Shakespeare’s tragic tale of star-crossed lovers celebrates so many universal themes of love that it continues to resonate centuries later. And just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents its own beautiful, inspiring message of love through a staging of Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet” in Rudi van Dantzig’s choreography.
The Canadian ballet company has invited dancer Catherine Wreford for a guest star role in the three-act ballet based on Shakespeare’s play to highlight love and friendship, and the enduring bonds that link us through time and space.
Wreford has been living with terminal cancer for six years. In 2013, she was diagnosed with brain cancer and given 2-6 years to live following an awake craniotomy to remove a grapefruit-sized cancerous tumor. This June will mark six years since the original life expectancy prediction.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Wreford showed a strong passion to dance at an early age. She studied for twelve years at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School‘s Recreational Division where she polished tap, jazz, and musical theater skills to perfection. She collaborated frequently with the school’s Professional Division, which turns its talented classical ballet dancers into étoiles, and was mentored by the late Arnold Spohr, the RWB’s former artistic director of 30 years.
Wreford found great resonance in musical theater, and moved to the States where she had a successful career on Broadway and national theaters before she settled offstage to raise a family. It was during her Broadway career where we met, dancing together in the 2001 Broadway revival of “42nd Street,” which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical that year.
After the birth of her second child, she was diagnosed with anaplastic astrocytoma, and she realized that whatever time she had left would be dedicated to doing what she loved — dance! — performing, teaching, and being onstage. So when she relocated to Winnipeg after her diagnosis, she headed back the stage, dancing in shows such as “A Chorus Line,” “Les Miserable,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Beauty and the Beast.”
When “Romeo & Juliet” opens on February 13 at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall, she’ll be performing as Lady Capulet along with her lifelong best friend, Craig Ramsay, as Lord Capulet. They had originally met 20 years prior during their RWB School days (he’s an alumnus of the School’s Professional Division), and they’ve remained best friends. Ramsay also performed on Broadway during the period when he and Wreford were roommates in three big cities, before his latest chapter as a Bravo-TV reality star.
With this production, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet spotlights Wreford as she comes full circle, as well as the power of enduring lifelong friendships. It will be the first time that the BFFs will dance together on the same stage. In both acting and dancing roles as the Capulets, they enter at the end of Act II, overcome with grief, after the climactic sword fight when Romeo avenges his friend Mercutio’s death by killing Tybalt. The staging, by Toer van Schayk, honors The Bard of Avon’s original sixteenth-century Verona setting.
Although Wreford hasn’t danced ballet onstage in a while, she told Dance Magazine that during the first practice, the steps were still ingrained in her memory.
She also told the magazine that by dancing with a terminal disease, she intends to show her kids the power of determination. “I want to inspire them, and I want them to know that just because I have brain cancer, it is not going to stop me.”
Wreford’s type of cancer can’t be completely removed, and will eventually turn into a Glioblastoma Multiforme, which currently needs monitoring every three months with an MRI.
Through the power of dance and the support of lifelong friendships, she’s transcended all that. When Wreford takes her opening night bow, all those whose lives have been impacted by cancer, and all those who advocate for the disease will be there in spirit, cheering her on!
Here’s Wreford and Ramsay in RWB rehearsals:
And here are some vintage photos of them from their early performance days:
Here’s Wreford with her husband and two kids:
Below is some media from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Romeo & Juliet production: