Jenny Belzberg, Ronnie Burkett named laureates of 2024 Governor General's Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement

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A longtime philanthropist from Calgary and a pioneering puppeteer from Medicine Hat have been named laureates of the 2024 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.

Jenny Belzberg, a passionate advocate for the arts in Calgary, will receive The Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Volunteerism in the Performing Arts. Puppeteer Ronnie Burkett has also been named a laureate this year.

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Belzberg sat on the board of directors for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra for years and was a founding member and board chair of the esteemed Esther Honens Calgary International Piano Competition. She joined the Banff Centre’s board of directors in the 1980s, serving as chair of the Midsummer Ball Committee. In 1987, she became chair of the board, a role she held until 1991. It was a pivotal time for the centre and Belzberg’s contributions are credited with helping develop the campus as the country’s largest postgraduate art school.

In 2020, The Eric Harvie Theatre was rechristened the Jenny Belzberg Theatre at the Banff Centre. It was in recognition of her family’s “transformative gift” for the project, one of the biggest in the history of the centre. The amount has never been disclosed, but it is believed to have been sufficient enough to cover much of the $7-million-plus cost of the revitalization of the theatre.

Master puppeteer Ronnie Burkett with marionettes Esme, Tony and Schnitzel featured in his adults-only interpretation of A Christmas Carol titled Little Dickens that played in London, Ont., in November 2023. Photo by Derek Ruttan/Postmedia Network Photo by Derek Ruttan /Photo by Derek Ruttan/London Fre

Her history with the institution goes back to when she was a young Calgarian and would see artists from what was then called The Banff School of Fine Arts painting landscapes in the mountains when visiting the mountain town on family trips.

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My husband and I benefited from being involved,” she told Postmedia back in 2020. “It enriched our lives. It wasn’t just the music, it was the people. We liked being with artists and we liked working with arts administrators. The people who were interested in music in those days almost became a family. So it became a very social thing, besides being very entertaining.”

Ronnie Burkett has had a 45-year career as a puppeteer, playwright and performer, renowned for reinventing puppet theatre with the productions that he created for an adult audience. Born and raised in Medicine Hat, he first became interested in puppetry at the age of seven. In 2023, he returned to Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit to perform Little Willy at the High Performance Rodeo. Burkett told Postmedia at the time that he got his professional start in Calgary with the Rabbits.

“In the early days, we were the young punks of the Calgary theatre scene,” he said.

Other 2024 laureates include soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee, songwriter Diane Juster, actor Andrea Martin, hip-hop artist and author Wes (Maestro) Williams and choreographer Melanie Demers. A Mentorship program has past recipients inspire Canadian artists in mid-career. This year’s mentor is singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark and protege Angela Amarualik.

The 2024  Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Artistic Achievement takes place June 8 at the National Arts Centre.

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