Another male dancer leaves the National Ballet as Brendan Saye departs for Vienna

Brendan Saye in the National Ballet of Canada’s “Apollo.”

The recent news that National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Brendan Saye will depart in June has stunned his many fans and leaves a big hole in the company’s top male ranks.

Saye, 31, will join the Vienna State Ballet in September. The Vancouver-born dancer will be the second male principal dancer to leave the National Ballet this season. In January, Skylar Campbell returned to his American homeland after 12 years in Toronto to join Houston Ballet.

Saye has yet to visit Vienna, Austria’s largest city, and he does not speak German of any variety.

“In some ways, it’s a leap of faith,” he said, “but an opportunity presented itself that I couldn’t pass up.”

That opportunity came in the form of an offer from Martin Schläpfer, the artistic director and chief choreographer of Wiener Staatsballett since 2020.

Saye explains his decision to leave the National Ballet after 13 years is multi-layered and he’s been mulling it since before the pandemic.

“In the end, it came down to the fact that I needed a change.”

The pandemic threw a wrench into Saye’s plans. Most of the troupes he was interested in were too distracted to be paying attention to overtures from abroad, except Schläpfer. He did not have an immediate position available but contacted Saye this year to say he’d opened up a principal position with the Canadian dancer in mind.

Saye is leaving the National Ballet just as he’s moving into his artistic prime. Getting there has been far from easy. When he first joined in 2008, Saye was already the one to watch. His raw talent gave every indication of a great future.

When choreographer Alexei Ratmansky came to Toronto in 2011 to stage a new version of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” he selected the then 21-year-old Saye to be one of the first batch of Romeos. It launched Saye on an upward trajectory that was tragically flattened early in 2013 by the onset of Lyme disease. For a while Saye thought he’d never dance again. Instead, he fought his way back, returning to the role of Romeo in 2016. But a big — and important — chunk of his young career had been stolen from him.

As his strength returned so too came the roles and Saye was promoted to principal in 2019.

At six foot three and a muscled 190 pounds, Saye is a powerful presence onstage, as adept in dramatic roles as in abstract contemporary work. His chiselled features and noble bearing make him a natural prince.

Saye says National Ballet artistic director Hope Muir and her predecessor, Karen Kain, have been wonderfully supportive and understanding. Even so, dancers like Saye are not easy to come by and, while there is talent rising within the company, Muir needs an experienced man to take his place.

“We’re all sad to see him go, but it’s natural for dancers to want to experience something different,” said Muir. “Brendan knows the door is always open if he wants to return, but I think dancers actually benefit from some time away.”

As for replacing Saye, Muir is confident.

“Don’t worry. I have a plan. Everything is going to be fine.”

Saye is just the latest to join the diaspora of Canadian dancers to be found in leading European ballet companies. There are several already in Vienna and even more at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, an illustrious company with whom the National Ballet shares some of its DNA.

Erik Bruhn, arguably the finest Danish classical ballet dancer of his era, taught at the National Ballet School, staged works for the company and was its artistic director from 1983 until his untimely death in 1986.

A friendly National Ballet-hosted invitational competition named in Bruhn’s honour routinely attracts young company members from Copenhagen. Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet since 2008, danced as a guest with the National Ballet and also staged a production of famed Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide.”

There are currently six Canadian dancers at the Royal Danish Ballet. One of them, Alexander Bozinoff, a friend and classmate of Saye’s in Toronto, was recently promoted to the highest rank in the presence of one of Denmark’s most enthusiastic ballet fans, Queen Margrethe II.

The Danish company retains a charming custom whereby promotions to principal rank are announced without warning publicly onstage after a performance. In Bozinoff’s case, it came after he had danced the lead in the “Rubies” section of George Balanchine’s three-part ballet “Jewels.”

“I honestly did not know it was coming until Nikolaj walked out onstage and started to make a speech,” said the 32-year-old father of two. “Then, when he began mentioning roles, I figured it was going to be me.”

Another part of the custom, after the curtain comes down, is for company members to toss in the air, then catch, the freshly promoted dancer!

After his years at the National Ballet School, Toronto-born Bozinoff continued his professional training at the John Cranko School in Stuttgart where he later apprenticed in the city’s world-famous ballet company under its Canadian director, Reid Anderson. After a brief stint in the corps at the state theatre in Nuremberg, Bozinoff was hired in Copenhagen in 2011.

His rise through the ranks has been, as he puts it, “a slow burn,” but Bozinoff is thrilled that his artistry and the hard work that’s gone into it have finally been rewarded.

“The acknowledgment is what counts,” he said.

MC

Michael Crabb is a Toronto-based freelance writer who covers dance and opera for the Star.

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