Prima Ballerina Is First Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow

On Oct. 20, UC Irvine’s Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellows Series and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ Dance Film Festival presented ‘Shadow Pleasures: Making Dance for the Screen’ at Edwards University Town Center 6. Veronica Tennant, the director and a former prima ballerina (the leading ballerina) with the National Ballet of Canada spoke as the first distinguished fellow of the year.
‘Shadow Pleasures’ was written and co-directed by Michael Ondaatje, author of ‘The English Patient,’ who contributed and narrated several of his texts as inspiration for the various works of dance presented.
Tennant spoke alongside longtime friend David Allan, director of UCI’s dance department and former dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.
The pair announced the introduction of the Gregory Brown Osborne Memorial Scholarship in Ballet Studies, a new scholarship for ballet dancers in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.
Allan said that qualified dancers must be in good academic standing and have the will to continue the pursuit of a professional dance career as well as an education.
‘[Osborne] is a young man whom we lost 12 years ago,’ Allan said. ‘It’s really something special that we can have a scholarship in the dance department that stands for excellence. I’m going to be recruiting very diligently for the next two years to find a dancer who is certainly worthy of that.’
After the announcement of the scholarship, Tennant delivered a talk outlining her background as a dancer, as well as her development as a film producer.
‘I was four when I first took a ballet lesson,’ Tennant said. ‘The story is [that] I was sort of a whirling dervish in the living room.’
This led her parents to enroll her in dance classes in London, where Tennant spent the first few years of her life.
‘For every dizzying height, there was a dizzying tumble,’ Tennant said. ‘I spent the first year of high school at the National Ballet of Canada flat on my back with a herniated disk. [It was] the first of four.’
Tennant spent the year in a body cast, watching the famed dancer Rudolph Nureyev set the ballet ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the Canadian company.
‘I didn’t dare, hope or dream that I might dance that role,’ Tennant said. But by the next year, the 18-year-old Tennant was cast as Juliet in the production, a role that launched her 25-year career.
It was in the same role that Tennant gracefully bowed out of the spotlight in 1989, after having danced with some of the most famous dancers in the world, including Rudolph Nureyev, Eric Bruhn and Mikhail Barishnikov.
As for her career in film, Tennant said, ‘I had a long list of credits in front of the camera, but time and time again, I was disappointed [with what I saw].’
In order to create dance films in the way she envisioned, it was necessary for Tennant to form her own production company, a feat which she said took ‘financial courage.’
The film was much like a live performance. Many of the shots and camera angles were unorthodox, highlighting the physicality of the movement. The five choreographed pieces in the film were paired with Ondaatje’s voice reading his own writing, as well as some of his home videos of Sri Lanka.
Felicia Flores, a sixth-year dance major, transferred to UCI in 2003, immediately involving herself in the campus dance scene. For the week before the movie screening, Flores had a lot of contact with Tennant.
‘[Tennant] worked with the UCI Etude Ensemble as well as 10 other dancers on an experimental dance film for about nine to 10 hours this week,’ Flores said. ‘She’s amazing. She’s extremely intelligent and creative, and she gets a lot out of us. But she does it in a professional way. She’s really down to earth.’
Flores had good things to say about ‘Shadow Pleasures.’
‘When dancers watch dance films, you can see the difference between live performance and a dance film, but this time it felt really different,’ Flores said. ‘When you’re dancing sometimes you feel really fragmented, and that’s what was focused.’