Since the days of the earliest settlers, dance has been a vibrant part of the cultural mosaic of this province. Languages have struggled to survive, but dance in all its forms has not only survived but flourished. First Nations dancers, with their traditional pow-wow, were the earliest dancers; but the art form was soon to embrace highland flings, hopaks, jigs, polkas, etc. Cultural dance activity at the grass-roots level is widespread, with some groups aspiring to professional standards. Many have toured to their European homelands, to critical acclaim.

Traditional dance forms like ballet, jazz, and tap are taught in all the major centres in Saskatchewan as well as in smaller towns and villages. Dance Saskatchewan, the umbrella organization for dance in the province, currently lists over 120 dance schools. Earliest records of dancers and teachers in the province in the 1930s include Gail Grant, Nellie Smith, Jean Gauld, Lillian Stevens, Jean Botkin, Shirley Whittet, and Marjorie Matchett. The following generation included teachers who have had a remarkable impact on dance in Saskatchewan: Doris Sitter in Moose Jaw, Lucia Pavlychenko and Juliette Perry-Perez in Saskatoon, and Maureen Johnson in Regina. Most of the dance schools and organizations in the province can trace their roots back to one of these teachers. Other notable teachers include Reg Hawe (Conservatory of Music, University of Regina) and Petre Bodeutz (Regina Modern Dance Works).

There are several dance festivals held throughout the province annually. The first and largest of these, the Moose Jaw Festival of Dance, was founded in 1960 by a committee headed by Helen Tait; Arnold Spohr (Royal Winnipeg Ballet) assisted with adjudication. On a professional level, Saskatchewan has been home to four dance companies since its inception as a province. The first of these, Saskatchewan Dance Theatre (SDT), was created by Jim Green, Lucia Pavlychenko, and Michele Presly in Saskatoon in 1973. The original company was composed of five dancers: Michele Presly, Jim Green, Elaine Loo (Hanson), Paul Jaspar, and Kathryn Greenaway. It expanded in its second season to include four more dancers; in its third and final season, three of the original dancers were replaced. During its short life, SDT was a successful company, touring throughout Saskatchewan to critical acclaim. Financial problems and tensions within the company led to its demise in December 1976.

Meanwhile, another company was being formed in Regina under the direction of Marianne Livant and Maria Formolo. Regina Modern Dance Works was incorporated in 1974, with seven dancers in the company: Livant and Formolo, with Patrick Hall, Pearl Louie, Allan Risdill, David Weller and Belinda Weitzel. Later additions to the company included Connie Moker Wernikowski, Marnie Gladwell, Susan McKenzie, Stephen Karcher, Kim Sachaw and Keith Urban. Livant resigned in 1976 as a result of artistic differences, and Urban took on the role of co-artistic director with Formolo. Maestro Petre Bodeutz was hired as ballet master/choreographer for the company in 1977. At the height of its success (1976–78) the company was offering full-length productions in Regina, as well as touring nationally to critical acclaim. By October 1979, however, the company was in trouble both financially and artistically. Formolo and Urban were the only two dancers remaining by the final season, and Regina Modern Dance Works folded in February 1982.

Marie Nychka (director of the Boyan School of Dance and Tavria Ukrainian Ensemble) dreamed of creating a touring ballet company, and soon convinced fellow dancers Lorne Matthews and April Chow to join her in creating Saskatchewan’s third professional dance company, Saskatchewan Theatre Ballet, in March 1982. Five dancers were hired as apprentices: Suzanne Stewart, Darleen Schlademann, Cheryl Tweet, Sheryl Gardner and Darla Thompson. Eventually, the company grew to twelve dancers (six of them apprentices). Although popular with rural audiences, the company was unable to attract Canada Council funding, and financial difficulties were experienced throughout its six-year history. General Manager Jean Botkin was forced to resign in February 1986 due to illness. After four months on the job, her replacement disappeared, having embezzled the company’s meager funds. Dancers and board members rallied to finish off the season, taking out personal loans to pay for the final tour and ending operations in October 1988. Two years earlier, another very different company had been formed in Regina. Under the artistic direction of Robin Poitras and Dianne Fraser, New Dance Horizons produced its first season of contemporary dance in 1986. This company remains vibrant.

Barb Cameron

Further Reading

Cameron, B. 1998. A History of the Professional Dance Companies that have Existed in Saskatchewan Since 1905. Saskatoon: Dance Saskatchewan.