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Norbert Vesak was one of Canada's leading choreographers in the 1970s. Originally from Port Moody, British Columbia, he studied dance with Laine Metz in Edmonton, Alberta, and with Josephine Slater in New Westminster, British Columbia. After performing with the Western Theatre Ballet in England, Vesak returned to Canada.
In the 1960s, Vesak was based in Vancouver where he was resident choreographer for the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre. He also worked with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Theatre Calgary and the Banff Festival Ballet, among others. He presented his choreographic work, Parenthesis, at the Canadian Modern Dance Festival in Toronto in 1963. Along with a group of Vancouver dance artists, Vesak co-founded the Pacific Dance Theatre in 1964. Six years later he created the Western Dance Theatre, which lasted less than two seasons.
Vesak then moved to the United States and launched a successful international career. He received commissions from the Miami Ballet, the Scottish Ballet and the Deutsche Opera Ballet in Berlin, among others. Eventually he was appointed director of the San Francisco Opera Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in New York.
Vesak is most known in Canada for the choreographic works he created for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in the 1970s, in particular The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1971). He based the ballet on the play of the same name by George Ryga, about a young First Nation's woman who leaves her reserve for the city. Vesak's version of the story became the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's signature work for many years.
The “Belong” pas de deux, an excerpt from his ballet What to Do Till the Messiah Comes (1973), became highly identified with Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancers Evelyn Hart and David Peregrine. Their performance of the work won gold medals for choreography for Vesak at both the 1980 World Ballet Concours in Osaka, Japan, and in Varna, Bulgaria.
Pepper, Kaija. “View from Vancouver.” Dance International 22.3 (Fall 1994): 24-26.
Wyman, Max. Dance Canada: An Illustrated History. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1989.