Sun beats through the skylights and soaks the studio in humid rays. Four dancers occupy the room at the Goh Ballet Academy, one-at-a-time performing pieces from The Nutcracker for Anna-Marie Holmes, who sits with her back to the mirrors along the wall. “Up! Up! Up!” she shouts over the music, reminding the performing dancer to complete her pirouettes before moving on. Holmes is effortless, and her demeanor is soft—usually. “Where are your elbows! It’s in the elbows!” she hollers. “Stop arching your back!” The dancer repositions herself as the music stops, and executes the portion of the dance that Holmes refers to—this time, making sure to straighten her back and find leverage in her arms. Holmes is a fixture in the ballet world—an incredibly revered, respected artist—but this comes from a lifetime of work.
“I started dancing when I was about three, in Mission [B.C.],” Holmes says after the class. She spent several years tap dancing in theatres before the movies began, or for radio competitions, winning almost every time. It wasn’t until she turned 10 that Holmes met Heino Heiden, the ballet teacher that ultimately shaped her life. “He came into our class and said, ‘Who knows fifth position?’ And I did it all backwards. So he pulled out a stick and smacked my legs with it,” Holmes laughs in reflection. “I ran home crying to my mother, saying, ‘That teacher’s mean! He hit me with a stick!’ And my mother said, ‘Well, I guess you won’t be doing that, then!’” But young Holmes had already decided otherwise. “I said, ‘I’m going back. I’m going to show him I can do it.’” It was Heiden that, upon his departure from Vancouver, introduced Holmes to Lydia Karpova of St. Petersburg, and subsequently, the Kirov Ballet Company (now called the Mariinsky Ballet)—arguably the best in the world.
At 17, Holmes became the first North American dancer invited to perform with Mariinsky. “When you start classes, and you’re practicing every day, it’s exhilarating,” she says. “If you don’t do it, you miss it. It’s like a drug, almost.” She would spend hours and hours practicing every single day: “People don’t tend to realize just how hard it is.” It’s not only physically challenging, though—it takes an immense amount of mental strength to dance professionally. “You have to remember all of the choreography,” Holmes says. “All of the dancers that I teach now, they’re scholars. Because they’re taught to memorize long passages of ballets; like actresses memorizing long passages of lines. They’re sharp, and they’re fast. Because if they’re not, they’re fired.”
Holmes speaks to other’s experiences; though her own ascension was quick. “After my first performance with the Mariinsky Ballet, it was such a success that they changed my status from student to guest artist,” she smiles, proud. As soon as Holmes could learn the works, the company would put her on stage. “I think it’s because I did everything a little differently, and they were interested to see that,” she says. Ballet is an institution, but Holmes sees the value in the slow evolution of any craft. “I staged Le Corsaire in London for three months, and I re-did a lot of it,” she says. “But it was a huge success. It was a lot of fun.” After her time with Mariinsky, she went on to perform with a dozen companies, including the London Festival Ballet, the Royal Scottish Ballet, Berlin Staats Oper, Het Nationale Ballet of Holland, and the American Ballet Theatre. “The American Ballet Theatre was very important, because I performed at the Met,” recalls Holmes. “That was so special.”
Come this December, the Goh Ballet Academy will stage The Nutcracker, choreographed by Holmes. She is certain that this, just like her first performance with Mariinsky and her successes in London, will make a case for the slow evolution of a timeless art.