Celebrating 60 Years of The National Ballet of Canada

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent the summer as an intern with the National Ballet of Canada Archives in Toronto. One of the biggest projects I worked on was preparing an exhibit for the company’s 60th anniversary that would be able to travel on tour, be in the theatre during performances and be displayed at various other cultural venues around the city. Well ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… it is finally finished and on display!

The Introductory panel for the exhibit which gives an overview of the company's history.

Technically the exhibit was finished and went on tour with the company in September, but only recently have I been able to see it on display and help set it up/take it down. It was on display during the inaugural National Ballet of Canada Week at City Hall in Toronto in November and the Toronto Reference Library in October.  But last night at a performance of The Nutcracker was the first time I had the pleasure of seeing it set up and watching people I don’t know read it and get excited by the photos.

People admiring the gorgeous photos.

Now I can’t take all the credit for creating this beautiful thing. The project was initially started in the Fall of 2010 between my supervisor and a group of Museum Studies students at the University of Toronto. They actually came up with the concepts for each panel, decided on using the banner system and had the entire exhibit researched and written with photo selections. However due to the short timeline their finished product didn’t mesh with the company’s brand. That’s where I come in. I re-researched and re-wrote the text and selected new photographs from the archival collection. The finished product feature 8 panels about: the company, the 60th anniversary logo, the Nutcracker, choreography, music, the dancer, behind the scenes and The Tutu Project (see my handy web skills here). It took  a lot  of time and effort to come up with a product that satisfied myself and my supervisor as well as upper management but I think the result is pretty amazing.

Some more panels.

Letters to God’s Country – My First Book

As I have mentioned before, I recently graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s MA in Public History. Finally finishing school is a pretty big milestone and turning point in one’s life but on the day of my graduation I also accomplished another big feat, seeing my first published book.

Graduation day with my book Letters to God's Country.

This book is the culmination of a semester-long project I did for Dr. Jonathan Vance’s class “Canada and the First World War.” Instead of writing a regular term-paper I had the option of editing a collection of First World War letters and getting the book published, which is obviously the option I chose.

At the beginning of the term I had a choice of which letters I would like to work with and this set particularly caught my eye. They were all sent from Canadian soldiers home to Reverend J. Ewing Reid of their church, Alhambra Avenue Presbyterian Church in Toronto, thanking him and the congregation for care packages they had received. I was fascinated by their contents, some as brief as two or three lines, others run on for pages talking about anything and everything except time on the battlefield. I knew immediately after leafing through them that I had to find out more information about these men.

Luckily for me, the United Church of Canada Archives had some microfilmed material from the Alhambra Ave. church which I was able to order through inter-library loan. It was mostly the minutes of various committee meetings, but it did allow me to gain some insight into the culture at the church and learn a little about the care packages. Again, luckily for me, one of the men mentioned that he attended Humberside Collegiate Institute in Toronto. I looked up the school and to my immense surprise, the school has its own archives! I was eventually able to set up a meeting time with the archivist after school and look through their records to identify all of “my soldiers” who had attended the school.

Aside from their names in the graduation programs at Humberside, the only other information I had to work from was the attestation papers of each soldier. While these documents come with their own unique set of problems, like the tendency for men to lie about past military service, age or profession to increase their chances of being accepted, they allowed me to broaden my knowledge of each soldier. In their biographical notes I was able to state when they enlisted, their profession and any other information which may have been provided.

Letters to God's Country, edited by me! Note that the picture on the postage stamp is Alhambra Ave. Presbyterian Church as it would have been during the First World War.

I also searched through the Commonwealth War Graves database to determine which of these men never returned home and to my surprise, I found only one entry. There were a few other troubles I encountered during the completion of this book, namely interpreting the handwriting. Although I made my best effort and Dr. Vance double-checked all the words I had trouble with, there are unfortunately still some illegible words.

One of the last things I did was chose a title for the book. I wanted it to be interesting and relevant to the subject-matter but naming things has never been my forte, ask any professor who has read the titles on my papers. At the closing of one of the letters, one of the men expressed his sincere wish to return to “God’s Country” and this expression stuck with me. Canada must have appeared to truly be God’s country in comparison to the carnage and destruction happening all around these men day in and day out.

Overall, the experience of editing this collection of letters has been incredible. I learned about creating annotations for historical documents, the layout and design process for a book and most of all, about the dedicated souls from Alhambra Ave. Presbyterian Church, who were willing to lay down their lives for “God’s Country.”

Ballets and Tutus and Archives, Oh My!

(Opinions are my own)

My entrance in the hat competition at the Mad Hot Wonderland Gala in June.

Hi everyone, it’s been a long time since I’ve actually had the time to compose a post for you and I know it’s long overdue. But I do really want to share some of my experiences from my summer internship with the National Ballet of Canada. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts but will repeat here, I was a Masters student in the University of Western Ontario Public History program. The 11-month program is a departure from a traditional MA in history which suited me perfectly. I took a wide variety of courses offered by the history and public history departments which gave me a number of chances to get hands-on experience before heading out to the stark realities of the real world. And rather than writing a Major Research Paper, public history students complete a 12-week internship.

My internship was with The National Ballet of Canada  Archives. I can’t say how much I have enjoyed this experience. I got to work on a bunch of different projects from creating an archival exhibit for the Four Season’s Centre Lobby and Toronto’s City Hall, to redesigning and building virtual exhibits for the website to selecting the historical tutus to be included in The Tutu Project.

Setting up for the hat-making workshop I helped out at for Dancebreak patrons in preparation for the hat contest at the Gala.

You can check out  the re-designed virtual exhibits here. Prior to the re-design, all that was there was a photo gallery with a huge paragraph of text underneath of the images which was neither visually pleasing or engaging. It was also missing the background context of each ballet’s history. In the new layout we introduce each ballet with a blurb about its history (compiled by yours truly) and the production history with the company. We link to the ballet note, which is produced for the programs when performed. The under the our history tab you can see the photos and their respective text. “Your Story” is a place where audience members, staff and alumni can share their experiences and memories of each ballet. If you want to see the picture in a larger format you can open the photo gallery and view it there along with more photos from the company.

The Tutu Project is another exciting project I got to collaborate on. You can read about the whole project by visiting its virtual museum site (designed by yours truly). [Note: If there seems to be an error on the site when you click it, I’ve been informed we’re having flash issues which should be resolved soon] In conjunction with my supervisor, the Archivist for the company Adrienne, we selected 13 historical tutus which were representative of the company’s history, association with important dancers, ballets and choreographers and were visually interesting. We then selected historical photos and costume sketches to accompany them and spent waaaay too much time writing our blurbs about each tutu. This is just one part of the larger project, which has been so much fun to work on, I can’t wait to see the final display with all 60 tutus together next year!

Steaming Celia Franca's Coppelia tutu in preparation for the photoshoot with all the historical tutus.

The above two projects are just two of the many excellent things I’ve been able to work on while at the ballet. If you happen to be in Toronto from November 14th to 20th be sure to stop by Toronto’s City Hall Rotunda to see the archival exhibit during the inaugural National Ballet of Canada Week! Thanks to everyone in the company who made my internship such an amazing experience.

Archaeology and my Filing Cabinet

(Note: While I am incredibly overdue in posting something about my internship and I have started the draft of a post, this happened today and is fresh in my mind. Please excuse the chronology.)

Today I tackled the highly unpleasant task of cleaning out my filing cabinet and desk in an attempt to be responsible. (Responsible people know where to find last months internet bill or their loan agreements when needed.) As I weeded the gems from the junk (alliteration what?) and watched the pile of garbage on the floor grow, I started to wonder what someone would make of my life if they had only the contents of my filing cabinet and this pile of discarded papers (which was then packed into an old shopping bag for removal). I know this sounds a lot like an assignment I did in Grade 11 History class where you imagined an archaeologist discovering your bedroom 1000 years from now, but I still think it’s worth returning to.

Yes, I do have a pink filing cabinet

What did I deem unworthy to occupy space in my filing cabinet? Old envelopes, receipts from purchases which I can’t return anymore if it breaks, old train tickets I don’t know why I kept in the first place, instructions from masses of ikea furniture and the like. I cannot believe how much of this stuff I should never have kept in the first place, and this is coming from someone familiar with how archives work and what is and is not valuable. Why did I keep the envelopes from letters and bills? Was I really that lazy that I couldn’t just take the letter out of the envelope to file it? I like to think no but I’m starting to have doubts. Another question I have is why do I sporadically keep receipts for items I’ve purchased.

My junk neatly packaged into an old shopping bag

What I have learned is that I should spend more time consciously staying organized, especially while I live in such a small apartment, but I’m still wondering what kind of conclusions an archaeologist would draw from my filing cabinet and waste pile. Would I appear materialistic because most of the receipts are of clothes? What would be made of my collection of greeting cards which may or may not sing?

Excuse the rambling, I was just thinking digitally.

Summer Internship at the National Ballet of Canada Archives

As some of you may know, I’m doing a 3 month internship for my MA in Public History this summer at the National Ballet of Canada Archives. I started officially last Monday and I am loving it so far!

Most of my internship is built around the National Ballet’s 60th anniversary year. A lot of different projects are going on to celebrate the history of the company which I feel lucky to help with. I jumped right in on the first day writing exhibit text for the upcoming exhibit in Toronto’s City Hall Museum in November.

One of the other fun tasks I’m working on is Project 60 Tutus, which calls on artists and community groups to create tutus celebrating the history of the company. The tutus are being created throughout the 60th season and once all are finished will be displayed together. Part of this project will feature approximately 10(ish) historical tutus from the archival collection and I get to help choose the tutus that will be featured in the exhibit, as well as do research and help write the exhibit text that accompanies them!

I have to say this is the most fun I’ve had working in a long time! I’m doing fascinating work and the topic is just so cool. In addition, my supervisor is awesome and coffee breaks around here consist of watching rehearsals for the upcoming Alice in Wonderland production, which premieres June 4th at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. (I get to go see this!) The only way this could get any better was if I didn’t have to get up at 6:15 every morning.

Water for Elephants

Welcome to the wonderful world of a post course-work Masters student! The very first thing I did after assignments were handed in and I moved, was to pick up a fictional novel, just to read something because I wanted to. I can’t tell you how long its been and how much I miss fiction. The book I just so happened to pick up was Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen.

Based on the movie trailers I had seen I expected nothing more than a weepy romance novel, which suited me fine., I wanted something that wouldn’t take a lot of brain power to digest. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. Water for Elephants is a romance of sorts, but it is so much more as well. The story is told from the perspective of Jacob Jankowski, a 93 year-old man in a nursing home who looks back on the summer of 1931 when he accidentally joined a travelling circus. While Jacob’s romance features prominently, I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much effort Gruen put into historical accuracy.

The story is set in 1931 during the Great Depression in America and there are plenty of accurate references to the general climate of the time. However the best part in my mind, is her attention to circus history. In the Author’s Note Gruen states that the idea for the novel came to her after she read an article in the paper about traveling circuses in America in the 1920’s and 30’s. She then spent four months compiling a bibliography, visiting circus museums and conducting research to make her novel historically accurate. By this point I’m so much more in love with the book, and then she says that many of the incidents included in the novel are based on facts and anecdotes in circus history. That’s it, right there, I’m in love.

Not only is this book historically accurate, but its a fascinating story of human relationships that’s at times funny, moving, exhilarating and wonderful. Then I started to wonder if there isn’t something to be said for a beautifully written historical novel as a teaching tool. I enjoyed reading historical novels in some of my undergraduate classes, they’re often much more engaging than textbooks. Could there be a way to harness historical reality and place a good story within an accurate historical framework that would make people interested in history?

To blatantly answer my own question, yes, I think there is. The greatest obstacle I see to this is the generally acknowledged mantra that academic historians write badly. To get readers engaged with the history, the story itself would have to be well-written and I believe the interest in the history would be secondary. If we collectively as a group think about what we research I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of incidents, anecdotes, myths etc. that would make a fantastic story. The real question is, can we set aside our need for 100% accuracy to be a little creative, think outside the box and write? I challenge you to take one of those ideas and turn it into a short story and just see where it leads you. I will be attempting the Contagious Diseases Acts in Canada.

Cult of Maternity

What is our current obsession with maternity and children? As a society, the act of getting pregnant has become some sort of cult. Unlike previous generations, parents of today seem to place their children far above their own needs. I don’t mean in terms of food, clothing, shelter etc. I’m thinking of the stereotypical soccer mom, who escorts her children to all of their sporting events at a detriment to herself. I am not a parent so maybe this is beyond my capacity to understand, but when did this happen and why? To illustrate part of what I’m referring to, see the video below featuring a couple who recorded the moment they discovered they were having a child.

Did people in the past react this way or were they more concerned about how they were going to feed another mouth? Is it our increased leisure time that promotes this cult? Any thoughts would be appreciated, these are just some things I’ve been toying with in the last few weeks.