3 min

Behind the tutu

Rex Harrington's elusive retirement

Credit: Paula Wilson

If the walls of stone Orchard could only talk. The 1840s-vintage farmhouse changed hands from author Timothy Findley to Canada’s most accomplished male dancer, Rex Harrington, when the esteemed novelist moved to Toronto-making it the most illustrious gay home in the country.

“I lived there for two years,” says Harrington, arriving home from his latest costume fitting. “It was just as magical as the book,” he notes, referring to Findley’s From Stone Orchard (1998).

Harrington left the farm after breaking up with his partner a few years ago. “I was living there by myself,” he explains. “The house was dilapidated and run down. And I’m retiring, so I had to sell it.”

Fortunately, talking walls won’t be necessary. Harrington-who ended his 20-year career with the National Ballet last season-is planning to publish his autobiography next year. “I might call it Behind the Tutu,” he muses.

First, though, he’s coming to Vancouver. Next week, Harrington will bring his internationally acclaimed dancing, along with his equally famous dance partner, Evelyn Hart, to the Scotiabank Dance Centre beginning Dec 1. The opening performance is a fundraiser for World AIDS Day.

“I’ve always been out about who I am and I’ve always been part of the gay community,” says Harrington of his many AIDS fundraisers. “I’ve done drag,” he adds. “And I’m not afraid to go out on a limb for the cause.”

Harrington believes that as the cocktail starts to fail, “people will get their act together. It’s important to bring back awareness,” he says. His first love, National Ballet soloist Greg Osborne, died of AIDS in 1994.

Harrington’s sexuality has influenced more than just his fundraising affiliations; it’s shaped his entire onstage presence. “My sexuality and who I am allows me to access a deeper range of emotions when I’m on stage,” he says. “Straight dancers hold back half the time-they don’t access emotions.”

Harrington argues that straight ballet dancers (the men anyway) often live with a fear of being stigmatized as gay. “I don’t have to worry about a stigma,” he says. “Because it’s who I am.”

Such is the gay interest surrounding Harrington that he’s earned the moniker Sexy Rexy among ballet queens nationwide. “Oooh, it’s cute,” laughs Harrington. “I’m thinking about getting license plates made up.”

And, if there was any lingering doubt whether Harrington is the gayest dancer in the world: he’s just filmed an episode of Queer as Folk. “I play a ringmaster of dancers.”

Since announcing his retirement last year, Harrington’s been busier then ever. Among other things, he’s thinking about pursuing roles in film and theatre and-“I’m talking about having my own talk show. Showing cities from an artist’s perspective. The quirky underbelly.”

Harrington only realized his own star power recently. He’s become a household name, which is rare enough in the ballet world. But, in Canadian circles, fame is particularly fraught: “We eat our young,” laments Harrington. “You can’t be too good in Canada. I often find there’s this sense that, in Canada, dance critics are solely looking for the negative. Makes you wanna scream.”

Before international fame came his way, Harrington’s mother started him dancing at age 14. Upon joining the National Ballet, he toured Europe and discovered both himself and other boys. “It’s especially easy being a ballet dancer; everyone assumes you’re gay. I never really came out. I just was who I was.”

Who he was turned out to be an officer of the Order of Canada and a Gemini recipient who has danced for Queen Elizabeth and stunned audiences worldwide with his gorgeous pale blue eyes.

Now, he’s planning to dance two very different pieces at his upcoming World AIDS Day performance. “One’s very modern and angry,” he says. Together, “they represent 15 years of collaboration with Evelyn. When we get on stage we become one.”

Sounds a little heavy for a gay boy. “I’ve actually fallen in love with some of my dance partners,” insists Harrington. “The intimacy of the work you’re doing does it. You’re crawling all over each other.”

Now, despite his alleged retirement, Sexy Rexy will continue dancing the romantic pas-de-deux because “after 20 years it’s part of who you are.” Dreams don’t die.

And neither do important causes. “Dec 1 is World AIDS Day,” says Sue Moen, who’s organizing Harrington’s World AIDS Day fundraiser. “But people should be thinking about it every day. It hasn’t gone away.”

As for Timothy Findley, whose immortalized home Harrington shared, he too had a dream he refused to give up on. Something other than being a writer, it turns out.

In the author’s bedroom, says Harrington, Findley had a brass ballet barre fitted into the wall. “He had a dream of being a dancer. I guess his mom wouldn’t have gone for that.”


World AIDS Day ballet.

Dec 1.

Scotiabank Dance Centre.

677 Davie St (at Granville St).

Tickets: $150 at Tickemaster.

More World AIDS Day events: