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COVID-19 Community Profile – Royal Winnipeg Ballet

June 30, 2020

As a community research project, one of the ways we are contributing during the pandemic is by sharing some of the great work that our partners are doing to help families during this stressful time; both for the purposes of building awareness, and also to demonstrate the resiliency of Point Douglas. As you’ll read throughout these blog posts, it comes as no surprise to anyone that our community has responded in a selfless and dependable way — working hard to make sure that families are supported when they need it most.


We’ll be interviewing and profiling a different community organization, group or individual each week with the intent to share a different viewpoint than you’ll find in the mainstream media – a community perspective on the current situation surrounding COVID-19, and beyond.


Regular operations for non-profit organizations are being affected by the pandemic, requiring many to evaluate and adjust the way they contribute to their communities. One such example is the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB), a partner of Winnipeg Boldness, who contributed to the project’s Participation in the Arts prototype. The RWB’s mission of enriching the human experience by teaching, creating, and performing outstanding dance, has been highly limited by the public health measures implemented due to COVID-19.


“When you are dancing with someone that is sweating, and you are sweating, you are literally doing the opposite of physical distancing; you’re lifting and holding each other, there is no escaping that reality,” said David Warburton, Director of Touring And Business Development at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. “All of our performances rely on a couple thousand people getting together and being in [one] place. How do you do that safely?”


When the uncertainty of the pandemic hit the world, the RWB had to cancel local and international performances including a tour for Manitoba 150, as well suspending in-person dance training. After facing significant challenges including layoffs in the company and school, the RWB started thinking about the reopening process and what would be needed; one of the first things they identified was masks.


“We order a bunch of masks from different sources; we were not really satisfied about their quality [and] the cost was prohibitive,” mentioned Warburton. “How could other arts organizations be expected to have, purchase and deploy masks if it was going to become compulsory or recommended by government?”


Since the RWB would need potentially thousands of masks for staff, dancers, and students, they decided to do research, design and make their own.


“We thought we could make something quite substantial and better than the average mask, because we have some of the most talented wardrobe people in the country – that’s our speciality,” stated Warburton.


The outer layer of the mask is cotton, with the inner lining constructed of a different type of cotton – a little softer to help prevent your face from various irritations. In between those layers is an interfacing that helps by adding an additional layer of protection. The masks are not certified medical masks, but certainly offer some degree of protection since medical grade masks are not available.


With this high-quality final product, the RWB decided to increase the quantity of masks produced in order to donate a portion to the community.


“This project allowed us, and especially the wardrobe team, to do something productive and also something that hopefully is going to help out community,” remarked Warburton.


Instead of taking a transactional approach for the mask donations, the RWB decided to work with an existing community partner – The Winnipeg Boldness Project.


“[Winnipeg] Boldness is community-based, and [provides] community-driven solutions. That’s really important any time people are trying to work on very complex social issues,” reflected Warburton. “We wanted to find somebody that was already doing the work in a way that is deeply respectful of the community and helpful.”


The first delivery of masks to Winnipeg Boldness included 510 masks, which were then distributed by the project to community partners, including: Wahbung Abinoonjiiag, North Point Douglas Women’s Centre, Andrews Street Family Centre and Blue Thunderbird Family Care. A second delivery of masks is planned for early July and will include another 500 masks. From there, the RWB expects to receive feedback from the community organizations to assess further demand and plan for additional supply.


“Relatively speaking, we have a lot of privilege and funding that comes with being a large institution” states Warburton. “If it turns out that there is more demand, […] there is a strong possibility that we can carry this on for as long as we have the means to do it. If we think that next season and performances are going to be impacted, then this is another way to carry on some productive work and meet a part of our mission.”


Left to right: Diane Roussin (The Winnipeg Boldness Project), David Warburton (Royal Winnipeg Ballet), Miranda P. (Winnipeg Boldness Parent Guide Group Member & Wahbung Abinoonjiiag participant), and Dana Arabe-Riccio (Wahbung Abinoonjiiag) stand in front of Wahbung Abinoonjiiag’s building while wearing masks designed and constructed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s wardrobe department. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet, in partnership with The Winnipeg Boldness Project, distributed over 500 masks to non-profit organizations in the North End, which will be used by employees and provided to families in need of protection during the pandemic.


Reopening plans


While Manitoba is already in phase three of a reopening plan, the RWB is still working in a limited capacity; either from home offices or in the studios with one dancer at a time. Only a few departments, including wardrobe, have staff working from the workshop.


Warburton shares that The Mask Project will carry on through the summer. This first batch of masks are adequate for adults, but are not necessarily well suited for youth or for dancers performing. The wardrobe team is researching and designing a mask for youth, as well as a mask for high-impact exercise – both of which are currently being prototyped and tested, and are expected to be finalized and released by August.


The RWB School also runs classes in the summer that is planned to begin on July 6, the implementation of which has become very challenging during a pandemic. Habitually, these camps are attended by a large number of international students, who obviously cannot travel now.


In order to remain accessible internationally, the RWB will be using Zoom to stream reduced-student, in-person classes with teachers providing live instruction, with a second teacher giving feedback and corrections to international students via the video feed. These adjustments have resulted in a number of class registrations much greater than originally anticipated.


“We are really having to adapt and troubleshoot dance training using a digital platform, but it also allowed us to make our program more accessible, affordable, and provide access to students that normally could not travel,” remarked Warburton, noting that these changes might be adopted as a long-term practice.


Other programming will also be offered throughout the summer, including some live shows at the drive-in movie theater to allow for physical distancing, so be sure to follow Royal Winnipeg Ballet on social media to stay up to date on their current schedule.

Land Acknowledgement

The Winnipeg Boldness Project resides in and works on the ancestral, traditional, and contemporary lands of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe), Anishinabewaki (Oji-Cree), Dené, Michif Piyii (Métis), Nêhiyawak (Cree), and Očhéthi Sakowin (Dakota). We recognize that we have benefited from and continue to benefit from colonization on the Treaty 1, Treaty 3, and Treaty 5 Territories.

It is important to also acknowledge how we benefit in this territory at the cost to Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg has been drinking clean water for over a century via an aqueduct from Shoal Lake. In 1917, 3000 acres of Treaty 3 was declared property of the city of Winnipeg to build the aqueduct. This aqueduct was built over ancestral burial ground, to build these structures, the ancestors were disinterred and reburied. Construction of the aqueduct changed the waters significantly, causing the peninsula to become a man-made island. This now isolated Nation faced many challenges as a direct result from this aqueduct; Necessities like water, groceries, schools, and mail were only accessible via the dangerous trek to the mainland. Lives of adults and children were lost crossing to and from the mainland. Freedom Road, an all-weather road access finally opened summer 2019, over a century after displacement. This road, a testament to the success of Indigenous-led solutions, helps bring materials to build schools and a water treatment plant.

“I always think of it, even when I turn on the tap I’m like this comes from our community and this water probably contains our ancestors and the spirits of our ancestor. I think about the hardships of the people from Shoal Lake 40 who have gone through so many things for the benefit of Winnipeg’s drinking water,” says Angelina McLeod.1

Another benefit we reap in Winnipeg at a cost to Indigenous Peoples and land is the Hydro Electricity Development in Treaty 5. To optimize water movement for greatest power production the Province of Manitoba increased waterflow by creating the Churchill River Diversion in 1976. The modification of the waterflow caused flooding, shoreline erosion, and changes to water quality. This destruction of habitat has caused disruption to waterway travel, fishing, and hunting.