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Tina Pereira is now firmly ensconced in the book of ballet legends.

How? She turned a pas de deux into a solo, and then danced an unrehearsed duet with an ad hoc partner, to win the prize for best female dancer at the Seventh International Competition for the prestigious Erik Bruhn Prize last weekend.

"I'm a girl who likes a lot of different challenges," she says, and it is certainly her ability to carry on under fire that got the 24-year-old through the emotional evening last Saturday.

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When partner Keiichi Hirano injured himself by snapping his Achilles tendon, Pereira completed the dance on her own, improvising most of it along the way.

Hirano's injury also sidelined Sabrina Matthews's veer, the original choreography that was the couple's contemporary-repertoire piece. In an 11th-hour substitution, Pereira instead performed the Balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet with principal dancer Guillaume Côté, who stepped into the breach. The two had danced that duet together only twice before, and even then with a minimum of rehearsal.

The irony of her situation is not lost on Pereira. She was a replacement Bruhn competitor, when, just two weeks before the contest, Bridgett Zehr was injured. Pereira was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and her family immigrated to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga when she was 3. Her exotic beauty comes from her family's mix of Portuguese, Chinese and Trinidadian Creole backgrounds. Her mother loved recreational dance.

She started dance classes when she was 5, and was immediately bitten by the bug, training in ballet, jazz and tap. "I was always at the front of the class, wanting to learn everything I could," she says. "I made fast progress and when I was 10, I was dancing with the 16-year-olds. If there were 50 pieces in a year-end recital, I'd be in 30."

Pereira successfully auditioned for Canada's National Ballet School when she was 12, and where her considerable talent did not go unnoticed. In the NBS Spring Showcase, when she was in Grade 11, Pereira performed the Bluebird pas de deux. In her final year at the school, the great Dutch choreographer Toer van Schayk cast Pereira in a key role in his Pyrrhic Dances.

The ballerina's promise continued to develop when she became an apprentice at the National Ballet of Canada in 2002. Even when she was in the last row of the corps de ballet, there was something about her fluidity, her musicality and her technical assurance that captured the eye.

James Kudelka, then the ballet's artistic director, was certainly impressed with the young ballerina. She was supposed to be an apprentice for two years, but just four months after joining the company, Pereira was promoted to the corps de ballet and given leading roles in such demanding works as Ashton's Monotones 1 and the Spring pas de deux in Kudelka's The Four Seasons.

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Pereira admits now she wasn't ready for Kudelka's big push. "The maturity wasn't there yet to accept the responsibility," she explains. "I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I began to struggle with stage fright. I never felt I was prepared enough, or rehearsed enough."

At that point in her life, Pereira made the monumental decision to leave the National, which she did in 2004 to join the Dutch National Ballet, van Schayk's own company. "I needed to grow up and find myself as a person," she says. "Only then could I find myself as a dancer."

For what turned out to be a year away, Pereira lived by herself in a flat in Amsterdam. She also took advantage of being in Europe to visit other ballet companies. That's when she realized what a special place the National is.

"I was homesick from my immediate family and for my professional family," she explains. "There's no company anywhere in the world where dancers give the same support and love to each other as here." She officially rejoined the National in November, 2006.

That support was demonstrated many times last Saturday night.

Pereira had been unaware that Hirano was injured, because she had to run from one wing to another for her next variation. It was only when she came onstage to begin her fouettés that she saw him standing in the very spot that was her beginning mark - and her first instinct was to run off. That's when the evening's co-host, Rex Harrington, shoved her back onstage.

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When she finished her fouettés, Pereira ran off again, and it was principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson, in the other wing, who pushed her back on to somehow finish the pas de deux as a solo. Pereira says that she had lost complete track of the music by then.

After her brilliantly improvised Le Corsaire, Pereira thought herself out of the contest, and returned to the dressing room emotionally and physically exhausted.

That's when ballerinas Sonia Rodriguez, Heather Ogden and Stacey Shiori Minagawa burst through the door to get her ready for Juliet. As Minagawa did her hair, Rodriguez and Ogden went over Juliet's choreography. Ogden donated her freshwater-pearl necklace as Juliet's headdress, which was entwined in Pereira's hair, and attached to her forehead with eyelash glue.

"When I first went onstage in Le Corsaire," says Pereira, "it was with the thought of trying to win. When I went back onstage for the Balcony pas de deux, I put the whole competition thing out of my mind. Without any rehearsal, if the dance was going to look like anything at all, as corny as it sounds, I had to give a piece of myself to the audience."

With the National dancers and fellow Bruhn competitors standing in the wings cheering them on, Pereira and Côté gave a magnificent performance. For a girl who likes challenges, Pereira had faced one of the greatest of her professional career - and proved her mettle.

Tina Pereira will perform the lead role of Kate in the National Ballet's The Taming of the Shrew on March 15 at 2 p.m. and March 17 at 2 p.m. The production opens tonight.

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