Collaboration beyond competition is how many would describe Mavis Staines’ legacy as the Artistic Director and CEO of Canada’s National Ballet School. “Concepts are strongest and live the longest when it’s not about any one individual,” Mavis humbly said while recalling the creation of Assemblée Internationale, the quadrennial gathering of more than 20 of the world’s top ballet schools to Toronto for an intense week of collaboration. Mavis understands that healthy competition is needed, but a focus must also be placed on the benefits of working together towards a greater good. “We are a species where we do not have to foster competition. That exists. What we have to foster is collaboration. We have to take care of one another because the stronger we are as a community, the stronger we are individually,” explains Mavis
A remarkable visionary, Mavis’ uncompromising drive and continual examination of the status quo facilitated a new perspective of training at the School. Built on a foundation of mutual respect, this innovative approach emphasizes the health and well being of dancers.
Mavis was not alone in this journey to create generations of healthy, educated, and emotionally self-reliant artists.“I did not revolutionize [teaching ballet], I and many, many other people helped to evolutionize [sic] it. The problem with revolution is that you blow something out of the water and alienate a lot of people… and if you’re going to make systemic change, you have to draw people into ideas in ways that do not alienate them,” Mavis stated.
The desire to draw people in and change their perceptions has been a career-spanning motivation for Mavis. “When you dance, you feel more at home in yourself and you feel more eager to contribute to the world,” Mavis said while thinking back to the School’s Sharing Dance initiative. Born out of the Ballet School’s 50th anniversary, Sharing Dance is a national celebration of the power of dance, designed to foster artistic expression, build community, and inspire joy in dancers of all ages and abilities. “When I talk about Sharing Dance, I don’t imagine that everyone will want to become a ballet dancer… what I did know was this would be a good way to make everyone… feel better about themselves and more eager to contribute, and healthier, healthier on all levels.”
Throughout her career, Mavis recognized that the quest for excellence in ballet shifted to elitism and many people felt they could not relate to the dance form. As such, she spearheaded initiatives to ensure that dance could be experienced by all, the same way dance was accessible to her as a little girl. Sharing Dance has “built connections with ballet schools across the country so that if there were other kids who needed free food stamps for shoes and free classes at a community centre that we would have built that”. Over the past decade, this initiative has established more than 130 partnerships with dance studios, recreation centres, public schools, private citizen groups, teachers, retirement and assisted-living facilities, major research institutions, and many more.
As with many other art institutions, Canada’s National Ballet School was not immune to the pandemic, and for Mavis, it was the sense of collaboration and community that really humbled her. “There has not been a day that has gone by since we all were thrust into this turbulence 16 months ago that I have not been grateful for being Canadian because of the support the federal government, the different levels of government, the donors have provided the school.”
Mavis was particularly proud of the school’s latest initiative, Ballet Unleashed, which launched during the pandemic. Born out of collaboration and time, this new pathway offers graduates of Canada’s National Ballet School project work, giving them the flexibility to gain income outside of one specific organization. “This is just one reflection of how we looked at all of our activities to see the capacity for growth. And now understanding how to shift from online to in-person, means that we can touch more people and build more partnerships faster in the next five years than we could have believed before the pandemic,” describes Mavis.
It is not difficult to see the parallels between Mavis’ life as a dancer and as a teacher. One can make the argument that her desire to build community partnerships stemmed from her childhood where she benefitted from those same partnerships that provided her free dance classes and shoes bought using food stamps. Her focus on championing and building a culture of health and well-roundedness in ballet could have been born out of her own experience as a dancer.
When asked about what she would like her legacy to be, Mavis paused, “I hope that there will be a systemic change in that dance will be integral to everybody’s life, no matter their age or ability and that will draw some people into a career as a professional dancer. I just know and have witnessed time and time again that [dance] brings people to a quality of life and sense of harmony that nothing else does…. So, if I can come back in a hundred years and see that people couldn’t imagine not living with dance in their life, that’s the legacy that will be most meaningful.”
Throughout her lifetime, Mavis has infused dance with a vision of excellence that has broadened access to artistic expression and strengthened the quality of education. Her innovative spirit and courage to break boundaries has reinvigorated dance, solidifying systemic change in the national and international dance community.
Some of her many accolades include being named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 by Women’s Executive Network (2006), Member of the Order of Canada (2010), the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2013), Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (2019), and most recently, being inducted into Dance Collections Danse Hall of Fame (2020).