The statuesque Martine van Hamel unfurled her miraculously expressive arms and the space around her seemed to expand in response. In other improvised movement vignettes dancers from across a wide spectrum of cultural traditions – South Asian, Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and various Western forms – found creative ways to interact. And there were stories – funny, poignant, puzzling and transformational.
Lata Pada related how dance was the one lifeline that carried her through the spiritually numbing loss of her husband and two daughters in the 1985 Air India bombing. Peter Chin, with his inimitable combination of rapid-fire movement and made-up language, hilariously skewered the arts-hating Stephen Harper. Susan Macpherson had happy memories of the arts-loving Pierre Trudeau. Laurence Lemieux recalled being attracted to Bill Coleman while performing a duet during their Toronto Dance Theatre days, then marrying the wrong guy … until a colleague encouraged her to correct the error in Coleman’s favour. Margie Gillis remembered a dance with her brother Christopher, the last before his death in 1993. Esmeralda Enrique sang soulfully, as did several others. Allen Kaeja confessed to being a bad-ass and “shit disturber”. Hari Krishnan made meticulous gesture more eloquent than words. Veronica Tennant relived the moment when a partner pitched them both into an orchestra pit. Kate Franklin confessed to making a wrong exit and colliding bloodily with Kate Holden. Graham McKelvie turned the story of a hilarious stage mishap into an opportunity for philosophical reflection – “life just happens.”
And so it went, as Harbourfront Centre celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Premiere Dance Theatre with the first Canadian production of From the Horse’s Mouth, an adaptable, transportable, live performance documentary program concept, devised a decade ago by New York-based dance artists Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham. In more than thirty presentations, Croll and Cunningham have brought Horse’s Mouth to dance companies, festivals and institutions across the United States – from the Martha Graham Company and American Dance Festival to the Joyce Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The goal in each instance has been to animate a commemoration and celebration through the personal stories and dances of representative figures from the communities with whom Croll and Cunningham have collaborated.
In the case of the Premiere Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre dance programmer Jeanne Holmes and Dancemakers’ artistic director Michael Trent recruited twenty-five artists who had appeared on the PDT stage during its first quarter century. Each was asked to prepare a short personal story. Four nights before the September 25th opening of the newly refurbished theatre, Croll and Cunningham met with the dancers, listened to the stories, made suggestions and went away to shape them into a program with emotional texture and variety.
As for the dance, each performer was asked to prepare an emblematic movement phrase and to bring a favorite costume from a past performance. They would also be required to improvise movement, based on directions randomly selected from cue cards. Then, with just three rehearsals, Croll and Cunningham assembled the cast and components into a roughly eighty-minute performance. On paper, it might read like the recipe for an unfocussed, meandering, potentially self-indulgent mess of a show. Happily, it turned out to be anything but.
For the most part the stories, each in their own way, were touching, amusing, thoughtful and often very inventively conveyed. It was not always easy to balance one’s attention evenly between each successive story-teller and the dance going on in the background. However, there were wonderful moments when they somehow magically synced, and others when time dreamily seemed to stand still as a surreal procession of costumed characters crossed the stage diagonally.
The overall tone was affectionate and collegial. For the audience, it gave rare insights into the art of dance and the lives of those who practice it. Yet, cumulatively, From the Horse’s Mouth went beyond a celebration of dance to become an assertion of something more universal – of shared humanity, of triumphs and tragedies, dreams and disappointments, of lives lived to the fullest – as they have been through countless performances on the PDT stage. Only now we have to get used to calling it something else.
In his prefatory opening-night remarks, Harbourfront Centre CEO Bill Boyle announced that the venue will henceforth be called the Fleck Dance Theatre, thus honoring two outstanding Toronto philanthropists and loyal Harbourfront supporters, Jim and Margaret Fleck. It is their generosity, together with that of other donors and government funders that has enabled the theatre’s silver anniversary makeover. There are new seats, new carpets, new sound and lighting systems, redesigned lobby bars and an audacious new colour scheme awash in strident blue.
Yet this renewal comes at a time when Harbourfront Centre, perennially challenged to find the resources to support its broad and ambitious institutional programming mandate, has been accused of retreating from its commitment to dance. Boyle and Holmes legitimately deny such a contention but have nevertheless been compelled by depleted funds, a lack of corporate sponsors and a changing market to revamp their dance programming, most notably by abandoning the long-running annual international dance subscription series.
“The Fleck,” as we’re now encouraged to call it, was born on a wave of optimism. The then Harbourfront Corporation came into being in 1972, just as Canadian contemporary dance was entering a major growth phase. Under its former performing arts manager, Roy Higgins, Harbourfront became an important venue for both local and national troupes. Artists such as Marie Chouinard, Édouard Lock and Paul André Fortier in their early days played Harbourfront’s Brigantine Room or Studio Theatre.
When the moment came for development of the 1920s Terminal Warehouse, Harbourfront’s identification as an important dance venue spurred Ann Tyndal and Howard Cohen, then director of programming and general manager respectively, to push successfully for inclusion of a theatre designed for dance within the mixed-use facility. Although the resulting 450-seat venue, designed with input from the dance community, did not become quite as welcoming a home for all the local dance artists who had imagined – perhaps unrealistically – that it would, the inauguration of the PDT was nevertheless a major, symbolic step; a theatre built and named for dance.
It soon became the regular Toronto performing home for such companies as Toronto Dance Theatre, Danny Grossman, Robert Desrosiers and Dancemakers. It welcomed an impressive roster of major international troupes, from those of Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris and DV8. Having access to as prestigious a stage as the PDT also gave visibility and credibility in Canada’s largest city to emerging local troupes: Ballet Creole, COBA, Menaka Thakkar, Sampradaya, InDance and others.
The surge that brought the PDT into being has waned. Audiences are bombarded, fragmented and distracted by a welter of attractions. Times have changed. Whole troupes have vanished. We live in a challenging era for all the arts, but the PDT/FDT is still there and, newly refurbished, will remain an iconic venue for dance.