Have you ever tried to make a tutu out of gauze, cloth diapers, parachute silk and potato starch? Not easy.
This week I want to tell you about an absolutely amazing woman I heard about a few years back. I know some of the facts about her life, but I would have loved to hear all the stories and memories that went along with them. She was incredibly successful when she came to Canada, but it is her humble beginning that intrigues me the most.
Irene Apine was born in Latvia and trained as a ballet dancer with her husband, Juris. They had to flee from Latvia during the second World War and hid in Germany amidst the Allied bombings, eventually ending up in a displaced-persons camp. After the war, Irene and her husband survived by touring refugee camps and performing for crowds of refugees.
“We danced in barracks, on floors, on tables […] Our compensation was mostly in goods or special things like extra food, parachute silk for costumes, extra diapers for my son, which we dyed and made into costumes, gauze – which we made into tutus, starching the gauze with starch we made from our potatoes.”
Irene and Juris eventually came to Canada and founded a ballet school in Halifax. They were recruited by the biggest ballet company in the country, the National Ballet of Canada, and toured around the world with them, both having exceptionally inspiring careers.
The end of Irene’s story is incredible – seems like a fairytale come true if we’re going to be cheesy about it – but it’s those moments in the refugee camps that I can’t get out of my head. I can imagine the dirt and the smell of the camp, the unwashed and unkempt hair and the persistent uncertainty that was in the air. And then I see Irene’s face as she tries to lift the spirits of everyone watching. She is on a makeshift stage in a makeshift costume surrounded by grubby, worried faces and somehow she creates an escape for them.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to be homeless, to be so far from your family, to most likely be starving a lot of the time and still find the strength and passion for your craft. To dance no matter what. To use your passion and talents to provide joy in the midst of so much death and uncertainty. I think THAT is truly courageous, and it takes a pretty special woman to not only survive, but cultivate such a beautiful escape for the lost and the fearful.