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Mara McBirney

Mara McBirneyIn 1946, British RAD teacher/examiner Mara McBirney and Gweneth Lloyd were enlisted to advise on the development of a ballet program at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta. This was the root of a long relationship between Banff, the RAD, and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Expansion of the RAD method grew rapidly after McBirney’s 1946 visit to Canada. During this tour, which covered Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Galt, Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Vancouver, she taught classes, coached instructors, and examined students. Among those who worked with McBirney that year and brought the RAD to new regions were Bernice Harper, who taught in Sarnia and London, Ontario, and Gérald Crevier of Montréal. McBirney’s desire to dance had been thwarted by family pressures in her youth and she was pushed to study home economics. Saving her bus money by walking to school meant she could eventually pay for her own ballet classes. She passed her Intermediate RAD exam in 1934 in the same group as an adolescent dancer named Celia Franks – known to most Canadians as Celia Franca, founding artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. McBirney passed her Advanced exam in 1936 and presumably acquired teaching credentials thereafter but the record is unclear. During the war years, she was employed by the British government to help veterans and injured civilians regain ease of movement in hospitals in Wales, Shropshire, and Yorkshire. McBirney repeated her Canadian teaching tour in 1947 and 1948 and, recognizing a need for RAD teachers on the west coast, decided to settle in Vancouver in 1949 becoming a significant addition to the dance community as well as the region’s local organizer. Her arrival coincided with the Canadian Ballet Festival movement (1948-1954) and the formation of the Canadian Dance Teachers’ Association (1949). Her teaching produced many professional dancers including Leonard Gibson, Lois Smith, Lawrence Adams, Paula Ross, and Barbara Bourget. And she continued to inspire teachers with the RAD syllabus such as Victoria’s Wynne Shaw who brought the RAD technique to Vancouver Island in 1950.

Photo: Mara McBirney, courtesy of the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame