by Marie Wilson

Dancer

When I was a teen I took dance classes but they were jazz, hot & crazy. I’d wanted Isadora Duncan, free & flowing. I got closer to Duncan’s style when, at age 20, I moved to Toronto (from Vancouver), & discovered Pavlychenko Studio. The moment I walked through the studio door, the feeling was one of peace & freedom & acceptance. I could breathe, I could be myself. I didn’t have to have the right leotard or leg warmers or jazz shoes; this was dancing sans shoes, just like Duncan.

The beautiful & inspiring Nadia Pavlychenko was my teacher. She taught me Martha Graham technique, for which I am eternally grateful. Martha’s spiraling moves & Nadia’s demonstrations & explanations gave me an awareness of my body in space that has never left me. The technique is a knowledge that gets deep inside your muscles & informs the way you see the world, it is a way of being that helps you understand all that is good about yourself & the universe. It lifts you up to a place where you feel you can overcome anything.

There are only a few pieces of advice I’d pass down to younger generations & one of them is: take dance: contemporary, Contact, Graham, if possible!

In a recent internet search, I found five Getty Images of Nadia’s dancer self (there are copyright issues). The only other photo I found was Nadia as a teenager in 1956. She is pictured in a snapshot of contestants for Miss Saskatchewan. She did not win but look how gorgeous she is (seated, left). You have to imagine her in black leotards & long flowing hair for her later dancing years.

Pavlychenko’s studio lobby was white. I can’t remember the exact details – it was 45 years ago – but I think there was a skylight, as the whole place was drenched in soft white light. And there was soft white carpeting & furniture to lounge around on before or after class. There may have been incense or candles & a statue of Buddha. Nadia was Buddhist.

I convinced my good friend Scott to study with Nadia as well. Together we formed a joyous duo, our strong youthful legs dancing up the stairs to the third floor studio – on Yonge near Wellesley, right across from the free-flowing hippie clothes of Morningstar; it was the mid seventies but the sixties were still very much with us.

We settled in for warm up, the focused matter of movement. In the studio, a bank of windows on one side & a wall of mirrors opposite provided radiant light. The class began with digging our elbows & fingers into each other’s shoulders, releasing the day’s tensions. As Nadia took her place at the front of the class, we took our places on the floor. A drummer on bongos kept lively beats for moves across the floor or for rolling down the spine, vertebrae by vertebrae, then up again. To this day when I do that warm up I hear that bongo beat. (below: photo of Martha Graham)

“You should try sitting on a carrot,” Nadia said to Scott one day. “Go home & sit on a carrot.” He wasn’t the only one who got that instruction & we all understood what position the vegetable should be in for the sitting. “You have a tight ass,” she told Scott. Without skipping a beat he replied: “I wish.”

She probably also told me to sit on a carrot but the commentary I most remember was when she told me I was too lazy to be a dancer. “You don’t want to work.”

She was right. I just wanted to fling my body around in momentary joy, a disciplined flinging perhaps, certainly an informed flinging, but a very nonprofessional flinging. No, dancing was not to be my way of life, although it has always been a big part of it.

Sometimes our teacher would be away & then her trusted co-dancers would take over at the studio. Finally, we learned that Nadia had left for good. She had cancer & had gone to Tibet to become a Buddhist nun in a monastery in the Himalayas. She was going to die, & this was how she wanted to go. We saw a picture of her with her head shaved, smiling & beautiful, among other nuns & monks.

I am told she died in her sister’s arms at the monastery. I went on to study dance & theatre at Simon Fraser University, a good education, but nothing to match the things I learned at the dancerly feet of Nadia Pavlychenko.

6 thoughts on “Dancer

  1. Mary Elizabeth Rubens

    Beautifully written dance Maria, did you ever wander over to the original TDT studios on Cumberland back in the sixties/seventies? <3

  2. Marie Wilson Post author

    Thank you, Mary Beth! I had no wanderings to TDT original studios in Yorkville. I only recall the Winchester home of Toronto Dance Theatre – where they still are today. <3

  3. Claire Gardner

    Very interesting account. So sad about Nadia’s illness but good that her Buddhist faith helped her.
    I like the way you are honest about being a bit too lazy to devote yourself to dancing! Your pieces are always worth reading! ( British understatement! )

  4. Catherine Patch

    What a wonderful story. I remember both Nadia and Morningstar. I remember the sounds and smells on Yonge between Bloor and Wellsley. This was my Toronto; the city I still miss.
    Nadia’s classes seemed so exotic and dangerous when I was at National Ballet School. I always wanted to go to one but we were taught to view going to class with her as on a par with getting into a car with a stranger. We had spent so many years sitting on zuccinis!

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