The 12 Highlights of the National Arts Centre's 50th Anniversary Year

The National Arts Centre enjoyed an extraordinary 50th anniversary year in 2019. It included exquisite performances by The National Ballet of Canada; the highly successful North American premiere of the popular BIG BANG festival; the landmark programming announcement for the inaugural season of Indigenous Theatre; a triumphant 50th Anniversary European Tour by the NAC Orchestra; a celebratory Open House that attracted thousands of Canadians, and much more. The NAC’s 50th anniversary was also marked by the publication of the second edition of Art and Politics: the History of the National Arts Centre by Sarah Jennings (McGill-Queen’s University Press). Here, in chronological order, are the 12 highlights of our 50th anniversary year. 

1) The National Ballet of Canada, 50 years later

The NAC has enjoyed a strong relationship with The National Ballet of Canada from the very beginning. At the NAC’s opening night on June 2, 1969, the company gave the first ever performance in the Opera (now called Southam Hall) with the avant-garde ballet Kraanerg, choreographed by Roland Petit and featuring Prima Ballerina Veronica Tennant. Since then, The National Ballet of Canada has performed at the NAC each year. To celebrate that relationship in 2019, NAC Dance, led by Executive Producer Cathy Levy, presented the company from January 31 to February 2. They performed works by the illustrious George Balanchine (Apollo), the legendary Sir Frederick Ashton (The Dream) and the trailblazing Justin Peck (Paz de la Jolla).


BIG BANG, one of Europe’s most renowned festivals for young audiences, made its North American debut at the NAC on February 17 and 18 and was part of  Winterlude. BIG BANG took over the building, with thousands of children and families exploring the fascinating world of music, sound and the arts. The festival included imaginative installations, workshops and performances, including a visually enchanting concert with the NAC Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Shelley. BIG BANG returns to the NAC February 15 and 16, 2020.

3) The Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards

The Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards show on April 27, presented by Air Canada, celebrated the lifetime achievement of Louise Bessette, Colm Feore, Rick Mercer, Lorraine Pintal and Mavis Staines. The actor Sandra Oh received the National Arts Centre Award, and E. Noël Spinelli received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism. Hosted by CBC News Network anchor Heather Hiscox, the show included tributes from Emily Haines, lead singer of Metric, filmmaker and actor Don McKellar, singer-songwriter Jann Arden, comedian Patrick Huard, singer-songwriter Jodee Richardson and The Pursuit of Happiness, among many others. The “GGs” are Canada’s most prestigious honour in the performing arts, and the evening was a moving, powerful and entertaining celebration of some of our country’s finest artists.

4) The NAC Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary European Tour  

From May 10 to 26, Music Director Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra and five Canadian soloists shone on the world stage during the 50th Anniversary European Tour, performing in Saffron Walden, London, Paris, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Gothenburg. The Tour showcased works by six Canadian composers, and included the multimedia commission Life Reflected, which tells the stories of four extraordinary Canadians — Alice Munro, Roberta Bondar, Amanda Todd and Rita Joe. “We showed some of the great European capitals that there is something special going on here in Canada — that the level of the ensemble, the quality of our art and our artists is among the world’s best,” Alexander Shelley said. “We were truly cultural ambassadors for Canada.”

5) Between Breaths

In May, Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production, told the tale of Jon Lien, who freed more than 500 whales from fishing nets. Directed by Jillian Keiley, Artistic Director of English Theatre, and with a score by the Newfoundland band The Once, the show was a hit with audiences and critics.

6) 50th Anniversary Open House

On the weekend of the National Arts Centre’s grand opening in 1969, thousands of Canadians flooded into downtown Ottawa for an open house. On our 50th anniversary on June 2, 2019, and in partnership with Doors Open Ottawa, we threw open our doors and people came once more by the thousands. They witnessed the magic of backstage, walking the same halls that countless legendary artists have walked over the past five decades. They sang, danced and acted on the NAC stages, and enjoyed pop-up performances by Canadian artists throughout the NAC’s Public Spaces. In the evening,Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra gave a free concert in honour of the occasion.

7) Mòshkamo and the launch of NAC Indigenous Theatre

The first-ever season of Indigenous Theatre, led by Kevin Loring and Managing Director Lori Marchand, kicked off with the Mòshkamo festival (September 11 to 29). At the Grand Entry on Saturday, September 14, which attracted thousands and was broadcast live on Facebook, the Algonquin Anishinabeg people officially welcomed the NAC onto their territory, beginning with an Algonquin-led canoe procession down the Rideau Canal. Mòshkamo included The Unnatural and Accidental Women by Dene-Métis playwright Marie Clements (also presented by NAC English Theatre), and Where the Blood Mixes by Artistic Director Kevin Loring. Indigenous Theatre will play a vital role in showcasing Indigenous artists and stories on the national stage. The first season, which runs until May 2020, includes more than 10 languages, and celebrates the strength, beauty and resilience of Indigenous women. The inaugural season of Indigenous Theatre is made possible through the support of many generous individuals and organizations from across the country, including Season Sponsor BMO Financial Group and Major Partner The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

8) Zones Théâtrales

From September 9 to 14, Zones Théâtrales celebrated the creativity of francophone theatre companies from across the country. Led by Artistic Director Gilles Poulin-Denis, the festival included eight shows, three workshops and five readings that originated from Francophone communities in six different provinces, and attracted more than 3,000 audience members. Thanks to the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, Zones Théâtrales hosted 11 festival programmers and directors from France, six African countries and three Caribbean countries. Zones Théâtrales joined forces with the NAC’s new Indigenous Theatre to co-present two shows, Là où le sang se mêle and Mokatek et l’étoile disparue.

9) 1 Elgin restaurant opens its doors and new Resident Chef program

The NAC’s newly renovated restaurant, 1 ELGIN, opened in September and offers a more welcoming experience. To celebrate this renewed and renamed space, Food and Beverage General Manager Nelson Borges and Executive Chef Kenton Leier kicked off a new Resident Chef Program that began in September with Six Nations chef Rich Francis, and will welcome Edmonton’s Chef Ryan Hotchkiss in January. In addition, the NAC implemented a new composting program, which includes compostable cups and utensils, andcompost bins at key locations. In addition, the resulting compost will be used in the NAC’s rooftop herb gardens for the restaurant. The initiative is on track to divert 500,000 containers from the landfill annually.

10) Largest-ever gift to the NAC Foundation

At the NAC’s Golden Gala on October 4, the NAC announced Janice and Earle O’Born’s transformational gift of $10 million, the largest single gift to the NAC that will help sustain artistic excellence at the NAC. Over the last decade, Mr. and Mrs. O’Born, from Toronto, have become major champions of the National Arts Centre through their support of Canadian performing artists, creation, touring and orchestral work, and with this latest gift they have sent a strong signal about the role the arts play in Canada and on the world stage. Recently, they were the Lead Partners of the NAC Orchestra’s 50th anniversary tour to Europe, and had previously made a major gift to the NAC’s first-ever national fundraising Campaign and the NAC’s National Creation Fund which provides risk capital to ambitious works in music, theatre and dance.

11) Parce que la nuit

In this critically acclaimed production about the life and work of Patti Smith, French Theatre Artistic Director Brigitte Haentjens drew us into a total creative whirlwind in the heart of a changing America. Parce que la nuit combines electric guitars, poetry, counterculture and romanticism in the free and effervescent spirit of the ’70s. Unique and complex, like the artist herself, this creation about Patti Smith continues the creative research of Brigitte Haentjens, who, with her company Sibyllines, explores the secret fractures of female identity. The show features poems, songs and music performed live by three musicians. The script was co-written by Dany Boudreault and Brigitte Haentjens, in collaboration with Céline Bonnier.

12) Dan Mangan with the NAC Orchestra

On November 23, 2019 JUNO-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Mangan joined forces with the NAC Orchestra for a spectacular concert on the second season of the Sessions Series. Sessions pairs popular musicians with the NAC Orchestra and in the process new orchestral works enter the repertoire of classical music. The successful collaboration between all the musicians, the conductor and the arrangers (including fellow Sessions artist Sarah Slean) was inspiring and unforgettable. Ending on a rousing sing-along version of “Robots” by the entire crowd, the concert is one that will be long remembered. 


The NAC’s 50th anniversary events and programs are made possible with support from Gail Asper, O.C., O.M., LL.D. and Michael Paterson, Bonnie and John Buhler, Alice and Grant Burton, Margaret Fountain, C.M., DFA (h) and David Fountain, C.M., Elinor Gill Ratcliffe, C.M., O.N.L., LL.D. (hc). Janice and Earle O’Born, Gail O’Brien, LL.D. and David O’Brien, O.C., and Dasha Shenkman, OBE, Hon RCM.


The National Arts Centre raised its curtains for the first time in 1969. A bilingual, multi-disciplinary home for Canada’s most creative artists, the NAC strives to be artistically adventurous in each of its programming streams — the NAC Orchestra, Dance, English Theatre, French Theatre, Indigenous Theatre and NAC Presents. The Centre’s national role is reflected in its motto: “Canada is our Stage.” The NAC collaborates with artists and arts organizations across the country, acts as a catalyst for performance; invests in ambitious new works by artists and arts organizations nation-wide; and nurtures the next generation of audiences and artists from across Canada. Situated on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinabe nation, the NAC is accessible and welcoming to all, and offers a variety of free programming and events.



Mary Gordon
Senior Communications Advisor
National Arts Centre
613 947-7000 x849

Join our email list for the latest updates!