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Secret Summer

A horse's gait has rhythm, like music Add to ...

Principal dancer Tara Birtwhistle will celebrate her 20th and final year with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet next season. Ms. Birtwhistle is well known for her dramatic roles, including her Gemini-nominated turn as the ethereal heroine in Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, Guy Maddin's telefilm adaptation.

But even the RWB didn't know about her other passion until recently. Turns out the pixie-haired 38-year-old, who was born in Vancouver and grew up in Sherwood Park, Alta., pivots from ballerina to horsewoman in the off-season, burning up 50 to 100-mile trails with her hot-blooded Arabian. Her habit has become a bit slower-paced, she told The Globe and Mail, since she and husband Dmitri Dovgoselets, an RWB soloist, welcomed daughter Isabella to the stable last year.

I've been thinking about the links between riding and dancing. So far I have "horses are sinewy and dancers are sinewy."

I think someone who works with their body, like a dancer, picks up horseback riding quickly. You use most of the same muscles. Your horse is like your partner. You have to trust each other, go with the flow with each other. The horse's gait - it's got a rhythm, like music. It's very much the same as dance, other than scooping poop.

I suppose a horse never complains you're too heavy. Who's easier to get in sync with, the horse or your ballet partner?

It depends on the mood of the horse and the mood of the partner!

I always forget how large horses are until I'm at tooth-level with them. Do you ever worry you'll fall off and injure yourself?

My biggest worry is that she'll step on my foot when I'm grooming her. Even if she just clipped a toe, that's a major thing for a ballet dancer. For years I never discussed my riding with the ballet. You could get hurt badly if things did go wrong.



It's very much the same as dance, other than scooping poop.


When did you become interested in horses?

My horse, River, has been with me for 10 years. A friend who used to work at the ballet wanted a faster horse. I love animals, so he invited me out riding. I had no riding experience whatsoever and I bought River from him. Arabians have attitude, but she's been very good to me. I learned from her.

In dance, you have the daily practice, the rehearsals. Is riding similarly regimented?

There's quite a bit of prep to get out on the trail - the whole grooming process. If you were taking lessons and competing, it would be very much like in dance. Riders strive for perfection too.

Do you bring a dancer's unending obsession with technique to your riding?

No, actually. I never thought about it before, but I used to always ride alone - then with my husband, but I rode alone before we got together - and that's very liberating. No one's watching me. It's just a woman and her horse.

The 2010-2011 season will be your last before you retire from the stage. What do you have planned for the "eternal summer" ahead?

I wish dancers got pensions, but they don't, so I'll have to work! I'm hoping to stay affiliated with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in some capacity, to stay in the dance world, and maybe have more time to ride. A dance career isn't just a job, it's all encompassing.

How often do you ride now?

I stopped when I was eight months pregnant. I'll ride regularly again once I get my life back on track. For now, we take Isabella to see the horses. She's only 14 months old so she just thinks they're big. She prefers to look at the cat.

Who mucks out the stable?

River lives at a friend's farm, so our friend mucks it out. But when we're there, we have to do it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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