Ballet dancer, ballet teacher, dance historian and archivist, Montrealer and Québecois by choice, Vincent Warren is, or has been, all of those things. He’s also a superb raconteur, and many of his stories are hilarious. He shares those stories in Un Homme de danse (A Man of Dance) a film directed by Marie Brodeur. Like many Montrealers, Warren speaks English and French and often switches from one to the other in mid-sentence. He wears a scarf with great panache, too!
I didn’t know his name before seeing Homme de danse, but I soon realized that I had seen Warren dance many times; he is the male dancer in Pas de deux, an award-winning film that Norman McLaren made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1968. (The ballerina is Margaret Mercier and the choreography is by Ludmilla Chiriaeff.) With its mesmerizing multiple exposures, the film was ground-breaking for its time. If I had a nickel for every time I saw it back in my school days. . .
In yet another claim to fame, Warren danced the title role in the ballet Tommy, which choreographer Fernand Nault created for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in 1970, using music from the rock opera of the same name by The Who. The work appealed to young audiences and encouraged young men to consider careers in ballet.
Warren was born into a large family in Jacksonville, Florida, a place where boys were expected to play football, as his own older brothers did. But Warren was entranced by dance when he saw the film The Red Shoes at age 11. (Read the Wikipedia entry for The Red Shoes here, reviews of The Red Shoes at the Internet Movie Database.) He read everything he could about ballet, and started a ballet scrapbook, which he still has to this day (take that, all you “toss-it-out” minimalists!) He paid for his first ballet lessons with money he earned as a paper boy, but he didn’t pay for long; male students were so rare, they had to be encouraged. (“Boys were always welcome.”)
After finishing high school Warren headed to New York where he received scholarships to the American Ballet Theater School (Rudolf Nuryev was in his class!) and then to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. He was hired by the Metropolitan Opera at a time when Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi were performing there. Warren was a party animal, hanging out until the early-morning hours with the poet Frank O’Hara and his gang of abstract expressionist painters.
Warren also danced at the Sante Fe Opera Ballet, with an orchestra conducted by Igor Stravinsky. (Warren has a good Stravinsky story – but better you should hear it from him than from me.) In the summer, Warren worked in summer stock, where companies presented a new musical each week and performed as many as eight in one season.
In 1961 Warren joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, under the direction of Ludmilla Chiriaeff. He danced with the company until 1979, when he turned 40. He then taught performance and dance history until 1992 at École Supérieure de Danse du Québec, the school connected to Les Grands. The school had a tiny library with little more than 300 books. Warren donated thousands of his own books, magazines and prints to turn it into the best dance library in Canada. It’s now called Bibliothèque de la Danse Vincent-Warren, and it’s open to the public. “We want you to visit,” Warren said at the screening I attended.
Warren is not the only one who gets to tell stories – we also hear from dancers Véronique Landory, Annette av Paul, Anik Bissonnette, choreographers Brian Macdonald, Jeanne Renaud, Paul-André Fortier, Aileen Passloff, and journalist Linde Howe-Beck. Warren’s longtime friend, Peter Boneham, another American dancer and choreographer who made a home in Canada, is a real hoot. The two could probably form a comedy act if they wanted to.
Homme de danse might be a history lesson or a nostalgia fest, depending on the age and interests of the viewer. There’s footage of Place des Arts, so new that it’s still surrounded by rubble, a glimpse of former Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, colourful scenes at the World’s Fair, Expo 67, and excerpts from many ballets, too. I was surprised to learn that Radio-Canada used to present live ballet performances two to four times per week.
After living in a second-floor apartment in Mile End for 47 years, “like an old bear in his cave,” Warren decided to move to a ground-floor place. Director Brodeur filmed him as he packed up his possessions; it was a great idea, since so many of those objects sparked memories and stories.
Un Homme de danse (Man of Dance) directed by Marie Brodeur, will be shown as part of FIFA, Festival International du Film sur l’Art, on Sunday, March 20, 2016 at 5 p.m. in the Maxwell Cummings Auditorium of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1379 Sherbrooke St. W. Vincent Warren will attend the screening.
General admission tickets are $12.50; seniors (65 and older) pay $11; those 25 and younger pay $10; children 12 and younger pay $5.
For more information or to buy tickets online, visit www.artfifa.com