March 24, 1940 - January 1, 2005
Living For The Dance
By Kevin Dale McKeown
Reproduced by permission of Dance International
When, in the mid-1980s, teachers at Montréal's l'École supérieure de danse du Québec, the school of Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, forbade their students taking spare-time classes from Ian Robertson, then teaching in a third-floor walk-up studio in a downtown warehouse, Ian couldn't help but recall a similar embargo imposed in the 1950s by his own teachers at the National Ballet in Toronto, banning their students from attending classes by the notoriously difficult, opinionated and gifted Boris Volkoff.
“Of course we would sneak around and take Volkoff's classes,” Ian would recall years later. “And I was flattered that Montréal's dance establishment saw me as a similar threat and that so many of their students and company dancers sought me out and took my classes.”
The attraction, and the threat, both at Volkoff's home studio and in Ian's drafty Montréal warehouse, was an almost fanatic fidelity (okay, it was completely fanatic!) to the classical technique of Agrippina Vaganova. It was a fidelity that Ian felt was lacking in much of North American dance and a fidelity to which he devoted his entire life.
In the rarified world of classical ballet, the Vagonova technique as taught to generations of dancers in St. Petersburg remains the gold standard for the genre, and there was no doubting Ian's role as a guardian of that standard, never afraid to speak out on its behalf or to critique those he saw as pretenders, very often to the detriment of his career.
Ian began his studies with Janet Baldwin in Toronto and joined the National Ballet of Canada in 1957 at the age of seventeen. After three seasons with the company, his friend and mentor Kay Ambrose persuaded him to move to London, England where he studied at the Royal Ballet School and danced with London's Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) and Walter Gore's London Ballet, as well as in musical theatre productions of The Music Man and Princess Pocahontas.
It was in 1964, during Festival Ballet's Christmas season at Royal Albert Hall, Kirov ballerinas Natalie Makarova and Irina Kolpakova invited Ian to Leningrad to study with Alexander Pushkin. Ian's life and career would subsequently take him to many corners of the world, but his spiritual home was henceforth forever in St. Petersburg.
At the conclusion of his Kirov apprenticeship, Ian returned to Western Europe where he danced with Les Grands Ballets Classiques de France, Ballet Internationals de Paris and with the Zurich Opera Ballet.
It was during a stint in Paris that Ian found himself briefly sharing an apartment with recently arrived Russian ballet star Rudolph Nureyev and became involved in an international jewel smuggling caper.
“I was going back to Russia for a visit and Rudy asked if I would take some jewels with me that could be sold for cash to help his family. He couldn't send them money in any legitimate way. So star-struck kid that I was, I wore thousands of dollars in solid gold chains and aquamarines as though they were costume jewelry and passed them along to Pushkin and his wife, who took care of things from there. It all seemed a grand adventure at the time, though it could have ended very, very badly!”
Ian's career as a dancer ended unexpectedly at the age of 29 when he ruptured all the ligaments in his knee during a rehearsal in Zurich. “I mended well,” he would recall later, “but my knee was never the same. They gave me some roles but they were more mime roles and I loved the athletic. I had a big jump and I had a good, strong technique after my studies in Russia. I felt that my dance career was over and I didn't want to be relegated to secondary and character roles.”
Ian returned to Canada in 1969 and began a new career as a teacher. Until his death from lung cancer on January 1, 2006 in Vancouver, Ian was a well-known and popular teacher and mentor to many young dancers in Toronto, Montreal, Québec City, Moncton, Vancouver, Boston, New York and Mazatlan, Mexico.
Returning to St. Petersburg, for the Vaganova Academy's 250th Anniversary in 1988, Ian was invited by Konstantin Sergeyev to take the teachers' course and was the first westerner to graduate from this two-year study program.
It was a tribute to the affection and admiration the dance world had for Ian, who spent his last years on a disability pension, that whenever a major event took place in the dance world someone would ensure that Ian had airline tickets and pocket money to join the festivities. During the last two years of his life he was in London, England for the 75th birthday of his friend Amanda Barrie (longtime star of Coronation Street), in Portugal for an anniversary get-together of Festival Ballet alumni and in New York, Toronto and Los Angles for dance community events.
Teaching students at the Scotiabank Dance Centre until a year before his death, Ian was a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Ballet Society and, to the end, maintained active relationships with Moscow City Ballet, Vancouver's Goh Ballet Academy and, of course, his beloved Kirov.
Always planting seeds for future dance projects, introducing producers, companies, investors, dancers and promoters to one another in the expectation that great things would result, Ian's influence will be felt for many years to come.