“My magic castle”: Growing up at the NAC

The Nutcracker by Alberta Ballet © Paul McGrath
Backstage at the NAC in 1988 (right: Eleri Evans)

My love affair with the National Arts Centre began at a young age. Whether it was the beautiful Nutcracker ballet or the hilarious Christmas pantomime, I’m not 100% sure which show was my first, but I have clear memories of the long hike up to the balcony level, gazing up and then down at the beautiful glass sculpture that marks the staircase.

I was one of the many lucky local kids that had the chance to appear on-stage in the Nutcracker. If I did not already feel like the NAC was my magic castle, the experience solidified the place as my home away from home. Since then, I must have seen the Nutcracker close to 50 times. My current favourite part actually takes place in the lobby, before the curtain even rises. I love watching all the kids arrive, dressed in their best, chatting with more enthusiasm than you would think possible. I have been that kid on the edge of her seat, taking in every dance move, and cannot wait until my little girl, now two, is old enough to come with me.

As a young dance student growing up in Ottawa I don’t think I truly appreciated how lucky I was to have access to Canada’s and the world’s best dancers, companies and choreographers. I fell in love first with the beautiful story ballets. By high school I was obsessed with the large contemporary ballet companies, and as an adult I love the raw emotions of even more contemporary work. Living elsewhere in Canada and overseas for a few years has helped me appreciate even more what the NAC has to offer. 

Thirty-plus years after my first visit, this place is still a magic castle to me. From attending countless dance shows — with a healthy dose of theatre and music along the way — to working as a member of the NAC Dance team, the National Arts Centre has had a huge impact on my life.  Canada’s home for the performing arts is also my second home, and I love to hear that so many other people feel the same.

The NAC recently celebrated its 45th birthday and Canadians shared their memories of this wonderful place on the NAC Dance Facebook page.

“I was offered the opportunity to perform in the role of a rat in Casse-Noisette with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens on the stage of Southam Hall. It was my first time ever taking part in a big production on a major stage and that experience led me to pursue a career in dance [...] Now, 18 years later, I'm still in love with the art form, even though I'm not currently working in the field anymore. My exposure to NAC dance has opened a pretty wide door of imagination and experience that continues to define a huge part of who I am and how I want to see the world.” — Bradley del Sykes

“My favourite memories are watching my teenage daughter sit on the edge of her seat at every performance, revelling in all the dancers, every move and step, her eyes never leaving the stage until it is over. And then the nonstop chatter, recalling every move in appreciation of the artistry every dancer and member of the troop displayed.” — Debbie Black Knechtel

“Having very reluctantly moved from the East Coast, the NAC has been a beacon of light for us. As not many dance companies travel to Halifax, we found ourselves in dance heaven when we arrived in Ottawa. Then to discover the amazing programs offered to the students in the area was icing on the cake. My daughter has attended master classes with some of the best dancers and teachers in the world.” — Hilary van Herk