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Mon, April 3, 2006

High Art
It's Ottawa's answer to Fame: A school where choreography is as important as trigonometry.

It's about 2 p.m. in a warm, mirrored dance studio.

Some 20 girls and two boys are wearing black body suits and tights with holes and rips. They're waiting to practise a choreographed series of movements involving flying leaps, jetes and an awkward-looking backwards move over the shoulder.

"When you roll," teacher Connie St. Louis tells her Grade 10 modern dance students, "go either shoulder, I don't mind. Whatever you are comfortable with."

Liz Gosse, 15, convulses into giggles at the end of her turn.

"If I make a mistake," she says, suddenly shy, "I laugh at myself."

Gosse doesn't have much time to chat. At Canterbury High School, dancers who spend a quarter of the day on their art have just five minutes to change to get ready for the next class.

St. Louis, a former professional dancer, watches them trot off.

"It's an amazing program," she says. "If I look back on my life, all the time spent looking for a teacher ... this is built into their life, like brushing their teeth."

About 500 audition for 250 Grade 9 spots at Canterbury each year.

Teachers hold auditions every February for a school reminiscent of New York's High School of Performing Arts, which was depicted in the 1980s hit movie Fame.

They come from all over Ottawa and beyond, nervous and eager Grade 8s, bringing with them portfolios, writing samples, prepared monologues and soliloquies.

"We're not looking for the ones who hog the spotlight, because we can't handle that, or the ones that are so withdrawn they can't do anything," Canterbury's acting drama head, Jim McNabb, says during an interview in his bright office, where the scent from a bowlful of Hershey's Kisses beckons.

"We're looking for innate talent, desire and flexibility, the musicality, the soul inside the kid, and not necessarily have you taken eight years of dance. Who is really wanting to be here?"

Independent dance artist Maureen Shea goes back to Canterbury weekly to teach and choreograph. Not only does it pay the bills -- making it solely as an artist in Ottawa, she explains, is a dicey proposition -- it helps her feel ageless.

Shea says she feels neither 34 nor like the teen she was when she was a Canterbury student. "It's just the essence of me," she says.


Shea says the Canterbury experience as a teen marked her for life. Somehow she knew the energy, the enthusiasm, the time, the support would not always surround her after leaving its comforting walls.

"It was like carte blanche," she says. "I just went in there and I ate it up. I used every opportunity I had to just try things out."

The school boasts many notable working artists.

One is opera singer Shannon Mercer, class of 1994, who returned to her home town in February to host the school's annual gala and stayed to play Nannetta in Opera Lyra's production of Falstaff.

Mercer recalls finding out about Canterbury through one of her teachers at Rideau Valley Middle School in Kars.

"I wasn't the greatest in school, so I thought it would be a good thing for me, and a lot of the artistic kids found their way through that school," she says.

Close to half of Canterbury students don't go on to work in their field. No matter, says alumnus Maureen Ross Neilson, host of the renovation show Design U.

"In any walk of life, being able to articulate to a larger group of people, having the rhetoric to really stand up and make your point heard, these are skills you learn by allowing yourself to be laughed at by other people," she says. "I think it's an enormously important tool you don't get in any other class."

Alumni include Jessica Holmes, of CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce; Tyley Ross, co-founder of New York-based East Village Opera Company, and Rhaoul Bhaneja, blues musician and actor on Global's now-defunct serial Train 48.

Then there are others trying to make it. Someone might leave Canterbury and get a history degree, deciding upon graduation -- or before -- to take a shot at trying to sell their talent.

Most figure out there isn't enough work to sustain them and they need to leave for Montreal or Vancouver or Toronto, says McNabb.

Bhaneja, who hosted the Canterbury gala last year, says he runs into fellow grads "all the time."

"I sort of call it 'six degrees of Canterbury,' " he says.

There's always hope for grads, he says. "If they want to, they can have a career in the arts."

That's part of why teacher St. Louis says the teacher-student bond at Canterbury is stronger than at the school her children attend.

"Because we know the kids so well, they talk to us about so many things ... they learn to trust us and, depending on their background, they don't always have that."

McNabb says students might be struggling with stage moms and dads or parents who are not supportive of their artistic ambitions, or wary of their practicality.

"There are always parents who say, 'I don't want my kids here,' " he says. "I had a kid crying in my office this morning because her parents don't want her here."

Faculty follow their former students' careers as best as they can. Students often stay in contact. McNabb hosts an annual drama Christmas party at his house every year; about 100 people show up, many with spouses and babies.

"You make a big bond with somebody when you are with them for four solid years. When you are in the arts, you open up to your teachers," he says. "There is an emotional bond, because that is what the arts is all about."


The Grade 10 modern dance class is over. Upstairs, 15-year-old Ada Oliver is working away in a visual arts class. She's etched intricate drawings into Plexiglas and metal. Her hands are covered in ink as she points to the fantastical images which have gone into one creation -- "Imagination Age 5."

"I don't like planning them out completely," she explains.

Each discipline in the Canterbury arts program has ways of reaching out to the community. There's the dance troupe, the annual musical.

The teachers, says McNabb, expect a lot from their students.

"Canterbury has a really high reputation and we don't want to lose that," he says. If they are tough, students must "get used to it."

"That's what life is going to be like," he says. "If you can't cope in a drama program, you're dead."

Mercer credits Canterbury for paving the way to make music her life's work.

"You got to concentrate on what you loved doing and yet you had the academic to back it up. You were able to be who you wanted to be."

Art of the State


About one-third of Canterbury's 1,300 students are enrolled in the arts program.

- The 250 Grade 9 students are streamed into different areas: Dance, drama, literary arts, music (vocal or instrumental, strings or wind) and visual arts.

- Once there, they must maintain at least a 65% average.

- Students spend one-quarter of their school day pursuing their chosen discipline.

- The program used to be provincially funded until the $180,000 arts budget was yanked in 1999. Now parents donate $250 a year to cover costs for everything from art supplies to live models.

- Each February the school hosts the Canterbury Stars Return Gala to raise funds for the arts program.

-- Ann Marie McQueen




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