“It’s amazing!” she gushed. “I’m loving every minute. It’s been busy, exciting and there’s a lot of momentum.”
That’s Hope Muir, artistic director of National Ballet of Canada, whose appointment to the company was announced in 2021, and who took the reins in January of last year. Succeeding Karen Kain, the beloved former ballerina who stepped down from that post after 16 years, Muir was still over the moon about the job wherein she’s also took the company to New York City Center for the first time in 15 years.
Performing from March 30-April 1, the company brought a trio of highly-praised works, and speaking of accolades, Muir has had her share in a career that has been long and fruitful, and one that currently coincides with other powerful women running major ballet troupes.
Indeed, among this pantheon of formidable females are Tamara Rojo, who succeeded Helgi Tomasson at San Francisco Ballet in 2022 (the first female artistic director in the troupe’s 89-year history); and Susan Jaffe, former American Ballet Theatre principal who took over from Kevin McKenzie, whose 30-year tenure came to a close at the end of last year.
Born in 1971 in Toronto, where she began her ballet studies, Muir decided to dance professionally after moving to England with her mother at 15 years of age. There, she joined the newly formed London Festival Ballet School under Peter Schaufuss’ aegis (now English National Ballet School), and, upon graduation, danced with ENB, performing choreography by such masters as Ashton, Balanchine, and Bournonville.
In 1994, Muir joined the renowned Rambert Dance Company that was then under the direction of Christopher Bruce CBE. Performing with that troupe for 10 years, she danced repertory by such bold-faced names as Kylián, Tharp, Cunningham, and a slew of others. When Muir crossed the pond in 2004 to join Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, she added the names Forsythe, Duato and Lubovitch to her ever-growing repertory before stepping off the stage for good in 2006, having danced professionally for seventeen years.
To say that this gal, who also became a freelance stager and ballet mistress, got around, is a decided understatement. To that end, in 2009, Muir did a brief stretch as associate artistic director at Scottish Ballet, before taking over North Carolina’s Charlotte Ballet from Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 2017.
Accruing as many frequent flyer miles as a high-level business executive, Muir is no stranger to the National Ballet; she’d not only seen the company as a child, but had also returned in a professional capacity in 2008 to stage, “Rooster,” the Rolling Stones-powered work. Now firmly ensconced in her role at the company – and with her decades-long career as a celebrated dancer, teacher and director spanning both the classical and contemporary worlds – she is thrilled to call Toronto home.
I had a chance to catch up with the über busy Muir by Zoom before she took the troupe to the Big Apple. Our conversation covered a range of topics, including her criteria for programming and her feelings about the current crop of female directors, to where she sees herself in the next five to 10 years, and her views on the state of ballet today.
How did the appointment come about, and now that you’ve been in the job for a little more than a year, how’s it going?
The dancers are looking fabulous. And I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but I really do love my job. It seemed like in the progression of my career, this was the obvious next step. I was approached to apply—it was a long interview process on Zoom that was challenging, and it took a while to get through it—and I weighed all the pros and cons.
But when I got the phone call, it felt right. I was excited to move to a larger company and have the support and expertise of this large organization. There are so many resources to help support my ambition, which is quite large, but I had done all the work and it built to this moment.
I understand that you once said you didn’t want to direct a big ballet company. What changed your mind?
I had been in a large company, a medium company and a small company and [several] choreographer-led companies. And it’s really all about the timing of it. I imagined that when I made that comment I was probably just tackling my first [associate artistic] directorship in a company that felt most familiar—Scottish Ballet. But when you get in there and realize that size isn’t necessarily a hindrance, and it can afford you so many more opportunities in the repertory, that with the resources of a company this size, I can fulfill my ambitions for programming and dancer development.
Speaking of programming, let’s talk about New York, where the company is dancing three impressive works: Crystal Pite made “Angels’ Atlas” in 2020, her second for the National Ballet, and one that she said, “evokes a fierce pulse of life;” David Dawson’s high-octane, “Anima Animus,” from 2018; and MacMillan’s iconic 1966 “Concerto.” Why these works?
I was approached by colleagues at City Center and [was] asked if I wanted to feature the company in my inaugural year. I knew “Angels’ Atlas” was a good piece and was made on the company. I had assisted Crystal on “Emergence;” so the timing was good—it premiered before the pandemic. It’s also a good anchor piece, and I wanted it surrounded by legacy work, so I brought back “Concerto.”
The other thing was that there are 36 dancers in Crystal’s work, and I wanted to get them dancing and looked at again.
I’m also looking to relationships I’m building for the future, and David Dawson is key to that. I knew we were coming out of this long [Covid] season, and that “Anima” would be a challenging work—we’ve just taken it off the stage last week—but it was a big hit with crowds and the dancers enjoyed dancing it.
Crystal’s piece won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2020, and is set to music of Owen Belton and choral works by Tchaikovsky and Morten Lauridsen. The Globe and Mail described “Angels” as “A glimpse into the infinite…[it] explores the human condition to rapturous choral music and ingenious lighting design.” In addition to her being Associate Choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater, as well as an Associate Artist at Sadler’s Wells, London, can we please take a moment to talk about how absolutely fabulous Crystal Pite is?
Crystal—for me, it’s two-fold: The experience she gives everyone in the studio; the patience she has and her commitment to nurturing that connects with dancers and allows time for them to connect with one another. It’s not just putting steps on bodies. She takes her time and has such a motivation and desire to see people succeed. It’s infectious.
Every time I’ve been in a process with her, things seem to develop and grow from the positivity in the room. That informs the work we see onstage. It’s been made with such care and kindness. It does resonate with a certain humanity, and she’s really, really good with what she does. The craft, it’s so clever, so refined, she’s such a master of her craft.
She’s also really detail-oriented and that comes down to what you’re saying, how you’re doing it, how everything informs the next movement and happens together. She also has wonderful taste in music and works with a fantastic creative team. Every one of those elements help create that impact that I feel, and you feel. It’s not just one thing, but a lot of different things.
You saw David Dawson’s “Anima Animus” in San Francisco when it premiered in 2018 as part of San Francisco Ballet’s “Unbound Festival” of new works. Little did you know that you would one day bring it to Canada under your artistic leadership.
I didn’t know, but I did call him. David and I are good friends, and it was at the second show in San Francisco. He had just left and I thought, “I don’t know how, and I don’t
know when, but I want this ballet somewhere.” He knew how much I loved it, and it was a good introduction to the company. It’s quite a small cast and I wanted him to be able to get to know the company slowly.
We have a kind of plan for his next work and one leading to the next work; we’re scaling up in size. David works with classical technique in a modern way. He’s a very musical, expansive choreographer, and I’ve seen the dancers change and develop by working with him in this way. They’re showing more of themselves, they’re being brave and pushing themselves in a challenging piece—a physical piece—and they’re enjoying it. It’s super satisfying to see, and I am excited about our relationship.
Then there’s Kenneth MacMillan’s abstract three-movement ballet, “Concerto,” which was last performed by the National Ballet in 1990. Why this work now?
It’s interesting, because every time I see it, I discover something new. Again, it underpins this immense craft of structure and musicality. It’s happy; I love watching it; it makes me feel good. When I brought it into the company initially it was to get a lot of people on stage after Covid— to celebrate a return to the stage. It has that joy about it.
Of course, with the exquisite pas de deux in the middle that was created on Lynn Seymour, who just passed away, it feels even more poignant bringing it. Lynn was one of my teachers at school, one of my idols. I shared the stage with her in many ballets and it felt like the right choice for all of those numbers [because] we go from a violin-led musical experience to the piano to Crystal with the choir. It’s a nice arc.
You’ve said there are about 70 dancers, including apprentices, in the company, depending on the year. What do you look for in a dancer?
I love dancers that are curious and ask questions, and that’s not hard to encourage with this younger generation; they like having dialogue in the studio. These times demand hybrid dancers with the repertory, so I [also look for] musicality and people that like to bring something of themselves into whatever they’re doing. I like to see personality, and I encourage it in my dancers.
Concurrently, what do you look for in a choreographer?
In a choreographer, you always look for a thing that’s not been said or done before—that there’s always a glimpse of something that’s exciting. I like choreographers that are musical; I like narrative or abstract ballets, they’re both really useful to the development of an artist. I choose choreographers on what the dancers need in any particular season—how they get from an “A” to a “B”—seeing their growth in a season.
That helps me focus on the type of choreographer I need, and when you maybe want to bring in a one-act before a full-length. I invest a lot in real story tellers [to see] if that’s leading to a creation. I like all choreographers and all choreography, and I try to plan a season based on the needs of audiences and an arc of development through the season.
What advice do you give aspiring dancers or choreographers?
When I start thinking about myself as an artist, it would be, “Don’t waste so much time worrying about what other people think. Do what makes you happy and trust in the work.” Really, it’s just about the work. It’ll be there for you if you just give to that. All the choreographers I know, I remember that they’re always the last people in the studio.
When someone’s trying to turn out the lights and they say, “I have one more step,” they’d be grabbing a dancer or an empty space. That’s what I mean about the work—they’re so invested in what they do. At times you can also start doing it for other people—a choreographer or a director.
Are you feeling optimistic that more women are finally at the top of the artistic director food chain at major ballet companies?
It’s wonderful that more women are in these positions. I do always remind myself of [Royal Ballet founder] Ninette de Valois, [Rambert Ballet founder] Marie Rambert, Celia Franca, who founded the National Ballet of Canada. Women have been pioneers and leaders in these organizations. It’s possible, and we’re proving we can be good dynamic leaders, and have support for all those women who have big jobs.
What about women choreographers? Are there more of them now or does it just seem that way?
I think female dancemakers are out there, and I have a very intentional program around supporting that on stage of the National Ballet of Canada. I’m hoping for a time when we can just talk about choreographers, not gender. We’re not there yet, but more directors are committing to featuring female choreographers or giving opportunities to them, and I think we will get there [because] they’re out there.
I try and balance each season looking at the proportion of men, women, Canadians, international collaborators, with their perspectives. And BIPOC representation is just super important. Obviously, that is something that I look at when I’m programming a wider group of people where we can represent different perspectives on stage. It’s very, very multi-cultural here, and if ballet is going to stay relevant, we have to be putting things on stage that have to connect to all different people.
This brings me to the question of the state of ballet today. Where are we in this, hopefully, post-pandemic age?
It’s definitely a moment in time and I’m grateful that I started this job with all of these opportunities to examine what we do and why we do it, and to try and right some of the wrongs in the repertory and company culture in casting. It’s a big opportunity, a big moment, and I don’t think it’s a bad time for ballet or necessarily a good time.
It’s a time of evolution. I personally am taking that super seriously with my dancers, my programming and what we put on stage. I’m also trying to find new stories and new ways to tell old stories. I don’t agree with cancel culture. We’re leading with the questions instead of waiting for people to ask them.
We’ve been working with two advisors on our repertory, just to talk about it and to see if there’s a better way to do certain sections—like the whole dance community talking about [“The Nutcracker’s] Yellowface” and the “Final Bow” [initiative]. There’s been a movement around that and I think it’s necessary.
Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?
I just am so grateful that we’re back to some kind of normal performing schedule and we’re not getting stopped or shut down because people are sick. I want this to continue. I want dancers to continue to stay healthy, to get back to international touring in a year or two. This is a big step getting to New York and saying, “Okay, we’re back.”
I want to continue on that trajectory—of doing interesting work—and have a few more choreographers in the pipeline, supporting a lot of Canadian talent, hoping to get them more stage time. There’s so much talent in this company, from dancers to designers. I’m excited to continue to raise the artistic profile of the company here and abroad on a really good, robust schedule.