When I first met Yolande Auger in our condo gym she was doing some serious splits while touching her forehead to the floor. Since she did not appear to be a 20-something I couldn’t help but compliment her on her suppleness. Her reply was, “Oh, I used to be a lot more flexible.” Intrigued, I asked how that was possible. “I was a dancer with the National Ballet,” she smiled back. So, here was a former ballerina who had danced with the famous company at a time when I used to be an enthusiastic member of the audience at their O’Keefe Center performances. This was when Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn were at their peak and when some of us thought we could dream of imitating them by taking ballet-jazz classes.
True, I had noticed Yolande before in the elevator and walking down the street with that iconic, toes-pointing-out dancer’s stride, dressed in her eclectic style. She was happy to share her story with me and let me in on her secret of staying so lithe at age 65. “I dance and work out every day,” she confided. “I love it and have being doing it ever since I retired from dancing at age 36.”
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Born in Sainte-Foy, now part of Quebec City, Yolande was always slender, athletic and extremely flexible. An avid gymnast, she was encouraged to take ballet classes where she discovered her lifelong passion. In 1967 at the age of 15, she was accepted into the highly competitive National Ballet School of Canada and left home for a new life in Toronto far from home and family. She remembers, “I spoke no English but had to take all the academic high school courses along with the ballet classes. Basically, I memorized everything.” One of her classmates was Karen Kain, future principal dancer and current artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada.
Although Yolande loved dancing and appreciated the opportunity to be part of such an illustrious school, she was a young girl away from everything familiar. “I lived with a host family along with another girl from the ballet school. It was hard, especially after I was told to lose weight.” Looking at this lean, athletic woman now, it’s hard to imagine that she ever needed to become any thinner but that rarefied ballet world has an odd definition of what female dancers’ bodies should look like. “I had food specially prepared for me by the mom of the family I lived with. Eventually, I became anorexic at 16 and weighed 85 pounds until I was 26.” The stronger more muscular physiques of dancers like Misty Copeland were not yet being celebrated so Yolande fell into that all too common obsession of dancers, pursuing the ‘ideal’ ballet body.
Luckily, she survived, graduated and was accepted by the National Ballet of Canada in 1972. She was an apprentice for three years but then got a break when she was asked to replace a dancer in Swan Lake. So began her professional career as a ballerina. Under the direction of such luminaries as Celia Franca, the founder of the company, and Erik Bruhn, the legendary choreographer, the young dancer was part of the company’s rise to international acclaim throughout the 70s and 80s. In addition to Swan Lake her repertoire included, among many others, Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Widow, Onegin, Elite Syncopations and The Sleeping Beauty with the great Rudolf Nureyev and his renowned production of that ballet. She remembers the great influence he had on the company; aside from her admiration for his performance and artistic prowess, she describes his style as, “Precise. He could see every single detail in the production – he was mesmerizing.”
In addition to the full season at the O’Keefe Centre, the company’s touring schedule was grueling. They performed all over North America and Europe and as Yolande points out, “When you’re in the corps, you dance all the time in every performance, no breaks.” Of course such physical exertion takes its toll and the dancer had her share of injuries including a degenerative disc in her neck and a broken wrist. While on tour in Italy in 1988, she had a frightening incident where she felt she could not breathe. She was treated with anti-inflammatory medications and went home to Toronto to recuperate. Later in the year, after recovering, she decided to leave the company and her career as a ballet dancer. “I wanted to leave on a high note when I could still dance,” she says.
She was now 36 years old and although her passion was ballet, she wanted to settle down and have a family. Squeezed into her busy performance and touring schedule had been a nine-year engagement with a man that ended before she decided to ‘retire’. Soon after that break-up she met Shain, the love of her life and 10 years her junior. His background in business was a perfect complement to her artistic temperament and they have been together ever since. “We eloped to Bermuda!” Yolande laughs.
Their daughter Kaila was born in 1991 and Yolande could not have been happier. She devoted herself to home and family while continuing her daily workout regimen at the ballet studio. Always a creative person, now she could also indulge her interest in design, antiques and home staging.
Kaila is now 26, an occupational therapist and married, with two young children. Yolande’s only regret is that her daughter lives in the U.S. and the energetic grandma doesn’t get to see the family as much as she would like. But she is a positive person, an optimist at heart who is happy to make the most of her time with the young family.
Shortly after I met Yolande and before we sat down to chat about her life, she faced another physical challenge that tested her fitness and determination. She was just heading to the ballet studio and had stopped for a coffee when she slipped off a step in her typical purposeful walk. Unfortunately she fell and injured a bone just above her knee. The injury was eventually diagnosed as a ‘distal’ fracture and her doctor insisted that she needed surgery. But Yolande wanted to try every other alternative before resorting to an operation. Treatment without an invasive intervention meant not putting weight on her leg for 12 weeks. She winces remembering, “That was probably the hardest part – not being active at all.” The pain was also substantial. Yet, Yolande persisted. With her husband’s help, she got around with crutches, a walker and eventually a cane. Intense physical therapy was also a major part of the treatment.
It took six months for the injury to heal and for Yolande to get back to her usual routine. In all her years of dancing she says she never had to deal with such physical limitation, pain and depression about her predicament. But the determination that brought her success in the demanding world of ballet helped her overcome the physical and emotional challenge and put her back where she has always felt most at home – the dance studio.
– Miria Ioannou
Photos by Schuster Gindin and courtesy Yolande Auger personal archive
Wow What a dame! And kudos to Miria for capturing Yolande so compellingly. Great ladies, both.
Marlene Webber, Toronto