Canadian dance icon Rachel Browne died in Ottawa on Saturday, June 9th. Founder of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers and its accompanying professional school, Browne was in Ottawa for the Canada Dance Festival (CDF) where students from five of Canada’s professional dance schools, including the School of Contemporary Dancers, were performing Jean-Pierre Perreault’s Joe et Rodolphe at the National Arts Centre. Browne returned to her hotel late Friday night and died in her sleep at the age of 77; the cause of death has not been made public. A funeral will be held in Winnipeg on Friday, June 15th at 2:30pm in the Piano Nobile reception area of the Centennial Concert Hall. Plans are being arranged for a memorial in Toronto in September; details will be made available when public.
Born in Philadelphia, Browne studied piano and dance as a child. After high school, she moved to New York and took ballet classes with Benjamin Harkarvy. In New York, she and some friends also formed a ballet group called The New Century Dancers – anyone who joined had to be enlightened in socialism or communism. In 1957, Browne left New York when Harkarvy invited her to accompany him on a move to Winnipeg to direct Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Browne left the company in 1961 and began to raise a family; however, she still attended company class or would do barre exercises in her kitchen. During these years, she began to teach for fellow RWB dancers Jill and Nenad Lhotka. When she choreographed for her senior students, she discovered that her natural way of moving was not balletic in nature. She began to choreograph more and founded Contemporary Dancers in 1964. She developed a repertory company that performed her work as well as that of others, such as Robert Moulton. The socialist ideals of her upbringing along with feminism and environmental issues informed her work. She resigned as artistic director in 1983 but remained closely tied to the company for the remainder of her life while also setting works on other companies and individuals. Through her teaching and choreography, she has influenced and mentored multiple generations of dance artists across Canada including Stephanie Ballard, Tedd Robinson, Sharon Moore and Andrea Nann, among numerous others. Several artists performing at CDF dedicated their shows to Browne’s memory. Writer-choreographer Carol Anderson published a biography of Browne, Rachel Browne: Dancing Toward the Light, in 1999.