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BWW Interview: A Season of Two Debuts for National Ballet's BRENDAN SAYE

"It's a dream come true," says dancer Brendan Saye. Recently promoted to First Soloist, Saye will be making two role debuts this season with the National Ballet of Canada - the Lead Man in James Kudelka's The Four Seasons (part of Made in Canada) and Prince Florimund in Rudolf Nureyev's production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty.

Talking to's Taylor Long, Saye discusses his love for Riverdance as a child, the illness that forced him to take a two-year break from dancing, and the special placeBWW Interview: A Season of Two Debuts for National Ballet's BRENDAN SAYE The Four Seasons holds in his heart.

Profile: Brendan Saye

Zodiac | Gemini

Ideal day off | Relax with the boyfriend and the dogs

Listening to | Top 40, James Bay

Why ballet?

As a kid, I was always really engaged in theatre and always really interested in it. I was fascinated by the whole stage illusion thing - lighting, costumes, performance. My parents knew that it was inevitable that I would end up in some form of theatre craft.

I saw Riverdance on a VHS when I seven or eight and I was so insistent that I wanted to go into lessons for this type of dancing. I kind of had a tendency to be a bit flaky with other things - like baseball - I would go and after a week I would want to tap out. So I think my mom, seeing the price of these Irish tap shoes, and knowing how non-committal I was, she said, "Well, why don't we put you in ballet first for a year, and if you're still interested, then we'll put you in that." I shortly forgot about the Irish dance.

And you've been motivated by ballet ever since?

Yeah, I fell in love with it. It sort of fixed my craving - I think I always wanted to move and I don't even think I necessarily knew that.

Can you briefly describe the three pieces in Made in Canada?

The three pieces, like the title says, are all by Canadian choreographers and have all been created for the National Ballet of Canada.

The Four Seasons is a sort of neo-classical ballet, narrated through the music of Vivaldi. It's just over twenty years old now.

The Dreamers Ever Leave You is something that was initially an immersive ballet experience, performed at the Art Gallery of Ontario a year ago, and I was lucky enough to be in the original cast for that. Now they're translating that to the stage. The piece is inspired by the works of Canadian painter Lawren Harris.

Emergence was a piece that was created about nine years ago by a world-renowned Canadian choreographer, Crystal Pite, who works with a lot of amazing contemporary companies around the world. It's a pretty massive piece - about 40-50 dancers in it. It's about the way that insects and birds, and that component of nature, how they work together - both in sync and in their own ways - to create something.

Congratulations, by the way, on recently being promoted to First Soloist. Tell me about the journey leading up to this promotion.

It's been a long road because essentially, about four or five years ago, I was off dancing for about two years. I missed two seasons with the company because I became ill - diagnosed with late-chronic Lyme disease. It took about a year to get a proper diagnosis and then it took a year to recover - at least back to the stage where I could be dancing.

I was preparing for some exciting roles and I was really looking forward to them, but then I became sick, and I just couldn't really help it. I just knew I could barely walk around, let alone dance.

It was a long journey, but I came back two and a half seasons ago. It took a little while, but the company was very supportive in getting me back to where I was before. They also gave me the opportunity to dance Romeo again.

I was very fortunate to have some wonderful opportunities when I came back. At the end of last season, I danced Siegfried in Swan Lake and it was after that that I was promoted to First Soloist. It was a long way there, but it happened.

You also recently made your choreographic debut in January's Choreographic workshop, tell me about that.

I've always been interested in choreography,BWW Interview: A Season of Two Debuts for National Ballet's BRENDAN SAYE and I've had opportunities to choreograph at the school in various workshops. I've always loved it. I think if you choose the right group of people to surround yourself with, it can be a really wonderful experience. And I surround myself with some pretty incredible, generous, and open dancers.

I knew I wanted to make something that was personal to me and my experience, and I think that's what made the process so special. I'm really happy with the product.

I think I try and be clear going into the studio, as a choreographer - because as a dancer we kind of know what works and what doesn't work. It's always nice to have that clarity and sense of understanding from a choreographer. So I try my very best to have a clear picture of what I want heading into the studio and I try to relay that to the dancers in a really level way - especially because they are my peers, my friends. I think of it as just crafting something together.

How would you describe your choreographic style - the work that you debuted in January?

I mean, that's always tough. I would say - deeply personal. I don't generally work on pointe with the girls, I like to make it a bit more human and relaxed.

I created these three short vignettes, and they're all sort of windows into different experiences from myself, my family, and things that were personal to me.

I'd say it's very organic? It's not very typically classical, in that sense. I've been told it holds a lot of strong imagery - and I try to be as musical as possible. I kind of have moments threading through the music, where I try and create an image that the audience can digest and understand.

We talked a bit about Made in Canada. You are making your role debut as the Lead Man in The Four Seasons. What are some of the most compelling features of this work by Kudelka.

Again for me, it's personal because I grew up watching this ballet. I saw Rex Harrington dance the role that he created - the Lead Man. And I was awestruck by it. The difficulty of it, the stamina, the complex choreography, the partnering. It's such a journey for this man.

Essentially, the ballet takes this man through the different stages of his life and each season is represented by a different woman. I think it's so beautifully crafted. It's such a poignant, well-made piece. It's really a work of art.

Winter is a busy season for you. You will also be dancing Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty. I'm familiar with the ballet, but I've never seen this production. What is unique about Nureyev's vision?

Well Nureyev, whenever he made something, especially something that he, himself danced - he always liked to make it more challenging for himself, and for the male dancer. Sleeping Beauty, I think, funny enough, if I were to say to a friend in Europe, "Oh, I'm dancing the part in Sleeping Beauty," they'd say, "Oh that will be nothing after Swan Lake." But in this production, it's actually much harder.

In the second act, you have essentially four variations and at least three of them are very challenging technically. It's just a beast - and such a massive ballet. And such an iconic classical ballet. So there's that aspect. The fact that Nureyev has made it so incredibly challenging for the male dancer is exciting. He's sort of elevated the role of the male dancer in it.

BWW Interview: A Season of Two Debuts for National Ballet's BRENDAN SAYE

Professional ballet is a demanding lifestyle. Tell me about your week. How much time is dedicated to rehearsing, developing new work, etc.?

We usually have a rehearsal period of about two to three months and then about a month of performances in Toronto. Then throughout the year we have different tours.

When we're rehearsing, we rehearse from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. during the week. When we're in the theatre, the hours change a bit because of performances.

I think some people aren't aware that surprisingly it's like a full-time job - it's all-encompassing for sure.

What can we expect from you over the next few years?

You'd have to ask my boss. *laughs*

I mean, I would hope to keep exploring some exciting ballets and some new opportunities. I just love rehearsing The Four Seasons for me, because it's such a personal checklist item of mine. Even just rehearsing in the studio, it's been such a thrill - so I can't imagine in the theatre, with the staging, what that will do. I just hope I continue to get opportunities to feel this way again.

You can surprise yourself a little bit when a certain opportunity comes your way. You might not think initially that you have it in you, but you can surprise yourself.

Anything you'd like to add?

In terms of the man in The Four Seasons. It's a really rewarding role to dance because, in the span of about forty minutes, you really get to go on this huge arch of a journey. I think what's also interesting about it - kind of like with Sleeping Beauty - it elevates the male dancer.

Something the choreographer kept telling me in rehearsal is that I have to be conscious of myself when I'm doing partnering because it's my story. I think it's really refreshing to have the male ballet dancer thrust into that position.

Normally in ballets, that kind of role goes to the ballerina. There's not a lot of male roles that get to have that cathartic experience - like Giselle, who gets to go through this huge range of emotions. I think this gives the man that opportunity in this ballet.

It's a dream come true.

Brendan Saye is a First Soloist with the National Ballet of Canada.

Saye will be performing the Lead Man* in The Four Seasons on March 1, 3 at 2:00 pm and Prince Florimund* in The Sleeping Beauty on March 17 at 2:00 pm

*role debut

For more information about the National Ballet of Canada, or to purchase tickets visit

All photos by Karolina Kuras.

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