Glenna Turnbull: David LaHay
The birds are still sleeping most days of the year when David LaHay's alarm clock goes off at 5:45 am, but the artistic director of Ballet Kelowna doesn't mind.
"Plus I need to do my own physical warm-up before I start to teach," says LaHay who, at 57, remains almost as lean and toned as his dancers.
By 8 am, the six professional dancers that make up the company have arrived and are in the studio stretching out, preparing for LaHay's gruelling daily class; then it's into rehearsals until well past 3 pm where he's often creating new choreography. During his lunch break he eats in the office, making phone calls in between bites. How does his day end? "I usually collapse," he jokes with a smile.
Although he's an early starter each day, LaHay admits he was a late bloomer in the world of professional dance. "I was in my second to last year at Trent UniversityŠ and the Gilbert & Sullivan society asked me to choreograph the dancers because I was known as the 'wild man' at the Saturday night dance club," he laughs.
"The theatre guild brought in a woman who gave us a ballet warm-up. We became friends," recalls LaHay, "and when they did Oklahoma, they needed someone to do the dancing for 'Curly' during the dream sequence and she started giving me a few basic ballet classes. I really liked it."
When she asked him what he was going to do when he graduated, LaHay realized "I wanted to dance." So she arranged for an audition at the National Ballet School. "She took me down to Toronto to the audition - it was a 14-year-old-boys' class and I was 21. I really didn't know much as I'd only just started. So, they went up, I went up; they went down, I went down. It was Betty Oliphant who was teaching the class! Thankfully I didn't know who she was, so I didn't know to be nervous."
When Oliphant suggested he try York University's dance program as it would be more age appropriate, his friend arranged for an extra night's stay in Toronto. "I went and auditioned the next morning and they took me into the program," says LaHay.
He enrolled into York's Dance and Fine Arts program the next fall, having completed his English degree and says, "They put me right into the second-year program so I did the second and third year, graduated and got a job in Montreal with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens."
"I was manic," he recalls smiling. "I was absolutely driven to dance, 24 hours a day, seven days a week if I could - not to say that I was a completely trained dancer when they hired me but I had enough they could work with me. I stayed with them as a professional for 14 years - nine years of that as principal dancer."
During that time, LaHay toured all over the world - North, Central and South Americas, Europe and Asia. "It was wonderful! It was the glory days of touring because Canada Council was giving money and grants. We toured Canada completely every two years, so I actually danced in Kelowna several times." He also was featured as a guest artist with his partner Annette av Paul (who founded Ballet BC upon her retirement) in Stockholm and at the Cuban International Dance Festival.
At the age of 37, an opportunity arose that offered LaHay the chance to retire but remain with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. "I wanted to end with Nutcracker which was one of my favourite roles. I finished my last performance and two weeks later, walked into the studio as ballet master. It all worked out very well."
After four years there, Frank Augustyn approached him to be ballet master at his Ottawa Ballet company followed by a similar position at Alberta Ballet. And for the past 14 years he's been at the Banff Centre for the Arts each summer where he's now associate director of the dance program.
So, how did someone of his stature end up in Kelowna? He replies in just three words: "Mel and Lori." Lori Larson and Melville Brown own and operate the Canadian School of Ballet and frequently go to visit their dancers in Banff. "I've always been terribly upset that there were not more job opportunities for Canadian dancers to dance in Canada," LaHay says, "so I told them I'd be willing to think about their idea of starting a company here but that I wanted a professional company, not an amateur group. They came back after talking to some parents and the community, and I jumped right in."
It took a year to get the groundwork done and dancers hired; but in September 2003, Ballet Kelowna gave their first performance, doing five shows. Since then, the company has grown. This year the dancers have 34-week contracts and will have danced 58 performances between September and May, in cities spreading as far north as Fort St. John, west to Chilliwack, east to Golden and Cranbrook, and south to Oliver and Osoyoos.
"I'd love to see it, and believe it will, grow to have 12 to 14 dancers touring all across the country and abroad as well. There's a huge market for dance that has never been tapped. Some of the communities we've been to have never had a ballet company come through; and being a small, highly tourable company, we can service these markets and add more as we progress," says LaHay. Ballet Kelowna's mixed-repertoire approach means there's something in it for everyone - from classic pas de deux to contemporary ballets.
For more information about Ballet Kelowna, their website is www.balletkelowna.com