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Kelly-Anne Reiss, Leader-Post

Published: Saturday, May 03, 2008

 graham-kotowich-2008

REGINA — While many Canadian boys grow up dreaming about being NHL hockey players, there are those who have different aspirations. Some want to dance on stage, surrounded by beautiful women.   

Graham Kotowich is one of those rare boys.  

At Class Act Studios in Regina, Kotowich and three other boys were the only males taking ballet in the ’90s. All of them were aware of the stereotypes they would face, which is why some of them told their schoolmates they were soccer players instead of dancers. But Kotowich wasn’t one to lie and so faced his share of teasing.

In gym class, Kotowich got his revenge, lifting the heaviest of weights for as many reps as the other boys dared him to do.Despite being strong and athletic, Kotowich never volunteered to dance at school talent shows, as he knew a bunch of high school jocks wouldn’t appreciate what he did.

If Kotowich had succumbed to peer pressure, he would never be where he is today — touring Britain with one of the U.K.’s favourite dance companies — the Northern Ballet Theatre.

Becoming a professional ballet dancer wasn’t easy for Kotowich. It was just as gruelling as becoming a professional hockey player.  Kotowich had to be committed. Every day after school, he would go home, do his homework and then eat his supper in the car on the way to the dance studio. He would practise until 10 p.m. each night. The next morning, in school, he could barely keep his eyes open.

“I have yet to be as tired as I was in high school,” said Kotowich, who now dances up to 12 hours a day.

There isn’t much room for a life outside of dance. Most of Kotowich’s friends, and the girls he’s dated, are all dancers.  

Before dance took over, Kotowich was on the basketball team in elementary school, and played the saxophone and the flute in the band. He was also a competitive diver and a talented baseball pitcher. In fact, his father, Rick, thinks if Kotowich had stuck with baseball instead, he might have been able to make a career of that.

But Kotowich had to make a choice. Did he go to the baseball game or did he go to the dance rehearsal for an upcoming recital? Kotowich followed his heart and chose dance. “He felt bad about letting down his ball team,” said his father.  

Despite all the hours in the studio, it could have been all for nothing. His dreams could have quickly been dashed, like many, who dream of going pro. Rick recalls how nervous Kotowich was trying out for professional companies, such as the National Ballet of Canada.

Kotowich, 20, knew there was a chance he wasn’t going to make the cut. England’s Northern Ballet Theatre was his first choice.

Although he likely could have had a job with the National Ballet in Canada, Kotowich had fallen in love with England’s rolling hills after attending the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London on a full-scholarship in 2005. While at the Royal Ballet School, Kotowich performed for Prince Charles, the school’s president, at Buckingham Palace.

“You don’t even realize what you’re doing until you walk in the door of the palace and you see this huge marble staircase just leading up with red velvet carpeting and gold scenery and statues everywhere, and huge canvas paintings of years and years of royalty It was a night to remember, that’s for sure,” said Kotowich, who had been invited to audition for the school, beating out many talented dancers from around the world for his spot in the academy.

But although Kotowich felt he had made the big leagues, his scholarship wasn’t renewed the following year. He wasn’t given a reason why.Disappointed, Kotowich returned to Canada and continued his training in Toronto at the National Ballet School of Canada, another world-renowned dance academy.

Despite all his accomplishments, Kotowich, who is Metis, only told people very generally that he was going to school in Toronto; he never mentioned he was dancing at NBS.

When he completed his studies there, he had plans to audition in several European countries, but didn’t have to in the end, as the Northern Ballet Theatre called him first.

Andorlie Hillstrom, the owner and founder of Class Act Studios, isn’t surprised to hear of Kotowich’s success. “I’m really proud of him,” she said.  

Kotowich has kept in touch with her, coming back to Regina in December to perform in West Side Story for the studio’s 15th anniversary celebration, which featured a number of the school’s alumni who have gone on to professional careers in musical theatre, jazz and tap. Kotowich is the only student who has become a professional classical ballet dancer.

While Hillstrom said she’s had plenty of talented ballet dancers come through, not everyone was cut out for the tough life. Ballet dancers have to push their bodies to extremes, are on the road all the time, and are poorly paid for what they do, especially when starting out.  

Money is a concern for Kotowich, who has taken out student loans to pay for some of his dance lessons. But whatever the price, dance is worth it to Kotowich, who loves to travel.

And at the age of 12, Kotowich learned to live on his own while taking a six-week dance training program at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

If his parents wanted, Kotowich could have moved to Toronto by himself at the age of 10 to train at the National Ballet School of Canada. But his mother, Pat, wanted to keep Kotowich at home for as long as she could.

Pat recalls meeting one of Kotowich’s girlfriends who grew up in the ballet residences as a child. She had a picture on the door of her and her roommates from when they were quite young.  “They grew up together,” said Pat of the girls. “They seemed like such little orphans, but very proper-like.”

At home in Saskatchewan, Kotowich was lucky enough to have an excellent teacher — Ana Maria Campos, who is originally from Brazil.Campos helped push her students to achieve professional standards and gave her students the opportunity to travel with her down to South America, introducing them to one of her friends who had a dance studio that was free to underprivileged youths. Kotowich observed that the children worked hard there to get ahead, because dance was their ticket to a new life.

Inspired by this work ethic, Kotowich pushed his own limits harder. His goal in life is to be the best dancer he can be, although he knows there will come a time in his life when he can’t dance anymore.  

Like all athletes, one day his body will just give out. When this happens, Kotowich thinks he might explore the business side of dance. Although he’s not sure what exactly that will entail yet.

Currently, Kotowich is in top physical form and has never felt better. But this wasn’t always so.As a teenager, rapid growth caused Kotowich some knee pain. His mother recalls how he walked down the stairs of the studio like an old man, but he was able to push past these growing pains.  

“From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a professional dancer,” he said. “It’s a beautiful art form.”

Kotowich got into dance after having tagged along with his sisters to their dance classes. He started out in tap and jazz at the age of seven, but he wanted to switch to ballet when he saw that ballet dancers had nicer shoes.

While he had the talent, he also needed the looks. Lucky for Kotowich, he won the genetic lottery and had the right build. As a dancer, one’s body has to be well-proportioned. One’s neck can’t be too short or too wide. And leg muscles can’t be bulging when they’re not flexed. It is for this reason Hillstrom often compares ballet dancers to race horses.

Ballet is one of the few professions where one is required to put age, weight and height on his or her resume.

Kotowich is lucky, because he can eat as many calories as he wants and will burn them off. This isn’t the case for all dancers. Some have to carefully watch how much they eat.

It was around supper time in Regina, on April 20, when Kotowich moved to Britain to start his professional dance career. His mother and father said their goodbyes on the phone to Kotowich, who was in Toronto.

His father advised him to read some Shakespeare on the plane, because Shakespearean ballet is the focus of the Northern Ballet Theatre.

“It would be a lot harder if we didn’t have e-mail or if the long distance rates aren’t as good as they are now,” said Rick.

Both he and Pat are happy for the opportunities their son has had, even though it meant a lot of sacrifice on their part, such as paying for lessons and driving back and forth from the studio.

Sometimes Rick wasn’t aware of how talented his son was.He remembered one time when his son was at a dance competition in Moose Jaw, “he was on stage just hopping around.”

Rick sat in the audience watching dancers he thought were better and tried to figure out how to console Graham when he didn’t win. He was surprised to learn later that Graham’s performance actually won an award.

“To me, he’s just my son out there,” said Rick.

 

© Leader-Post 2008

 

 

 

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