Patti Ross Milne has over 30 years of teaching, performing and choreographic experience. She began her professional career with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Company, where she performed and toured throughout the US, Australia and South America. She went on to perform as a free lance guest artist in Vancouver and then as a featured dancer in the Broadway and touring production of the Agnes de Mille revival of Oklahoma. In 1993, Patti formed Inside Out Productions and over a period of ten years brought the finest teaching talent to the Toronto jazz scene. In 1997, she established Work Yourself Inside Out Summer School—a training facility for serious dance and triple threat students. She was also the producer and director of the highly popular Just Jazz shows that burst on to the scene in 2000. Recently, Patti has partnered with Merit Motion Pictures as co-executive producer to create the feature documentary film, 40 Years of One Night Stands: The Story of Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Q. Where did you grow up in Canada?
I was born and spent my childhood in Calgary, Alberta.
Q. When did you start ballet?
I started taking ballet classes when I was seven years old.
Q. How did you end up going to the summer school at Banff?
My first ballet teacher in Calgary, Joan Patterson, was very encouraging. She knew that I was a committed and devoted student and that I needed the challenge a summer school could offer. So at the age of 12, I went off to the Banff School of Fine Arts for the six week summer session.
Q. What was the school like?
In the early 60’s the school was under the direction of Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally. These two women were the co-founders of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. They created an atmosphere in Banff that I believe mirrored that of the company they founded, an atmosphere charged with enthusiasm, freshness, excitement and commitment to excellence. Unlike the school of today – anyone could attend. There were no auditions. The faculty was comprised of top Canadian teachers, as well as world-class guest instructors. Besides the daily regime of classes in ballet, jazz, pointe, pas de deux and character dancing, there was also an opportunity for the advanced students to perform in the Banff Festival Ballet Company. Rehearsals were held in the late afternoon and evenings giving all of us a chance to experience what life would be like if we were in a professional ballet company. The first two years I attended the school I was too young to dance in the ballet company, but I was chosen to dance in the opera ballet. However, when I was 14 I was chosen for the ballet company. The small company not only performed in Banff, but toured to Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, Vancouver and Kelwona. I attended the school for six consecutive summers and every season it was the highlight of my year.
Q. Where did you study ballet winters?
From the age of 7-12 during the winter months I studied in Calgary with Joan Patterson. At age 13, I began studies with Sybil Rogers, and then Lynette Fry Abra, a former principal dancer with the RWB. I was trained in the Royal Academy of Dancing method, and acquired my Solo Seal certificate, the Academy’s highest level of achievement.
Q. When did you learn that your teachers thought you had the potential to be a professional dancer and how did that change you? Challenge you?
In Calgary during the winter months, besides my weekly classes I also danced in the Calgary Ballet Company. I was awarded solo roles the majority of time, so I knew that I had the talent and the confidence of my teachers to pursue dance as a career. However, it was again at the Banff School that I received my biggest endorsement. Arnold Spohr, the director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (1959-88) was a presence every summer at the school. He came to check out the latest crop of dancers in hopes of finding new dancers for his company. When I was 16 years old he saw me dance, and invited me to come to Winnipeg to be part of the RWB Scholarship training program. I was ecstatic to be offered this opportunity. However, because the RWB school did not have an educational component at that time, my parents insisted I finish high school in Calgary before pursuing a dance career. I did not go to Winnipeg for two more years, but with the endorsement of the director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, I was like a horse with blinders on. Nothing else was more important to me than getting to Winnipeg. I couldn’t wait to be done with high school and get on with my dancing life.
Q. You became a dancer for the Royal Winnipeg ballet in 1971 and danced with them for three years. What was that like?
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet was the only company I wanted to dance with, so after a year and a half in the training program, I was thrilled to finally be accepted into the company. I was in top technical form and so ready to dance. The adjustment from being one of the top students in the school to corps de ballet member was a bit of a shock. In the school you are looked after, coddled and constantly given support and encouragement, but once in the company, you have a job to do and you are on your own. I think I always felt I had been very well trained to dance in a professional ballet company, but I was not trained in life skills needed to manage myself as a company member. I struggled with the touring life, but never with the actual dancing on the stage.
The RWB is a small company – 25 members so the opportunities to dance challenging roles were always there. If you worked hard and proved yourself, the rewards would come, and they did come. I was dancing in ballets I dreamed about. The company repertoire was built on diverse programming ‘something for everyone’ – so I loved that because it meant that we would be doing classical works, modern works, and dramatic works, possibly all in the same program. We alternated between bus tours of the US and Canada and international tours. The touring was hard, particularly the one-night stand bus tours. But the international tours, though difficult, were very exciting and we did get to see the world.
Q. Why did you leave?
I left the company after 3 seasons and this was something that I came to regret for many years after. There were a number of reasons that contributed to my early departure.
I was young, impetuous, and found the touring life difficult. I was always satisfied performing on stage, but the rest of the time that I was not particularly happy. I wanted more intellectual stimulation and greater challenges as a dancer. I was also having problems with my feet, and I didn’t know if I could endure another year of pain on pointe. Add to this some personal relationship difficulties, an argument with the director, and you have a young dancer leaving her career in a huff.
Q. You danced on Broadway. Were you able to make a living? Did you have to sing? What are the relationships like on a Broadway show? Is there a big separation between the stars and the dancers?
Before answering the questions about Broadway, I will fill you in on how I got there. After leaving the Winnipeg Company I was quite lost. I went to university for a year and a half and eventually moved to Vancouver to attend art school. In Vancouver I found my way back into the dance studio and realized that yes, I was still a dancer. I had been asked to teach jazz at a studio, but I decided I wanted to go to New York to study the Luigi jazz technique (which I had been taught at the Banff School), from the master himself. So off I went. Once in New York I was encouraged by my dance friends to start auditioning for shows. The musical theatre scene was foreign territory for me, but I thought I would give it a go. The auditions calls were advertised as “dancers who sing- 10:00am”. I had never been trained as a singer, and although I was very musical and could carry a tune, singing in auditions was terrifying for me. My first couple of auditions, I was immediately through on my dancing ability, but as soon as I opened my mouth to sing, it was “thank you very much…next”.
One day while perusing the trade papers I noticed a call for the musical Oklahoma! The call said “dancers -10:00am.” It did not say anything about singing. I also noticed that Agnes de Mille, the original choreographer, was to be involved in the recreation of the show. I had worked with Ms. De Mille in Winnipeg, so I thought this might be something that would work in my favor. I went to the audition and was chosen for my dancing. Although we were required to sing in the show, I did not have to sing for the audition. They were looking for strong ballet dancers, and that’s what I was. My journey to Broadway was about to start.
I found being in a musical theatre company terrific, because there are dancers, singers and actors. The mix of people was completely refreshing. Also, once you were given your roles they were yours. We were cast by type as well as ability, and the sense of competing for a role disappeared after you were cast. There was less pressure than there had been in the ballet company. The touring life was also easier. When we came to a city we usually stayed for a minimum of 4 weeks and sometimes 6, so you could get to know a city and enjoy being there. The company also became your family while on the road, as it had been in the ballet company. We had a few prima donnas, but for the most part the principles mingled and mixed with the chorus people. On the road, this was your family and it worked.
As far as salaries – I was making the best money I ever had as a dancer. It was tremendous compared to the small salary I made as a ballet dancer with the RWB.
I began my musical theatre life with the musical Oklahoma! as part of a winter stock company. After that was over, the company was reconvened and we all went to Los Angeles where we rehearsed with new principal actors. The National tour began in that city, and we went on the road for eight months. From there we went directly to New York and played Broadway for 8 months.
Performing on Broadway was terribly exciting and I had to pinch myself when I reflected on how I got there. I initially went to New York to study and now here I was performing in a Broadway show. I think I always felt, I’m just a Canadian from a small city; I can’t possibly measure up to the dancers in New York. But I found out definitively that I could. The whole experience was a gift for sure. After our run in New York, I went back on tour for another few months, but decided to leave the company in Toronto. I had danced the same role for almost 400 performances and I was ready for a change.
Q. After Broadway you taught, choreographed and produced shows. What kind of teaching? What kind of choreography? What kind of shows?
After I left the Oklahoma! company, I returned to New York, where I taught classes in ballet, jazz, and worked as an assistant choreographer on a number of musicals for universities and local theatre groups. In 1982, I returned to Canada, to be married, and eight months later my husband and I moved to Australia for my husband’s work. While in Australia I continued to teach ballet and jazz extensively in Adelaide, South Australia. We returned to Canada 18 months later with a new baby, and set up our home in Mississauga, Ontario.
In 1985 I was hired by the Peel Board of Education to create a dance program for the newly formed performing arts program, housed in Cawthra Park Secondary School. The first program of its kind in Mississauga. I was challenged to devise a course for teenagers, some of whom had very little dance experience and second, to operate in the school as a high school teacher. To say the least, there was a lot of “on the job training”. The program was eventually a great success, but as would have it, the Board of Education decided that teachers without provincial teaching certificates would not be allowed to teach in the school system. After four years of very hard work creating a wonderful program from nothing, I and another dance teacher were removed from our jobs. It was heart breaking, but there was nothing to be done except move on.
This did inspire other projects, and in 1991I decided to start doing large-scale jazz workshops. For my first event, I brought in my mentor and teacher, Luigi. It was a great success. Dancers came out of the woodwork to attend, many of whom had studied with him years ago and couldn’t believe he was still alive and teaching! He was in his early 70’s at the time. This workshop launched what would become an annual event for the next 10 years.
Each year I brought in different guests, usually from New York, and it was the jazz highlight of the year. This led me to begin teaching jazz in Toronto at the newly formed Randolph Academy, a post secondary training facility for the triple threat performer. I also launched a summer program in 1997 that offered ballet, jazz and musical theatre training – singing, dancing and acting. It was by way of my school that I accidentally started to produce jazz dance shows.
In 1999 I hired Billy Siegenfield, a jazz and tap teacher from Chicago/New York whom I just adored. He came to Toronto with his long time dance partner Jeannie Hill. At the end of their teaching session they offered to do a lecture demonstration. The demonstration was more or less a performance, so when they came back the next year, I asked them to perform with other budding Toronto jazz artists. Before I knew it, I was producing a show with 30 semi-professional dancers in it. It was a magical performance. The theatre was sold out 3 days in advance, and it was obvious that Toronto was craving this type of jazz dance performance.
The next year I did it again – bigger theatre, more choreographers and more risk. The good thing was that we eventually sold out the theatre and I broke even. Toronto wanted jazz, but I was beating a path on my own and it was taking a toll both financially and emotionally. In 2002, I decided not to do the show and shortly after that, my husband was once again asked to take a job in Australia. In January of 2003, I closed up my production company and moved again into the unknown of Sydney, Australia.
Q. How did the idea to produce a documentary on the RWB come about?
I was first struck with the idea of doing a documentary on the RWB in 1992. I was always searching for project ideas and it struck me one day that no one had ever done a film on the story of the RWB. Although my career with the company was relatively short, I always felt my roots ran deep because of my years at Banff. I loved the company and perhaps this was a way of giving back to the institution that had given me so much. I may not have had the stellar ballet career with the RWB I imagined as a young dancer, but perhaps documenting their story might be the role I was destined for.
Q. What was the path you took to get the documentary produced?
The path to a completed film was a long one – 16 years in all. Understand, that I had absolutely no experience in film making, but for some reason I thought I could figure it out. I wrote my initial proposal which I called The Dancer’s Voice. I sent it off to some of the major producers I had read about in the newspaper but I never heard back from them. I also sent it off to people I thought might fund the project, but no one seemed to be interested. After a year of doing almost everything wrong, I shelved the idea – for almost 10 years.
In 2001, former National Ballet principal dancer turned filmmaker, Veronica Tennant, produced a film on the National Ballet of Canada for their 50th Anniversary. It was her film that pushed me to take up my idea again. I went to the RWB to secure their permission in writing. Then I conferred with some Winnipeg producers about the next step. I was told that I must write the story – a daunting task, considering the company was now 65 years old. But if that’s what it took, I’d do it.
In 2002, while working away by myself to research and write the story, my husband accepted a position in Sydney, Australia. Off we went and once again, I shelved the project.
In 2004, while still living in Sydney, I received an invitation to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s 65th anniversary and grand reunion of all who had been associated with it over the years. Immediately I recognized the opportunity to re-launch the film project. Dancers, choreographers, directors and stagehands from around the world and across the decades planned to attend. I contacted the RWB alumni, telling them I would conduct interviews for a film project during the weekend celebrations. A Winnipeg documentary filmmaker, Jeff McKay, whose former sister-in-law had danced with the company, offered his services for the weekend. We had an extraordinary four days capturing the stories I had dreamed about.
At the end of the weekend, Jeff eagerly offered to direct and I just as eagerly accepted. Through him, I met Winnipeg film producer Merit Jensen Carr of Merit Motion Pictures, and we agreed to partner as executive producers. Invigorated, I returned to Sydney.
For the next two years I commuted from Australia to Winnipeg. Jeff and I spent countless hours writing the RWB timeline, researching events, and combing through archives for information and photographs. Merit introduced our project to the documentary department at Bravo! Television. Through her efforts, Bravo! agreed to be our broadcaster, thus ensuring our start up funds. Knowledge Network, out of British Columbia, signed on as the second window broadcaster. We were ecstatic at securing broadcasters but were, throughout the four years of the project, woefully short of money. Ongoing fundraising offered another challenging learning experience.
Because the film was to cover the near 70 year history of the Ballet, we continued the interview process beyond the fifteen that were filmed at the 2004 reunion. Interview subjects—from those who danced in the 1930’s to those in the company today—traveled to Vancouver, Toronto or Winnipeg from various places in Canada and the USA, and from as far away as Switzerland and Spain. We were thrilled to record 46 remarkable interviews. In addition, Jeff spent countless unpaid hours combing through Canadian Broadcasting Company, National Film Board, provincial and Winnipeg archives for photos and film clips to augment the story. Now, how would we weave these all together to produce an informative, entertaining and beautiful film?
We would ask seasoned editor, Bob Lower to join our team. Jeff introduced me to Bob in late fall 2007, one year after my husband and I had returned to live in Toronto, Ontario. An accomplished editor with over 40 years experience, Bob was initially stunned by the amount of material we had accumulated, and wondered if, out of all this, we even had a film. With Jeff and I at his side providing input and direction, Bob forged through weeks of tedious work, hair pulling, heated conversations, and sighs of exasperation to finally produce what is called ‘the rough cut’. When our composer, Shawn Pierce, viewed it, he commented, ‘I think there is a diamond here, but there’s a lot of coal around it at the moment.’
What we all came to realize was that neither a one-hour TV time slot, nor Jeff’s feature version could do justice to the Company’s extensive history. Instead, we focused on the wonderful early story of the first 40 years. What began as The Dancer’s Voice evolved into the final product—40 Years of One Night Stands.
Q. What was the hardest thing about making the documentary? The easiest?
There were many difficulties, but the most outstanding was the cost to produce the film and the limited sources of funding. The easiest or perhaps most enjoyable part for me was doing the interviews. It was wonderful to meet up with dancers I had not seen for many years, as well as to discover others that were well before my time. They all had such wonderful stories to tell.
Q. How did the documentary evolve from what you first envisioned?
The film that I first envisioned was to have only the dancer’s voices – the dancers’ stories. But as the work evolved and I heard the stories from the director, the assistants, stage hands and even board members, I realized that often, the dancers had no knowledge of the political wranglings that might have been going on behind the scenes. Our job was to dance and that’s what we knew about. The other business was for the administration, but both sides of the equation contributed to the story. I had to let go of my early preconceptions of what the film was going to look like and basically go with the flow. As our wonderful editor Bob Lower told me, “It is a maxim of military theory that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and I think that can be transferred straight to film with ‘production’ in place of enemy. The further you get into production, the further you stray, or are driven, from the plan”.
Q. How did the title come about?
Choosing the title for the show was one of our hardest tasks and the cause of many heated arguments. We went through four other titles before settling on this one. Our director, Jeff McKay, told me that often you find the title inside the film from something one of your subjects says. In our film, one of the interview subjects, Richard Rutherford, says about his own career – “20 years of one night stands, from Flin Flon to Moscow”. Our film covers a 40 year period, and Jeff thought that substituting 20 for 40 would just do. So that is how 40 Years of One Night Stands came to be.
Q. What are some of your best memories making the documentary?
One of my first thrills was seeing the early demos of what the film could look like. We had done many interviews and collected numerous archival film clips, but to see it come together – to see that yes, I was making a real film, made me absolutely giddy.
Another very enjoyable part of the experience was working with our composer, Shawn Pierce. Shawn and I met the first time over lunch in Toronto, and I knew instinctively after our first conversation that he ‘got me’ and understood how critical it was to have just the right music behind the scenes and interviews. Shawn did the music bit by bit and would send us the snippets over the internet for approval and comments. Everyday, I could hardly wait to get the next quick time movie and listen to what Shawn had created. He was usually spot on, but also was open to comments and criticism. We were the clients, and he was very keen to please us, which he did.
I have already mentioned the enjoyment we all took in doing the interviews. However the two most memorable – the kind that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up – were with Max Wyman and Ana Maria de Gorriz. Max was the author of the book – The Royal Winnipeg Ballet – The First Forty Years. As soon as Max started to talk about the company, all I could say to myself was “this is sooo good.” Max was obviously knowledgeable about the subject, but his unrestrained enthusiasm for the company, coupled with his eloquent and descriptive way of recalling events, gave us some of our best interview footage. In the case of Ana Maria de Gorriz,(principal dancer with the company in the 60’s and 70’s) it was the emotion she displayed when she recalled finding her character for the role of Rita Joe. We were all practically in tears. We knew at the time we had captured something special, but had no idea how powerful it would be in the finished product.
Q. Has the film garnered any awards?
Recently, I attended the Yorkton Film Festival, in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. This is the oldest continuously running festival in Canada. 40 Years had been nominated for Best Documentary (Arts/Culture), and Best Director (non-fiction). I am thrilled to report that we won the Golden Sheaf Award in both categories, as well as the Founder’s Award, which recognizes the best representation in a film of a Canadian historical event or person. I was particularly awestruck as this was my first film, my first festival and now these were my first awards. It was wonderful to have our work recognized and validated by the film community.
Q. Where can one see or buy this documentary?
The film is available at: www.meritmotionpictures.com. Click on ‘Productions’ scroll through to find 40 Years of One Night Stands. Click. Scroll down to the Pay Pal option and order.
Q. What are your future plans? Any other documentaries, etc.?
I am still getting over the work and financial burden it took to produce this film, but there are ideas floating in my head. When the ‘force is with me’, I’ll start the journey again.
To see a preview of 40 Years of One Night Stands, click on the following Youtube URL. To return to Ballet Connections after the clip, click the back button of your browser:
To see an excerpt from 40 Years of One Night Stands, with Evelyn Hart and David Peregrine dancing an incredible pas de deux, click on the following Youtube URL. To return to Ballet Connections after the clip, click the back button of your browser:
To go to the 40 Years of One Night Stands website, click on the following URL. To return to Ballet Connections, click the back button of your browser.