Royal Winnipeg Ballet Has Invited a Former Student with Brain Cancer to Perform with the Company
When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.
She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."
But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.
Wreford in rehearsal at Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Photo by Heather Milne, Courtesy RWB
"When I was diagnosed, I got the opportunity to discover what truly makes me happy," she says. "Being onstage and performing and teaching and expressing my love of dance and just being able to be present was the answer."
After nine years away from the studio, she's once again taken to performing, appearing in Winnipeg's outdoor Rainbow Stage for five different musicals, choreographing for Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, among other organizations, and teaching musical theater classes at a local dance school.
This month, a longtime dream is also coming true: She's performing with her best friend Craig Ramsay. The pair originally met at RWBS, and bonded closely over their shared love of musical theater. (Like a line out of "Center Stage," she didn't quite have the feet for ballet, while he didn't have the heart.)
RWB invited the pair to perform as Lady and Lord Capulet in the company's upcoming production of Romeo & Juliet, after Wreford and Ramsay (who also went on to perform on Broadway, and is now a reality TV star on Bravo) visited their old stomping grounds last summer.
"Not only is dance good for her soul, but it's good for her survival," says Ramsay of watching the rehearsal process. "I believe dance has been an outlet that has allowed her to keep going and stay with us."
Case in point: This June will mark six years since her diagnosis, the upper limit of her doctors' original predictions for life expectancy. Yet she's still going strong.
Although Wreford is wearing character shoes rather than pointe shoes, her and Ramsay's roles are far more involved than mere supernumeraries. "There's much more dancing than we expected," says Wreford, with a wry laugh. Even after years away from the barre, both say the classical ballet steps are still ingrained in their bodies.
"Once a dancer, always a dancer," adds Ramsay.
While some in the ballet community have wondered whether this casting is merely a publicity stunt, other well-wishers have made heartfelt videos for the pair, with the hashtag #merdecraigandcath.
For her part, Wreford remains grateful for the chance to show her two kids the power of determination. "I want to inspire them, and I want them to know that just because I have brain cancer, it is not going to stop me."
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.