Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2021 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The sprung studio floor is still packed up on pallets, and the paint is still drying on the walls.
But in a little under two months, boarding students in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Division will have a brand new home away from home in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.
The $15-million project is a collaborative effort between RWB and True North Real Estate Development, designed by Architecture49 and built by PCL Construction. The new five-level facility at 225 Edmonton St. — which includes the student residence, as well as classrooms, studio space, a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and more — was built on top of the existing RWB parkade, and seamlessly connects to the RWB studios via an enclosed passageway.
In addition to being an expansion of the RWB campus, the new facility replaces the old residence, which had served RWB students since 1995. Overseen by RWB School director Stéphane Léonard, the new building’s design had dance students at its centre.
"Every single decision, from the tiniest of screws to the biggest of ideas, was measured against what degree to which it served our top priority of student safety and well-being," says the school’s managing director, Kate Fennell. "And I think we considered in all things, the importance of building a home."
To say Fennell is excited about this historic project is an understatement. It’s a snowy November afternoon, and the Free Press has donned hard hats for a sneak peek inside the new, light-filled space that will serve new generations of young artists with big dreams.
For half a century, the RWB School Professional Division has served as a pipeline for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Many Professional Division graduates go on to spend their entire careers with the RWB; alumni currently make up 75 per cent of the company.
That journey begins in the ballet academic program, a full-time, seven-level training program designed for students of all genders in Grade 6 and up who are serious about a career in ballet. The two-year post-secondary aspirant program, meanwhile, is for advanced-level classical ballet students looking to make the transition to professional dancer. Both are audition only.
Some students are as young as 10 when they move to Winnipeg on their own to attend a rigorous program that requires discipline, hard work and sacrifice. That’s why it was vitally important that the new residence have a cosy, homey feel.
"They had mentioned the idea of trying to keep it from feeling too, let’s say, institutional," says Michael Conway, practice leader, architecture, at Architecture49. That meant choosing wood-look floors, warmer paint colours and warmer lights, "just to avoid that kind of cold and sterile feeling that you normally get for dorms."
Safety and security are obviously priorities in a student residence. Security offices face every elevator door so that there are always eyes on it, for one example, and staff is onsite at all times. There is also a student-care office for those who might need some extra support.
One of the key features of the new residence is common spaces for connection, relaxation and play. These are serious ballet students, but they are also tweens and teens.
"We know a lot of different age groups do have that challenge of feeling isolated when they move away from their home at a very young age," Conway says. "So we did consult with psychologists on the design of the project, to make sure that it was a very integrated layout."
To that end, each floor will have three "neighbourhoods," with shared living space for students to hang out in, as well as individual dorm rooms for privacy. The natural-light-filled dorm rooms themselves are a considerable upgrade from the old residence, as is the main lounge — or family room — which opens out onto a stunning outdoor courtyard.
While the common spaces will incentivize students to get out of their rooms to spend time together, the mostly individual dorm rooms will offer privacy.
"That is proven to be the best thing for a lot of students as they’re coming of age at a professional ballet school, " Fennell says. "So we needed a plan that had a lot of private rooms but we didn’t want long, endless hallways with prison-style doors."
The other upgrade of note is the private sinks, private showers and private bathtubs, all of which are fully enclosed with doors. The new facility also sees the RWB’s first universal washrooms.
The crown jewel, however, is the new 3,400-square-foot dance studio, which can be used by the more than 1,500 students who make up the professional and recreational divisions of the School. Even covered in construction dust, the space, with its soaring ceilings, is breathtaking.
It’s multi-purpose, too; it can be converted into two separate studios, and can be adapted into a volleyball or badminton court or other recreation space.
A gigantic new studio is the thing Sophie Robinson, 15, is most excited about. This is the Level 5 student’s second year at the RWB School; she came to Winnipeg from Penticton, B.C., at 13. She loved the sense of community offered by boarding; right now, the students are living in True North Square, so it’s not quite the same vibe.
"I’m really looking forward to having that same experience in the new student boarding, where you’re all together and kind of a family, which really helps, I think, when you’re away from home," she says. "You’re all experiencing the same things, you can all kind of be there for each other. So I’m looking forward to that again."
The exterior of the residence was just as considered as the interior. After all, it’s not just a state-of-the-art facility for the RWB — it’s also an addition to the landscape of downtown Winnipeg. "We wanted it to feel really part of the existing campus, but somehow having its own identity," Conway says.
The exterior design was inspired by the tension between movement and stillness, or "that moment right before a dancer starts to move." (Reconciling the desire for lots of windows with the need for privacy was also a bit of a balancing act, Conway says.)
For Léonard’s part, he’s still in awe the project came together the way it did.
"It’s a dream come true for our future," he says. "I think our students are going to be so well served. I don’t think we would be, without an opportunity like this, able to move into the future at an international standard and level for our art — not just for living standards, which were already outstanding, but with all it offers now. I just can’t wait to see the students going in there and owning their new home."