Post by Anna Jonas
As a general rule, you don’t often hear about an extraordinary artistic talent hailing from Ottawa and becoming successful. But Jonathan Renna, a Principal Character Artist with the National Ballet of Canada, was never big on rules.
Originally from Ottawa, Renna was raised in the Kanata area before moving to Toronto at the age of 12 to pursue a formal dance training from Canada’s National Ballet School.
Renna was inspired to start dancing when his older brother began taking dance classes as part of his musical theatre training during his time at Earl of March High School. Occasionally sitting in on the classes, Renna enjoyed the atmosphere and decided to take up dance.
Dancing was definitely something that gave me more at the end of every day than any of the sports that I played,” explains Renna. “It gave me an enjoyment that the other things didn’t fill.”
It was clear early on that Renna had a true talent. At a young age, his Ottawa dance teacher suggested that he audition for the National Ballet School’s summer program. His mother was unsure. Renna, however, was too headstrong and passionate about dance to take no for an answer. He auditioned secretly without his mother’s knowledge, but had to come clean after he was offered a spot in the program.
That spot turned into a place at the National Ballet School, which eventually flourished into a full fledged dance career, including positions at the National Ballet of Canada, the Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds and the Alberta Ballet in Calgary.
This weekend, Renna will travel back to Ottawa with the company to perform in John Cranko’s Onegin at the NAC.
Set in Imperial Russia, Onegin tells the tale of Tatiana, a landowner’s daughter who falls head over heels for a pompous aristocrat named Eugene Onegin. Alas, her love is unrequited as an uninterested Onegin finds it more amusing to toy with her. Tatiana is spurned by Onegin and left too heartbroken to notice the attentions of the handsome Prince Gremin.
Many years later, Onegin is brought back to Russia and attends a ball hosted by Prince Gremin. It doesn’t take him long to realize that the Prince has recently married his former admirer, Tatiana, who is now an elegant and sophisticated princess. Realizing the error of his ways, Onegin professes his love to Tatiana, forcing her to choose between her family and the man that she is still in love with. She decides to stick to her guns and leaves behind a rejected Onegin.
The tragic ballet, based on Pushkin’s classic poem and Tchaikovsky’s opera, is one of the most dramatic in the classical repertoire. According to Renna, what makes Onegin a great ballet is that it truly has everything.
“It really has all of the great elements,” he states. “It’s got wonderfully choreographed movements and it doesn’t try to do more than its job … You can see every position and it’s still very difficult for the dancers but it’s still very beautiful to watch. The music is haunting … It tells the perfect story of tragedy and love and loss and the whole thing … It’s got good characters; it’s got a heroine that you just stand up and cheer for at the end. It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful ballet.”
Mr. Renna takes on the role of the stoic but loving Prince Gremin in Onegin. His favourite aspect of playing the part? Finally getting to be the good guy. Having frequently been cast as villains due to his skill for portraying a character’s darker side, it’s a nice change of pace. “Out of a story with such a complicated, lustful drama, I can finally be the guy where everyone says, ‘yes, she married the right guy’,” says Renna.
When he is not dancing, Renna is also an instructor for the National Ballet’s Summer Dance Intensive and In Studio program and will be teaching a Master Class at the NAC during his stay in the city. Renna cites giving students new ideas as one of the reasons that he took up teaching. “I really enjoy being able to kind of pass along the knowledge that I’ve learned over the years and I like being able to give someone something different to think about,” explains Renna. “Teachers turn the lightbulbs on and I enjoy doing that for students.”
Even though he has mainly lived in Toronto since his school days, Renna still considers Ottawa as a little bit of home. “Ottawa will always be my place of birth and my hometown. It’s always nice [coming back] and there’s always memories around the corner in Ottawa for me.”
So what is it like returning to the city he grew up in to perform on a world class stage in the same building where his career as a dancer began? “It’s always really great to be able to go home,” says Renna. “I’ve got a sense of pride when I’m [in Ottawa] and when I’m at the NAC. It’s so rich with history, all of those pictures on the wall [backstage]. I’ve been to the NAC a lot and every single time I’m always staring at new photos and looking at these people that I either look up to or read about. These are all people that’ve been on the same stage. It’s nice to be rubbing shoulders, even if it’s just for a minute.”
The National Ballet of Canada will be performing John Cranko’s Onegin at the National Arts Centre from January 19-21, 2017, with all music performed by the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Tickets are available in person, online, or by calling 1-888-991-2787. For more information about Jonathan Renna’s Master Class, visit the NAC website.