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Rex Harrington in Onegin. Photo by Maria Falsini.
National Ballet's Rex Harrington
Jessica Wong, CBC News Online | Updated May 21, 2004

Harrington and Cynthia Dale
Harrington and Cynthia Dale.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann.
The National Ballet of Canada's 2003-04 season marks Rex Harrington's 20th anniversary with the company, as well as his final season as principal dancer. As Canada's premier male ballet dancer prepared to star in Onegin – arguably his signature work – in November 2003, CBC News Online spoke with his dance partners and the understudies looking to take up his mantle.

While the world of dance is decidedly a physical realm, a male dancer needs to have more than good looks and a strong, healthy body. Gentlemanly manners, a sense of artistry, sensitivity to his partner and good communication skills are also traits to possess.

An exceptional male dancer like the National Ballet's Rex Harrington, however, balances all of this instinctively and possesses intelligence about the art of dance as well.

"You need to have the strength, you need to have flexibility, but most of all," principal dancer Guillaume C�t� told CBC News Online, "you need to have the brains because dancing is 90 per cent in the head and 10 per cent physical. Rex definitely has an incredible head on his shoulders."

"As professional dancers, it is part of our task and our job to learn how to do things mechanically and to master skills, whether it's partnering skills or technical skills or dramatic skills," principal dancer Chan Hon Goh said. "But when you seem to have this sense – instinctive sense – that you just know, when somebody says he or she is a 'natural,' you build on that and it becomes greatness."

Besides possessing the "whole package," the Peterborough, Ont.-born Harrington is blessed with a sense of drama and an unmistakable magnetism that carries his emotion out to everyone watching, according to the artists at the National Ballet.

Harrington's charisma and stage presence drew praise early on, from his teachers at the National Ballet School – one of whom once dubbed him "Superman" – and from dance critics, even when he was simply one of the many dancers in the corps de ballet. He was reviewed while doing a corps role, which almost never happens, first soloist Patrick Lavoie says.

Harrington and Dale.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedemann.
"Presence is so hard to describe," Lavoie said. "But when somebody has presence, they do nothing – they walk on the stage – and you notice them right away. You ask yourself 'Why am I looking at this person and not somebody else?' That's what Rex always had."

With all eyes on him, Harrington is then able to convey the necessary feeling to convince his audience they are not simply watching a performance, but seeing the character himself. There are many exceptional dancers in the world and while it can be hard to pinpoint what makes each special, Harrington is able to convincingly become the lead character, says Lavoie.

"You don't see this dancer playing the role, you really believe this is who he is."

The 41-year-old Harrington is also able to help his partner come into her role, to come into the life of the ballet, says Chan. "It's his innate, God-given gift of being able to know where the girl wants to be, even before she does."

"He and I had this connection with each other�when performing," principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu said. "It's the chemistry that works between two people and it's a treat. It's not a job – and it sounds silly maybe – but it becomes like a dream, like a girl's fantasy to dance with him because he's so passionate."

Unlike some dancers who are unable, or unwilling, to explain themselves and their interpretations, Harrington doesn't hold back and is eager to share his passion and experience with other dancers.

"He loves to give what we joke about as the secrets of his performances," Xiao said. "He loves to help people."

Younger male dancers have benefited from Harrington's experience the most, as he will break down his performances – from the most technical details to what he is feeling at each moment – to teach others.

"I'm understudying Onegin right now so I have a chance to work with him and it's great to see what he thinks about," Lavoie said in November 2003. "There's this thought process behind everything. That's what makes it real. You don't just do it because someone told you that's the step, you do it because the emotion is pushing you to do it. You have to find what it means for you."

Harrington and Karen Kain
Harrington and Karen Kain.
Photo: Marni Grossman.
"As a young male dancer who's often obsessed with technical things and little details, it's incredible to see somebody who's mastered the art of not doing 'steps' but telling a story and seeing the bigger picture," C�t� added. "He's helped me in feeling my relation to the girl and how not to become just a simple porter�dancing instead of just carrying."

Harrington never simply carried his partners, even when he was a student starting at the National Ballet School at the relatively late age of 14. Former teacher Sergiu Stefanschi recently told the Toronto Star that Harrington's rare talent showed early on. "When he touched a woman, his hand would be moulding into the woman's body so they were one body."

This talent and understanding have made him one of the "world's best partners," having danced with some of the greatest ballerinas of recent times, including Evelyn Hart, Karen Kain, Veronica Tennant, American Ballet Theatre's Susan Jaffe and La Scala superstar Carla Fracci, as well as having worked with Erik Bruhn and the iconic Rudolf Nureyev. However, despite his experience, Harrington still retains a sense of respect for the next generation of artists.

Xiao first danced with Harrington in the National's 2000 presentation of Onegin. "I was only corps and he was the biggest ballet star in the company but, not even a bit did he make me feel that he was the star and I had to listen to him. He was so down-to-earth. He likes to figure out things with you."

The young ballerina and the seasoned veteran had an amazing chemistry, which continued as Xiao reprised her role as Harrington's partner in 2003's Onegin.

Harrington and Kain
Harrington and Kain.
Photo: Marni Grossman.
"Everything he does is larger than life and he sucks you into it," she said. "We go into rehearsal and sometimes I'm tired, but watching him dance, he brings you into it and he makes you work; you forget about tiredness."

She believes that she also inspires a similar sense of rejuvenation in Harrington.

Xiao and the rest of the company were all looking forward to 2003's Onegin, but some were eyeing Harrington's breathtaking role for the future.

"Just watching rehearsal with Rex and [Xiao] Nan is amazing!" Lavoie laughed, adding that being able to take over the role would be "great!"

"I hope to do it someday," C�t� concurred. "I will have that picture of him in my head. We never try to copy things but I'll definitely try to mimic a lot of the things he does in it."

The status of her role in the dramatic ballet, however, is not what's important for Xiao.

"Four years ago, when we first opened Onegin, after the ball, he laid a bouquet in front of my feet onstage. It was the biggest thing anyone has ever done for me," she recalled of her first major role for the National, and her favourite with Harrington.

"The whole evening, I was trying to get through the show, just making sure everything was smooth, and at the end of the show, to have the principal dancer Rex Harrington put the bouquet right in front of my feet� just shows he's just really special."

Though Onegin is already considered a poignant work, Xiao predicted that Harrington's final performances would evoke an even stronger sentiment than usual from the dancers.

"Maybe this will be the last time he's doing it. He's going to be around – not that he's packing up and leaving the day after – but it's going to be an even more emotional show for most of us."

Star 'Four Seasons' turn brings Harrington era to a close (May 21, 2004)

Harrington opens �signature role� for farewell season (Nov. 21, 2003)

VIDEO: Brian Stewart reports for The National, part 1 (runs 2:55) (Nov. 21, 2003)

VIDEO: Brian Stewart reports for The National, part 2 (runs 3:07) (Nov. 21, 2003)

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National Ballet: Rex Harrington career highlights
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