Our beloved “Ballet Bob”, otherwise known as Robert McCollum, has an illustrious background which may be unknown to many of his students and colleagues, so we caught up with him after the holiday break, and asked him to fill us in on some of his own dance history, including his long association with the Maritime provinces.
Bob is originally from the United States, and started dancing in Boston. His first professional ballet school was in Cambridge Massachusetts, where he studied with Carol Jordan. She knew Robert Joffrey, and she arranged for Bob to go to New York to audition for Joffrey’s school. Bob won a scholarship, and moved to New York in 1974. With a dancer buddy, he also took classes at the Alvin Ailey School. Knowing that he had started late, and would never be a principal dancer with a major ballet company, he determined that it would be good to branch out and have some training in other dance forms, so he undertook some private studio classes with Emiko and Yasuko Toganaga, a couple who taught 3-hour classes – the first half of class was ballet work, the second was either Graham or Limón technique. Here Bob began to understand how ballet and contemporary work could inform and enrich each other.
During the same period, in 1975, he was studying ballet with the distinguished teacher Maggie Black (in whose classes he met Peggy Baker); as well, he started some major contemporary dance study at both the Limón and Graham studios. While he enjoyed the Graham technique, his hips were not ideally suited for the work, but he found Limón a much better fit, and he pursued many workshops with outstanding artists such as Katherine Posin, and with gifted Limón alumni such as Jennifer Muller and Louis Falco. During one of Falco’s workshops at New York University, Bob was invited to join the Omega Dance Company, directed by another Limón alumna, Carla De Sola. This liturgical dance company, still very active, was then based at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. While Bob was with the company, they performed some inspiring works, including Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, choreographed by Paul Taylor alumnus Greg Reynolds, and using a live orchestra and chorus. Other works had a Sufi inspiration. The company was (and is) dedicated to exploring spirituality with multi-faith focus.
In the summer of 1977 Bob was living in New York’s East Village. He hosted two dancers from Toronto for a visit: Robin de Villiers, who had earlier been his pas de deux partner at the Joffrey School, and Marshall Pynkoski (later a director of Toronto’s baroque dance company Opera Atelier). Subsequently, Robin invited Bob to Toronto for a holiday; while he was here, he took company class with the contemporary group Ballet Ys, directed by Gloria Grant, with ballet mistress Gail Benn. After his holiday he returned to New York, and a few months later, just before Christmas 1977, Ballet Ys invited him back to Toronto to join the company. He arrived on December 26th, and he has been here ever since.
Bob stayed with Ballet Ys for three years, dancing contemporary repertoire that included an inspiring work by Graham alumni Takako Asakawa and David Hatch Walker. In the spring of 1980, he sustained an injury that forced him to leave the company. Although he had been offered a contract with the newly-formed Ottawa company, Lawrence Gradus’ Theatre Ballet of Canada, he was unable to accept the position because of the injury, and he remained in Toronto to recuperate.
In 1981, Bob started teaching. Lois Smith, the former prima ballerina of the National Ballet of Canada, was then teaching at George Brown College (GBC), and offered him a full-time job in the pre-professional and diploma divisions. In those days, Bob taught both ballet and Limón technique, and was also the director of Lois’ youth ensemble. In 1987, he took a year off from teaching at GBC, and undertook the Teacher Training Program at Canada’s National Ballet School. Though this is normally a three-year program, Bob passed his final examination with distinction, in only one year.
He has been teaching (with distinction) ever since, and he has not restricted himself to Toronto. In 1989-90, Harriet Gratian, the founder of the DancEast Dance Centre in Moncton, received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to bring Bob from Toronto to teach and to set up her ballet program. One of his students from that period, Jana MacGregor, subsequently came to the School of TDT, graduating in 1997.
While in Moncton, Bob met Dianne Milligan, the Director of Dance Nova Scotia, the umbrella service organization for dance in Nova Scotia. Thanks to that connection, Bob is currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of his teaching at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, close to Canning, Nova Scotia, in the summer program, Dance Summer Dance. Bob says he’s tickled that he is now teaching the daughters of some of his early summer students. Over the years, he has met and taught numerous dancers from the Maritimes who went on to graduate from the School of TDT, including Molly Johnson (2004), Jolene Devoe (2004), and Emma Kerson (2011). Bob has also been instrumental in having other teachers from the Toronto community invited to teach in Halifax, including Rosemary James, Heidi Strauss, and Darryl Tracy.
After his stay in Moncton in 1989-90, Bob returned to Toronto, and continued teaching at George Brown College, also teaching company class for Ballet Jörgen, then resident at GBC. In late 1995, he had a call from Mavis Staines, Artistic Director of Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS), inviting him to start a ballet program for adults at the school. He began in the fall of 1996, teaching four classes per week; today there are over 30 classes per week, and a staff of six. Bob is the coordinator of the program, and himself teaches 12 of the 30 weekly classes.
In the late 1990s, working at NBS with Irene Dowd, Bob reconnected with Pat Miner, and was then re-introduced to Pat Fraser, who subsequently invited Bob to teach ballet at the School of TDT. He has become a beloved and indispensable member of the faculty. Besides his teaching here, and at NBS, he continues to teach in both the dance and theatre programs at GBC; he’s now in his 27th year there. He is understandably proud that many of his former theatre students are now onstage at Shaw, Stratford, and many other major theatre companies, and that a long list of dancers whom he has taught at the School of TDT have gone on to garner Dora Awards for their outstanding work.
When we asked Bob what he finds most satisfying about teaching, he replied: “I always go back to the root meaning of the word ‘education’ – to bring forth that which is already within. I look at all my students – adults, children, professional students, recreational dancers, and I try to bring forth from each one their potential, their ‘inner dancer’. And besides,” he adds, “I love being in the studio….”
As a final thought, Bob wants to thank Pat Fraser and the wonderful faculty and staff at the School. “It’s such a creative place here, and with Pat’s leadership, we get to share, watch each other teach, and be inspired. We so easily talk to each other; it’s all about learning. My experience here has improved me as a ballet teacher. I’m so proud to be a part of the School.”
And for our part, we are thrilled to have Ballet Bob as an integral part of our stellar faculty. Thank you, Bob!
Try Bob’s tried and true warm-up exercises, created by Irene Dowd!