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Raising the Barre After Star Years

Ballet: Veronica Tennant uses discipline, concentration and collaboration from dancing years to extend her 'first glorious career' beyond the stage.

November 18, 1998|ZAN DUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ballet dancers, like quarterbacks, retire decades earlier than the average Joe. Stepping off the stage, or the playing field, after years of specialized training that rarely includes a college degree can be emotionally and financially bruising.

Veronica Tennant, one of Canada's greatest ballerinas, made the transition after a quarter century with the National Ballet of Canada but was always determined to make it bump-free. In fact, practically the day after her final performance nine years ago, Tennant said, she was hosting and writing for a weekly television arts magazine for the Canadian Broadcasting Co.

Since then, Tennant has written and produced three arts specials for the CBC, written prolifically about dance for Canadian newspapers and magazines, directed and choreographed for live theater and acted in theater and film.

"I don't feel I've switched careers," she said recently, "I think I've extended my exploration."

Tennant will discuss that exploration at noon Thursday at UCI in a free public lecture. It's part of a weeklong residency she's doing at the school, culminating Saturday, when she'll host a student performance of "Cinderella," starring San Francisco Ballet principal Evelyn Cisneros and choreographed by UCI dance professor David Allan.

The performance also caps Artsweek '98, celebrating UCI's School of the Arts with various public events, and it will mark Allan's 15th year in choreography, which he took up while dancing with the National Ballet of Canada. There, he crafted eight works for Tennant, including "Villanella," a solo she reprised locally just before retiring.

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Allan recommended Tennant for the residency, and Monday the two longtime friends reunited where they met--at the barre--as he broke a sweat during one of her on-campus master classes.

"It was Veronica who commissioned my first ballet," Allan said between exercises. "She also discovered [internationally renowned choreographer] James Kudelka."

Tennant, 51, began dancing at 4 and made her debut at 18 with the Canadian troupe in the title role of "Romeo and Juliet." Best known for her dramatic abilities, she wenton to dance opposite many of the late 20th century's greatest male dancers, including Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Anthony Dowell and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Along the way she and her husband, John Wright, a doctor, also had a daughter, Jessica Wright, now 21.

Always conscious of the brevity of a dancer's career, Tennant prepared for retirement from the stage almost from the start, accepting invitations to interview other artists, review books or act as host on television and radio programs.

"I've always had a love of language," she said last week from her Toronto home, "and the love of acting that found such a wonderful conduit in dance also led me to theatrical, spoken-word situations."

(Her love for language came out Monday as Tennant, demonstrating steps in a long black skirt, asked the class pianist to accompany a slow ronde de jambe, saying: "Let's have a nice, lugubrious beat.")

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Since hosting three seasons of CBC's "Sunday Arts Entertainment" magazine, Tennant has danced and acted across Canada in such theatrical productions as "On the Town," for the prestigious Shaw Festival, and been assistant director and choreographer for "The Cherry Orchard" at the Tarragon Theatre.

She regularly narrates symphonic concerts and just did her third CBC dance special, a biography of Karen Kain, who recently ended her 28-year career, most of it as principal dancer, with the National Ballet of Canada.

She and Kain have been friends for 30 years, so the special includes an insider's perspective and in-studio and performance footage.

"I'll be showing a little section of that during my lecture," said Tennant, now concentrating on TV and film directing. She's one of only eight professionals recently accepted to an intensive program called "Women in the Director's Chair" at Alberta's Banff Center, a government-funded training institute for those who have already excelled in cultural careers.

"In many ways, I am a newcomer in the film and television world," she said, adding that she never went to college but continues to reap the enormous benefits of classical ballet training.

"Discipline, concentration, collaboration, those skills have translated so well, and everything in my first glorious career has informed what I'm doing now."

Does she miss the ballet limelight? No, especially because she still performs--but in pumps, not pointe shoes.

But Tennant does have one serious regret.

"I couldn't allow myself to enjoy my successes because I didn't believe they were successes in the early years."

Hence, what would she advise young dancers?

"Learn not to take yourself too seriously, but to be very, very serious about the lightness of life."

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* Former National Ballet of Canada principal Veronica Tennant will lecture Thursday at UC Irvine's Arts Village Theatre, West Peltason Drive and Mesa Road. Noon. Free, but tickets are required: (949) 824-2787.

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