Welcome to DCD's “Dance Historian of the Month” – a series that features interviews with Canada's dance historians. We hope to illuminate aspects of the person, their craft, the field, and to provide insight into what inspires those who interpret our dance pasts. The interview is accompanied by a photo, giving a face to the bylines. Often veiled by computer screens, untouched by stage lights and represented only by their printed words, historians are the intangible forces that spur dance on. Our interview is your introduction to the historian herself.
Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt trained at Canada's National Ballet School and was a corps de ballet dancer with The National Ballet of Canada for four years. During our interview, Fisher-Stitt told stories about dancing with the company and recalled performing for Rudolph Nureyev's 1970s staging of Sleeping Beauty. Fisher-Stitt later became an accomplished scholar; she completed a Doctorate of Education in Dance at Temple University, has served both as a professor and chair for York University's Faculty of Fine Arts and she has published widely on dance education.
Fisher-Stitt is an early proponent 0f the inclusion of technology in dance education and in 1997, along with colleague Professor Mary Jane Warner, she created Shadow on the Prairie: An Interactive Multimedia Dance History Tutorial. In 2010, her book A History of Canada's National Ballet School 1959-2009 was released and it offers a thorough and compelling read. Fisher-Stitt's love for dance education motivates her continued dedication to the field and the joy dance brings her is evident in her work.
Enjoy the interview.
DCD Metcalf Foundation Intern
Name: Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt
Currentt Employer: York University, Associate Professor
CC: Why did you start dancing?
NS: I enjoyed moving and my parents thought that taking dance class would be good for me. I started in a church basement in Scarborough and I really enjoyed it. My ballet teacher was British, and she thought I should audition for the Royal Ballet School in England. That was not going to happen; my parents could not afford such a thing, plus they had no intention of sending me that far away to attend school. However, at the end of grade 6, I auditioned for Canada's National Ballet School and I got in. I studied at the school until I graduated, and later I performed with The National Ballet of Canada.
CC: Did you live in the school's residence?
NS: Not at first. My parents moved to Markham when I was in grade 9. It was more difficult to commute from Markham than from Scarborough; public transportation was not what it is today. In Grade 11 and 12, I chose to live in residence. It was the best of both worlds; I was close to home, and so I would occasionally go to see my parents on weekends and holidays. I was very independent and being in residence was fun!
CC: Can you share a story about touring with The National Ballet of Canada?
NS: There are many good stories and some are magical. For example, I feel very fortunate, yet at the same time unfortunate, to have worked with the company during the Sleeping Beauty years of the early 1970s. This was a superb time for the company, yet performing in the production was very difficult. Rudolph Nureyev mounted his production of Sleeping Beauty on our company. Nureyev knew exactly what he wanted and he drove us hard. He would sit in the wings during every performance in order to give dancers feedback. He even yelled out corrections from the wings.
The performances were also demanding because the costumes and props were huge, heavy and hard to handle. The entire production was opulent and over done. Every performance felt like a battle. However, we learned how to cope with the various challenges.
Despite the difficulties, being on stage with Nureyev was magical. His energy and magnetism were awe-inspiring. Even though he was in his late 30s, he maintained his commitment to performing. He was absolutely magnificent dancing alongside Karen Kain. He was also generous in many ways to all of us. He wanted the best from us and he demonstrated how to give 100 per cent and more to dance. He was an exceptional role model, and I feel extremely privileged to have worked with him. Even though the production was tough physically and emotionally, the positives outweigh the negatives in my memory.
CC: Did many dancers get injured during these performances?
NS: Yes, although I am not sure precisely how many. When we were on a tour of Canada and the USA, we did eight shows a week for months on end. Near the end of the tour, there was a lot of illness and injuries.
CC: Prior to your tour of Sleeping Beauty, had you travelled outside of Ontario?
NS: Yes. In 1971 I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to study in Europe for a summer. I had just completed my “grad year” at NBS. When I retuned from Europe, I joined The National Ballet of Canada on a part-time basis. In February of 1972, I signed a contract with the company and joined them on their European tour.
CC: Why did you decide to go to university?
NS: When I was a student at NBS, everyone's aspiration was to get into the company. When I joined the company, I felt satisfied that I had accomplished my goal. I knew that I would never be more than a member of the corps de ballet. I loved touring and I loved the camaraderie. However, there were other aspects of dancing professionally that I did not like.
While dancing in the company, I realized quickly that I didn't want to stay there for a long time. Also, I always knew that I wanted to go to university. I therefore stayed with the ballet until I had enough money to go to university. After four years with the company, I left.
I went to York University as a dance major in the dance therapy stream. As it happened, I got offered a job teaching ballet at York when I graduated. I therefore never did work as a dance therapist.
CC: Did you enjoy teaching dance after your BA?
NS: Yes, but I only found out that I loved teaching when I started teaching. Leaving performing is always very hard. Performing brings exuberance to your life that is difficult to replicate. However, I found that teaching was rewarding in a different, but equal way. Similarly to performing and researching, I found teaching to be creative and interactive.
CC: What was the focus of your research for your Masters of Fine Arts in dance from York University?
NS: I examined the evolution of the Cecchetti Method of teaching and its dissemination. I did some of my Cecchetti exams while I was a student at the National Ballet School. Later, while teaching part-time at York University, I was given the opportunity to teach ballet as part of the university's outreach program for children. While teaching, I realized that the Cecchetti syllabus had changed over time. I wanted to identify the consequences of the syllabus' reconfiguration. I sought to understand what Enrico Cecchetti's goals were when he created his exercises and classes. I also wondered if current teachers fulfilled those goals.
Originally, the Cecchetti syllabus was built for pre-professional students who took daily class. Each day of the week, the students would practice exercises that built upon the previous day's class. Therefore, there was logic to the syllabus that depended on daily practice. However, today many students learn ballet on a recreational basis and they do not take class every day. I concluded that today's teachers find it difficult to get the full value of Cecchetti's work because many students no longer take daily class, and the Cecchetti Society has had to make substantial adjustments to the original Cecchetti syllabus. As a studio teacher, I wondered how we could improve this situation.
CC: Did you also study how the movements included in Cecchetti's syllabus were reinterpreted over time?
NS: The Cecchetti syllabus developed over time but was codified in London in the early 1920s. As a student I had done some nineteenth-century technique workshops with Susan Hammond, a scholar who has researched nineteenth-century ballet technique. The original Cecchetti syllabus has clear links to the exercises taught by Carlo Blasis. When I did my Cecchetti exams in the 1960s, there were still some exercises in grades 1 to 4 that came directly from the Cecchetti syllabus. Today, all the original Cecchetti exercises within the grades have vanished. Tracing how the Cecchetti syllabus changed over time was a real adventure for me.
CC: Why did you choose to do your Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia?
NS: When I began my doctoral studies in 1993, there were no Ph.D. programs in dance in Canada. I considered going to the University of Surrey in England, but that would have been very expensive. Temple University offered a Doctorate in dance education and since I loved teaching dance and was interested in exploring dance practices in the studio, I thought that Temple would be a good fit for me. Temple also offered me a fellowship, which was hard to refuse. For both my Masters and my Ph.D., I was very lucky to pursue research topics that stemmed from my own teaching experiences and curiosity.
I was very happy at Temple University. Many of my peers there also had experience dancing professionally and teaching in studios or universities. Since my classmates already had work experience, they tended to be mature and we covered a wide age range. This made for an interesting student body and my classmates became good friends of mine. We continue to correspond frequently.
CC: What aspects of dance education did you focus on in your research?
NS: My dissertation studied the impact of incorporating a computer tutorial into dance education.
CC: That must have been very cutting edge, especially at that time.
NS: I developed an interest in this area in the early 1990s, when Apple donated several computers to the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University. I was already teaching dance technique at York University, and a colleague of mine, Mary Jane Warner, and I considered how computers could be integrated into our teaching. Computers at that time were just beginning to feature multimedia software and products; we thought this would be perfect for dance history tutorials. My own doctoral research focussed on how I could use computers in the dance studio.
CC: How did you structure your research?
NS: I developed a computer tutorial that explained specific elements of ballet technique found in the “allegro” portion of class. Students found the tutorial on ballet terminology to be particularly useful. For example, the tutorial used audio and video clips to illustrate the difference between an “assemblé devant” and an “assemblé en avant”. I was surprised to learn that even the intermediate students in my study had trouble remembering the difference between such terms, and they tended to be too shy or uncomfortable asking questions during class. Students found the computer tutorial useful because they could review the information on their own time after class. My study found that the computer was an effective learning tool. Even if it had not been, during the research process I learned an incredible amount about teaching in the ballet studio, and the experiences of dance students.
CC: When you were studying at Temple University, did you continue dancing?
NS: Yes, I took some modern dance classes with the university's dance department. I had studied modern dance while I was an undergraduate student at York, and continuing my dance practice at Temple provided me with some balance. When I was a performer I felt bored, I did not feel challenged intellectually. The university setting provided me with an environment where I could be in the studio, but I could also explore ideas, and have intellectual debates with others. It was important to me to have a balance between my mind and body.
CC: Can you tell me about your book on Canada's National Ballet School?
NS: Mavis Staines, the current artistic director and co-CEO of the school, and I were at the school together. I have tremendous respect for her work. I had been considering the idea of writing a book about the school for several years. In the late 1990s, I finally contacted Mavis with the idea. She extended her absolute support immediately, and she offered me access to people and to archival materials.
In 2001, I received a grant from Canada's Social Science and Humanities Research Council to help fund my research. However, at the same time that I received my grant, I was also appointed as an Associate Dean in York University's Faculty of Fine Arts. I tried to pursue my book research while I held this position, but it was only when I got a sabbatical in 2004/05 that I really focussed on the writing. It was a heavy going year; I wrote throughout the day and took brief breaks for lunch and dinner. I approached my writing as if it was a full-time job.
I ultimately aimed to finish the book for the National Ballet School's 50th anniversary, which took place in 2009/10. I finished the final draft in October 2009, and we launched the book at the alumni weekend celebration in April 2010. It was a real push. The problem with writing a book about a current organization is that its history keeps going. Ending the book at the school's 50th anniversary felt appropriate.
CC: Even though you were a student at the school, and had intimate knowledge of the organization, were you surprised by what you uncovered through your research? Before you started writing, did you already have a sense for what the book might contain?
NS: Not entirely. For me, writing and researching is like an out-of-body experience. When I look back at some of the chapters in the book I think, “Did I really write that?” It's like somebody else had been channelled into my body.
I originally planned to divide the book into three sections (like a ballet class) and I also knew that I wanted to conduct interviews. My ideas for structuring the work evolved over the course of my research and writing. I wish I could be more specific. I often worked by intuition, and the writing felt ineluctable.
CC: Which dance archives did you use for your research?
NS: Betty Oliphant's archives were left with the school when she moved into a retirement home. Her archives included early summer school brochures and other invaluable information about the school's early years. I also went to the National Archives of Canada, Dance Collection Danse, and The National Ballet of Canada. I was lucky to have Mavis Staines's support, such that I could have access to so many documents.
CC: What type of artifact was the most useful to you and why?
NS: Board of Director's minutes. The minutes allowed me to track the development of projects as they unfolded. I also found grant applications useful. They revealed the school's rationale for various projects. In addition, the comments that the school received from funding bodies about unsuccessful grant applications allowed me to view the school's work from a wider point of view. It was also interesting to read Betty Oliphant's notes from auditions, and see the type of comments she would write about young students or about school rules.
CC: I think your book is very engaging.
NS: Thank you. I wanted to offer a solid piece of research without making the book too ponderous, but it's not an easy balance to attain. The artifacts were all so rich and it was often hard to decide what to include and what to leave out. When I omitted interesting facts, I would try to include them in endnotes so that other scholars could pursue research on them. I also wanted to be clear within my book that this is just one way of viewing the school's development. There are many other stories that can, have, and will be told about the school.
CC: What does dance history bring to dance?
NS: Studying history provides us with a better understanding of the present. I encourage my students to understand that not only were dances different in the past, but also the way dances were interpreted was also essentially different. My students generally understand that different cultures have distinct ways of interpreting dance. Similarly, I encourage my students to consider dances from the past with an equal sensitivity to historical and cultural specificity.
For example, when I teach dance history, I want my students to think about the experiences of the dancers and choreographers in different eras. Being a dancer in the nineteenth century, say, was a very different experience from being a dancer today. I try to include some studio sessions in order to give the students an embodied experience of dancing differently. I think it is a worthwhile way to teach history.
CC: What are you working on now?
NS: Over the past few years I have been fully involved in the upper administration of York University. However, I am returning to teaching with the Dance Department this year. I would like to do research on community dance and how to make dance more accessible. This interest of mine recalls and revives my initial interest in dance therapy.
In the United Kingdom there is more support for community dance than there is in Canada. I am interested in studying the history of the UK's approach to community dance, and how community dance professionals are prepared to enter the field. I am also interested in studying how first-generation Canadian dancers and choreographers have become engaged as professionals in Canada. It could be interesting to facilitate the creation of an anthology on this subject.
CC: If you were to return to an era of dance past, where would you go and when?
NS: There are many attractive possibilities. However, it would be fascinating to return to the early twentieth century and to meet artists such as Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and all the artists involved with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. This was a time of seismic shifts in dance and in society. I would love to have been at the inaugural performance of Le sacre du printemps.
CC: Would you have stormed out of the theatre?
NS: I don't know. There is part of me that is a traditionalist. If I had been part of the Imperial Russian Ballet, and Diaghilev asked me to perform this very strange movement, I'm not sure how I would have responded. It was against everything the dancers were trained to do! However, it was also an era of rebellion and maybe I would have been a rebel.
There were many restrictions found in the theatre earlier in the century. For example, in one of Michel Fokine's ballets the female dancers were not allowed to dance in bare feet. So, they actually painted toe nails onto their stockings in order to seem as though they were dancing barefoot.
CC: What keeps you committed to dance?
NS: I love dance, any form of dance, and I feel that I am incredibly lucky and privileged to do what I get to do. I find it energizing and invigorating, the process of thinking, collaborating and being with colleagues and students in the studio, meetings, or the classroom. Teaching is circular; you get back what you give or more. Having the opportunity to be intellectually stimulated all the time is tremendously exciting. There is always a project, conference, or idea that someone is investigating that keeps me intrigued. The work that my colleagues produce also inspires me.
CC: Sounds wonderful!
NS: Yes, I feel incredibly blessed that I have been able to remain involved in dance from the time I was four years old. Like many other dancers, I believe that dance chooses you, you don't choose dance. But, I've been lucky to keep doing it. It's a good life.
Photo Credit: Janet Somerville
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