can’t just let things happen. You’ve got to make it happen. You have to be organized and be disciplined and stick to your routines and stuff like that. But it’s definitely all hands on deck [Laughs].
Do you have any dream roles you haven’t gotten to dance yet or someone you’d like to work with?
I don’t know if I’m not allowed to say yet but I have a role I’m doing in March that’s going to be pretty exciting for me [it’s been officially announced, she’ll be dancing the title role in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland later this month!] I don’t know if it falls into the dream role category, but it’s definitely something I’m looking forward to. I’m a little bit of like ‘live in the now’, so whatever I’m doing now can be my best thing. There’s nothing I can think of that I would dream I would love to do in that way. I know I’ve been very lucky in my career, doing the roles I’ve gotten to do and they’ve been extremely satisfying, so there’s nothing that seems sort of out of my reach, ahead of me. I’m really liking what I’m doing now. So the present is exciting for me.
Do you have a favourite ballet or choreographer?
That’s a tough one. When I first joined the company, and in a lot of my formative years in the company, we had our choreographer and our director James Kudelka. So I find because that’s sort of what I had, there are a lot of ballets of his that I absolutely love. A ballet called There, below which it’s just stunning. The music, I think is from Master and Commander. Just stunning. So yeah, there’s a lot of James Kudelka stuff, but I also love a lot of Balanchine.
What are you working on now?
Right now, we’re doing two pieces- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland [opening March 14th] and we’re putting together Chroma, [with] two new ballets in our mixed program [on stage now]. Well, they’re not new, they’re new to us- Carousel (A Dance) and Allegro Brilliante, which is a Balanchine piece. There’s a lot going on right now. [Laughs].