Around 2013, choreographer Tedd Robinson considered destroying his archives. After some outcry from friends and peers, he instead invited seven young artists to his house and studio, to create their own material from his body of work. Robinson assembled the new material into a piece, FACETS, which premiered in 2015.
One of those artists, Angie Cheng, remembers it as “a beautiful project that built strong relationships and bonds,” one that in Robinson’s own words was “ongoing.” The individual artists retained ownership over the work they’d made, which was built out of conversations and exchanges, guided by each artist’s interests and response to Robinson’s repertoire. In this way, Cheng says, Robinson addressed the persistent question of how to make his archives useful and alive. “Everything that we created then lives on with each of us and within our own practices and work,” she says. “His essence of archives lives within us.”
Riley Sims, another FACETS creator, was interested in the person behind the art. In addition to performance footage, he asked to see candid videos from Robinson’s life. Working again with Robinson on what would be his final staged production, An Autopsy of an Archive (2020), Sims listened eagerly to stories about the photographs and costumes pulled up from Robinson’s basement. “I learned that from him: to be close,” Sims explains, reflecting on his approach to collaborative creation. “All that archival stuff allowed for that kind of intimacy. He just shared so much.”
Robinson was a beloved icon in Canadian dance, admired for his innovative work and generous spirit. In his 45-year career, he mentored emerging artists, consulted on projects and created dozens of acclaimed works, many with his company, 10 Gates Dancing. He collaborated with artists including Margie Gillis, Ame Henderson, Mako Kawano, Louise Lecavalier, Yvon “Crazy Smooth” Soglo and the composer/performer Charles Quevillon, whose creative partnership with Robinson spanned 27 projects over 12 years. Robinson, a National Arts Centre associate dance artist, won the Chalmers National Dance Award for his 1998 piece Rokudo: six destinies in three steps; in 2014, he received the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
“A great mind, a beautiful heart, a singular artist,” says Peggy Baker when considering what Canadian dance is now without after Robinson’s death on Aug. 27. “The loss is beyond measure. But his influence is so deep, it’s so pervasive … Tedd, by the seriousness and generosity and the brilliance of his work, demonstrated how an artist can vivify the place that they’re in and open conversations and discoveries. I really do feel that he allowed work to flourish wherever he arrived. Everywhere he was, people sought him out in order to find out how to thrive themselves as artists.”
Born in Ottawa, Robinson moved to Toronto to study music at York University. Within a year he was auditing ballet classes before officially transferring to the dance department, helmed at the time by Grant Strate. While in Toronto, he attended the first national choreographic seminar, completed additional training in Toronto Dance Theatre’s professional program, and took classes with iconic British visual theatre artist Lindsay Kemp, a pivotal inspiration: “In a mere eight weeks of study and association throughout May, June and July of 1978, [Kemp] changed my aesthetic life forever,” he told The Dance Current in 2010.
In 1979, Robinson joined Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD), first as a trainee, then resident choreographer, and then artistic director in 1984. His quick ascent “shows you what a precocious artistic mind” he had, says Baker, who was a frequent WCD guest teacher, at Robinson’s invitation. “He wasn’t aspiring to become an artist,” she adds. “He was.” With the company, Robinson created highly theatrical ensemble productions that were praised, and his work toured nationally and internationally. With WCD, he also established the Festival of Canadian Modern Dance, bringing national and international dance artists to Winnipeg.
Tedd, by the seriousness and generosity and the brilliance of his work, demonstrated how an artist can vivify the place that they’re in and open conversations and discoveries. I really do feel that he allowed work to flourish wherever he arrived. Everywhere he was, people sought him out in order to find out how to thrive themselves as artists.Peggy Baker
In 1990, Robinson returned to Ottawa to pursue a solo career. “It was time to go back to basics and investigate what I really wanted to say as an artist,” he told Sara Porter in a 2016 article for Dance Collection Danse Magazine. Over the next two years, Robinson was a consultant at Le Groupe Dance Lab, working closely with Artistic Director Peter Boneham, a lodestar in Robinson’s development as an artist and mentor. In the 90s, Robinson also studied as a monk at Ottawa’s Hakukaze soto zen monastery, another enduring influence on his craft, and started creating his remarkable solos. His imagistic, abstract narrative works, in his words, whether solo or group, often balanced intensity and vulnerability with unexpected humour.
“He became known for certain things that were quite idiosyncratic, but they were Tedd. They became his signature,” says Cathy Levy, executive producer of dance at the National Arts Centre, which had a long history of co-producing and presenting Robinson’s work. She mentions his fondness for balancing objects — fruits, sticks — on bodies, which Robinson described as both exploring functional movement and as a metaphor for precarity and empathy. “He had an amazing way of channeling character, of investigating myth and history and ideas that came from other strains of life,” she says.
“He also had an incredible ability to take us with him on a voyage of time. He didn’t rush things often in his work,” Levy continues. “I never got restless … I felt like I was always giving myself over to him.”
In the latter half of his career, Robinson’s homes doubled as sites for collaboration and creation. From 2005 to 2012, at La B.A.R.N. (Beauty. Art. Retreat. Nature.), near Lac Leslie, Que., Robinson offered residencies, gatherings and presentations in his renovated barn. After La B.A.R.N., he established Centre Q at his home in Quyon, Que. from 2013 to 2020. Many artists recall rewarding and immersive experiences, with Robinson picking them up from the train station, sharing meals, working in the studio, and having conversations long into the evening.
“This is quite unique,” says choreographer Christopher House, of the spaces and processes Robinson cultivated, which House experienced firsthand. “It established a way of dramaturgical collaboration, a very specific way, that I think other people have followed in their own way. He just created such an attractive and clearly generative model for people to work with.”
With Ame Henderson, Robinson also established 8 Days, an annual, week-long choreographic gathering of artistic exchange. (Its first incarnation, in 2012, was held at La B.A.R.N.) “I just love activities where there’s a combination of practice but there’s also the social element,” says Andrew Tay, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre. Tay participated in every 8 Days gathering but the first. “Projects like that … help to build a culture around dancemaking but also allow for real connection.”
Nearly everyone interviewed spoke of Robinson’s non-hierarchical, reciprocal approach to mentorship, where interest flowed in both directions. “I use the term mentor, but it was always a conversation,” says Cheng. “Tedd was so curious … it was always just us having conversations, and sharing our fantasies and dreams and our thoughts, and being excited about what we were sharing with each other.” Over time, Robinson entrusted Cheng with artistic consultation on his own projects. Cheng feels he recognized a common sensibility between them and was nurturing it in her.
“He was probably one of the first people that saw talent in me, saw potential in me,” says Sims, who credits Robinson as his first mentor when starting his company, Social Growl. Robinson gave the company its first residency, at Centre Q, and they were in constant dialogue as Sims developed new work. “I went through a long time in Toronto of not being recognized or noticed because I wasn’t ready to be seen or noticed,” Sims says. “It took the right person to be like, You should be seen.” Robinson’s encouragement changed everything. “That’s how I had a career.”
And it was through Robinson’s example that Sims “learned what it is to truly follow the path of creation. Not to try and control too much of what you think your vision should be, but to use what shows up.”
Robinson’s enormous influence and collaborations — mentoring, creating work for students, teaching, consulting — have resulted in a loss deeply felt in the dance community. “I don’t recall, at least in my experience, another time when there were all corners of the country, so many generations of people, who are moved by this and affected by this,” says Levy.
Tina Legari, Robinson’s friend and the manager at 10 Gates Dancing for 25 years, agrees. “There are few artists whose impact directly reached so many artists across the country,” she writes. “The outpouring of love for Tedd has been overwhelming, not just because of who he was as an artist, but as a human. I hope he will be remembered for the beauty he shared with audiences, for the work of artists he encouraged and supported, for his insatiable desire to create and recreate community, and perhaps most of all, for his gentle, playful, and caring kinship with others.”