After spending nearly five decades with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, more than half of those leading Canada’s oldest ballet company, André Lewis is ready to chase his way into a new challenge.

Lewis announced on Thursday he will be stepping down from his roles as artistic director and chief executive officer in 2025 — marking an end to a career that has spanned 50 years with the organization.

“It’s time for a new challenge and for the organization to move into different paths, and I think that’s exciting,” Lewis, 68, said in an interview.

Born in Gatineau, Que., Lewis began his dance training in Ottawa before being accepted into the professional division of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in 1975.

He joined the company in 1979 where he enjoyed an accomplished career as a dancer for more than 10 years. He was promoted to soloist in 1982.

Lewis moved into the role of associate artistic director in 1989 after he retired from dancing. Seven years later he took on the position of artistic director and in 2018 he took on a dual role after he was appointed chief executive officer.

The decision to step down did not stem from one moment but rather a series of conversations and reflections.

“When I first started the job as artistic director I said I’ll probably do 10 years and that will be it but it didn’t work out like that whatsoever,” said Lewis. “It’s harder to quit than it is to start.”

A ballet instructor is seen giving directions to young dancers in a studio.
Lewis is seen rehearsing dancers at the Ottawa School of Dance in 2021. (Sandra Abma/CBC)

But when it came time to seriously step away, deciding to do so in advance has made the finality of a half century long career easier to come to grips with.

“For me to do it this way it gives me two years. All of the things that we do regularly I can say, ‘okay this is my last time doing this, and I can move forward,”‘ he said.

Lewis has been applauded for bringing original creations and contemporary full-length pieces to the stage during his tenure.

Audiences’ interests and what draws them to performances is very different than when Lewis got his start in the industry, he said.

The company was primarily touring shorter works of mixed repertoire.

Under Lewis’s tutelage the company started including contemporary full-length ballets into their seasons, including DraculaMoulin RougePeter Pan and The Handmaid’s Tale based on the novel by Margaret Atwood.

‘Brilliance and humanity’

Throughout his career, Lewis has also seen a shift in the way the historically white industry handles equity, diversity and inclusion.

Black dancers have called out racial stereotypes in ballets and the lack of racial diversity across the world. Companies in Canada have been working to address reconciliation in the arts world.

This brings Lewis back to one of his proudest moments as artistic director — the commission of Going Home Star – Truth and Reconciliation in 2014. The First Nations-inspired ballet examined the effects of the residential school system.

Tina Keeper, who was the production’s producer and a former board member at the company, said Lewis’s dedication to the project was a testament to his friendship with the late Elder Mary Richard, who influenced his decision to commission the ballet.

“André’s brilliance and humanity was truly captured in his commitment as the artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to take the company, staff and board into a partnership with survivors and commissioners of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the horrific Indian Residential School history to create the breathtaking Going Home Star,” she said in a statement.

A woman and man stand in front of promotional ballet posters.
Tina Keeper and André Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, promote Going Home Star — Truth and Reconciliation, which debuted in 2014. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

Lewis’s own understanding of the history of Indigenous Peoples and the traumas they faced at residential schools was minimal growing up in Quebec. As a dancer, he was given an eye-opening role in the ballet adaptation of the play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet performed it in the 1970s.

The drama recounts the story of a young First Nations woman who moves to the city from the reserve and experiences racism and marginalization. Lewis played Jaimie, a young man who is friends with the title character.

‘Enrich the human experience’

When the company premiered Going Home Star Lewis heard from many how the power of dance conveyed the reality of what happened during the residential school era in a way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report couldn’t.

“We made an impression on people. Ultimately, our mission is to enrich the human experience,” he said.

The board of directors will soon launch an international recruitment for Lewis’s successors. His current roles will be separated into two with both positions expected to be filled by 2024.

When it comes to what’s next for Lewis, that may be the biggest challenge yet, he said with a laugh. But he knows it’s the right time to take on the unknown.

“They say if you love your job you don’t work a day in your life, and I’ve loved my job. I really have … I feel privileged to have worked with such incredible people,” he said.

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