Betty Oliphant (1918-2004)

1997 Lifetime Artistic Achievement (Dance)

Like the medieval knight trying to find his vocation in music after a lifetime of war that she once quoted in a convocation address, Betty Oliphant knows tht it is "strict meticulous discipline, harder than weapon-training" that is takes to make art. Central to her approach as a ballet teacher has been the importance of mastering technique -- but for a singular purpose: to achieve freedom of expression. For her, dance involves two elements: the level of the craft and the quality of the inspiration. And that is what she has instilled in hundreds of pupils, from the day she arrived in Toronto to open her own ballet school in 1947, through her long association with the National Ballet, where she served first as ballet mistress and later as associate director, and as founder and then Principal of the National Ballet School for thirty years. Her talent and humour with young people, especially young male dancers, was unparalleled and she was sought after by famous ballet schools around the world.

Astute politically, she had a sense of mission and won moral and financial support through tenacity and discipline, but above all by sharing her own clear vision with her often neophyte boards. She challenged people to see that "Canada needs the arts to feed the minds, hearts and spirits of its people". "I was very persuasive!" she now laughs.

All her work has been an uncompromising quest for excellence, an insistence upon the highest standards. Sometimes this has pitted her against newer trends of "democratization" in culture; she believes these fail the best talent. "Without a healthy respect for excellence, we'll never produce anything great." Her efforts have helped some of Canada's greatest ballet talents find a place at the centre of the international stage. Among the honours her work has earned her are Companion of the Order of Canada, the Toronto Arts Foundation Lifetime Achievement Awards, the French Order of Napoleon bestowed by Maison Courvoisier, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto.