Ashley McNeil

Avenue Calgary’s 2015 Top 40 Under 40.

Photograph by Erin Brooke Burns

Job title: Ballet Principal, School of Alberta Ballet

Why she’s a 2015 Top 40:

Ashley McNeil played a major role in creating a student residence and an on-site academic program for the School of Alberta Ballet‘s professional division. This makes the school one of only two in the country to have both, helping it to attract aspiring ballet dancers from across the world to come train in Calgary.

Ashley McNeil had already discovered her life’s passion by the time most children her age were starting to attend preschool. “I saw The Nutcracker at three and that pretty much did it,” she says.

Growing up in the hamlet of Annan, Ont., opportunities for professional ballet training were scarce. But, by age four, McNeil was enrolled in classes at a local studio in the neighbouring city of Owen Sound. She started her professional training at Canada’s National Ballet School at age nine, before returning to Owen Sound to complete her training there. She later moved on to the School of Dance in Ottawa and the Quinte Ballet School.

Joining the School of Alberta Ballet as a part-time teacher in 2004, McNeil threw herself into becoming a better dancer and teacher. She’s one of only 13 people in Canada to have completed both the Enrico Cecchetti Final Diploma and Fellowship, the highest dancing and teaching achievements, respectively, in the Cecchetti Ballet Method.

In 2011, McNeil was named Head of Junior School for the Alberta Ballet School. At the time, students in the professional division had to make their own arrangements with local schools to try to coordinate their academic studies with their dance classes, while students from out of town had to find billets or other accommodations. To create a less-disruptive experience for the students, McNeil took on a key role in the leadership team that developed and launched the professional division’s residence and on-site academic programs. The School of Alberta Ballet is now one of only two ballet schools in the country to have both.

The programs were a business success, but, more importantly for McNeil, who had spent many of her own training years in similar programs, they were also a personal success. “That first walk the students did across the courtyard to school, I remember watching and being so overjoyed, I was brought to tears,” she says.

Since the programs launched four years ago, enrolment in the academic program has quadrupled to 89 students, while residence occupancy has tripled to 54 students. The arrival of young dancers from around the world has almost doubled the professional division from 74 to 142 students, increasing the school’s budget from $1.1 million to $5 million.

McNeil’s dedication to the program launches earned her a promotion to Ballet Principal in 2013, and she’s now in charge of the school’s artistic operations. But McNeil, 34, says the most rewarding part of her job is still the time she gets to spend teaching in the studio, where she tries to leave her students with more than just the ability to dance.

“I hope they have the love of dance, because you can have that whether you go on or whether you don’t go on [to dance professionally],” McNeil says. “I hope that what we teach them here continues to make them love dance and go to the ballet and still have it in their hearts.” – Alana Willerton

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