Watching Robyn Allan rehearse her own choreography with dancers half her age, you can't help but wonder what would drive a 45-year-old, successful business woman to trade in her pumps for pointe shoes.
"I love to dance. I couldn't quit. I tried -- but there was always this terrible longing," Allan says, explaining that it would have been harder for her to dance professionally when she was 25. "I didn't understand how my body worked. Now, I continue to get better and I feel my physical body rising to present what my spiritual self wants it to."
When dancing, the petite brunette doesn't look much different from the freshly minted young dancers that she matches lift-for-lift, but perhaps that's because they are all working at the same technical level. It just took Allan longer to get here.
As she prepares for the debut of her new show, Power and Passion, at Vancouver's Vogue Theatre this week, Allan feels she is on the threshold of having the kind of financially viable dance company that she used to daydream about in the moments she could spare while running corporations and raising two sons, who are now 16 and 19.
Allan's journey to becoming an artistic director began 10 years ago when she wrote and produced her first musical. Funding projects out of her own pocket meant she could only mount shows irregularly, but it helped her establish relationships with dancers, choreographers and the Vogue Theatre.
When her eight-member Vancouver Dance Theatre (VDT) debuts Power and Passion tomorrow, Friday and Saturday, it also will be performing for the first time as the Vogue's resident company.
"It's a co-producing partnership: We share the risk, and we share the profits," Allan says.
The partnership began because managers of the Vogue, an 1,100-seat commercial theatre that usually presents touring Broadway shows, were looking for a local dance company to attract a different audience. VDT's blend of modern-tinged ballet, musical theatre and New Dance fit the bill.
Kevin Copping, general manager of the Vogue, says he chose to work with the fledgling VDT, rather than one of the city's more established troupes, because of Allan's entrepreneurial style -- and her successes. The 1997 show she produced at the Vogue, Dance and Desire, played to good houses.
"We trust Robyn to put on a good performance," Copping says. "We're not going to make a great deal of money this first time around, but we plan to build on it. The idea is to put the money back into the dance company and produce larger shows and longer runs."
Allan began flirting with dance as a teenager in Vancouver, and after university she was a founding member of the short-lived Saskatchewan Dance Theatre. But, she realized that she had begun training too late for a dance career and instead focused on her education. She earned a master's degree in economics from the University of British Columbia, and went on to an enviable business career, while taking dance classes as a hobby.
In 1992, she made the Financial Post's list of the top 200 CEOs when she helped restructure the $3.4-billion Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, the provincial auto insurer. Her résumé includes a stint as a senior economist for the B.C. Central Credit Union, a number of executive positions, a motivational speaker and a career coach.
Yet, at 32, she was still aching to dance and still arguing with herself that she didn't need to be a dancer "at her age" -- until one day she asked the question: Why shouldn't she be a dancer?
As an executive in the 1980s, Allan was acutely aware of the prejudice surrounding age, and she began to question the premise that assumed she was too old to dance.
"Ageism is bigger than just physical. Look at corporate downsizing and how all the 50-year-olds have been treated -- they fire them rather than thinking about the wisdom and experience they have and how they can tap this resource.
"With dance, I wonder if it isn't partly about money: They can get four 20-year-olds for what they have to pay a 40-year-old."
So, the woman whose professional reputation lies in her problem-solving abilities began applying her business savvy to developing a company that would fit a dancer with her eclectic background.
She increased her training, splitting her days between dance and business consulting, and produced four more shows, hiring the best local talent she could find to perform with her. (This week's mixed bill includes a piece by Wen Wei Wang, a winner of Banff's Clifford E. Lee Award for outstanding choreography, and a duet created by Barbara Bourget, director of Vancouver's butoh company, Kokoro Dance, as well as Allan's own If Caterpillars Had Wings.)
During her 1997 show, Allan met Kevin Bergsma, a career dancer who had abandoned the arts for the financial security of the corporate world. Today, the 39-year-old is a human-resources manager in a catering company, as well as being Allan's dance partner.
"I felt I had to pick one or the other and then I read Robyn's book [ Quest for Prosperity: The Dance of Success; Blue Feather 1995]and realized I didn't have to pick," Bergsma says.
Allan's book is a quirky synthesis of ideas about art, economics and life. It opens with a definition of prosperity that is her personal credo: "Prosperity is not simply wealth, it is richness; it is not merely having possessions, it is possessing a passion for life and for living."
Bergsma, who has danced for 20 years, believes it is Allan's warm, open style of leadership that sets the Vancouver Dance Theatre apart.
"Part of the philosophy of the company is that everybody gets respect. Everybody's ideas are put on the table and tested, and developed -- and we laugh a lot. I think we're more productive because everyone is so involved," Bergsma says.
Given Allan's unconventional route to the stage, there have been detractors who suggest she is an interloper with a kind of "vanity" company. But there is no arguing with VDT's successes. Tomorrow, Bravo! will begin airing a six-minute video excerpt of Allan and Bergsma dancing a duet from Caterpillars thatwas co-produced by the broadcaster.
Bergsma allows there was once a feeling among dancers who didn't know Allan that the economist hadn't "suffered enough" to earn her stage time. "But anyone who knows Robyn knows she has suffered plenty. She is an artist and she has earned the right to be in the position she is in.
"And they know she is supporting the dance community -- artistically and financially. She hires a lot of dancers and she is elevating the level of work here."
In the struggle to get this company up and running, Allan continues to keep a foot in the business world.
In 1999, she served on former B.C. premier Dave Barrett's Commission of Inquiry into the Quality of Condominium Construction -- the leaky condos investigation. And she is always open to interesting offers. Her business career isn't over, it's just on the back-burner as she does more entertainment work, including acting in U.S. commercials.
But now, struggle is the furthest thing from Allan's mind. She's euphoric about the prospect of another show: "This is the happiest and most fulfilled I've ever been, in a very happy, fulfilling life."