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Tomas Schramek, 66, in "Don Quixote"

Cylla von Tiedemann

It's not rare to see a dancer who stretches the limits of the body. But some dancers are regularly defying the odds as well.

This week in Toronto, two shows are opening featuring dancers in their 60s. Hazaros Surmeyan, 68, and Tomas Schramek, 66, share the title role in the National Ballet's production of Don Quixote, which begins performances Wednesday. And this weekend's contemporary dance series, Older and Reckless, has performances by Carol Anderson, 60, and Phyllis Whyte, 63.

Also in the contemporary dance genre, Toronto's Peggy Baker, 58, just opened in a show, while Montreal's Paul-André Fortier, 62, is finishing off a world tour. At the National Ballet of Canada, Aleksandar Antonijevic is still performing principal roles into his 40s.

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Of all the performing arts, dancers have the shortest careers because their bodies are the tools of their trade - ballet dancers usually retire in their mid-to-late 30s, and contemporary dancers tend to perform into their 40s.

Surmeyan and Schramek, both former principal dancers, are still performing because they are now principal character artists. In ballet terms, this means they usually portray the non-dance roles in full-length story ballets.

Their National Ballet colleague Kevin D. Bowles defines the position of principal character artist as "a golden parachute" because it extends the ballet career of an aging dancer. Says Bowles: "You're onstage either for dramatic flair or comic relief. You're either the bad guy or a clown." Bowles is an anomaly - at 34, he's among the youngest principal character artists in the ballet world.

Schramek had always been considered among the finest of the National Ballet's acting dancers, so the transition into principal character artist was a natural process. Surmeyan feels he was eased into character roles because of his looks. "I have a strong, bold face and a big nose and chin," he says. "Character roles depend on facial expressions and arm gestures because we're not using our legs and feet any more."

But for the creators of Older and Reckless, it's a different story. The show was specifically designed to provide performance opportunities for dancers over 40. Artistic director Claudia Moore, now 57, began the series in 2000 for selfish reasons. "I was 45, I still wanted to perform, and I couldn't get the shows I wanted," she says. "I picked 40 as the minimum age because Martha Graham said that she had peaked at 40."

Sashar Zarif, a mere 42, has choreographed for the series twice. He prefers to set his pieces on older dancers. "Context is important to me," he points out, "and mature dancers have the experience to deliver meaning. They can give me what I want." For example, Zarif's acclaimed Anar (2008), exploring the impact of cultural migration, featured veteran fiftysomethings Holly Small, Susan Cash, Terrill Maguire and Anderson. The moving piece explored the impact of cultural migration.

Whyte will be remounting two dances in the series, Danvers and Grey Lipstick, by the late Murray Darroch, one of Canada's most original and eccentric choreographers. She was the original dancer in these works more than 30 years ago.

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For both principal character artists and older contemporary dancers, training is crucial - and gruelling at times.

The physical demands are harder on the contemporary dancers. Moore, Anderson and Whyte's programs include Pilates for core strength and protecting joints, dance classes, yoga, martial arts, tai chi, and dance workout/fitness programs such as Nia and Gyrokinesis.

For their part, Surmeyan and Schramek both go to the gym regularly, and their main pursuit is lifting weights.

Schramek stopped attending the taxing morning ballet classes when Karen Kain asked him why he was putting himself through the struggle, but he certainly keeps in shape - last year he trekked to the 17,000-foot base camp of Mount Everest.

What makes these senior citizens of dance continue on the stage? Moore says it comes down to one thing: desire. "Without it, she says, "you can't summon the energy to persevere."

Says Anderson: "If you work in dance long enough, it becomes your creative metaphor. There is a curiosity about ongoing potential that keeps older dance artists engaged."

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As for what Zarif calls the "achy bone," or the pain that all dancers live with, Schramek recalls a remark by the great Rudolf Nureyev. "He said the day you wake up and nothing hurts, you're dead."

The National Ballet's Don Quixote runs at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, March 9 to 13. Older and Reckless takes place at Dancemakers Centre for Creation, 55 Mill St. in Toronto, March 12 and 13.

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