“More.” “Bigger.” “More!” I have a distinct memory of Rachel Browne from the early nineties. I was a student, training at the Professional Program of the School of Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg. I remember standing just outside the doors to the upstairs studio of the school, waiting with my class. It was already ten minutes into our group’s rehearsal time, but from inside the studio, the strains of Hoagy Carmichael showed no sign of letting up. And neither did the wiry, energetic woman at the front of the studio, focused on giving her notes and demonstrating to a younger dancer in a long white gown. This woman, of course, was the inimitable Rachel Browne, doing one of the things she did best — rehearse her dancers. In rehearsal, her intensity and rigour endured well past any hour on the clock, and we became used to waiting outside her studio, our teacher gently tapping on the door and prodding, “Rachel…it’s 11:45…” Winnipeg legend has it that she would turn the clocks back in rehearsal. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that she was always in pursuit of a higher standard of dance, and I imagine that sometimes ‘time’ just got in the way.
I was taken back to this memory recently while watching a beautiful dancer in a long white gown (Treasure Waddell) perform that very same solo Rachel was rehearsing that long-ago day. The solo was My Romance, created in 1990, and it was presented alongside seven other works on the program Toward Light, A Tribute to Rachel Browne. Presented by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD) — the company Rachel founded in 1964, now under the artistic direction of Brent Lott — the show was performed in Winnipeg, Toronto and Vancouver throughout the month of January 2013. It was a retrospective of her work, from the first piece she created for Contemporary Dancers (1964’s Odetta’s Songs and Dances, featuring an explosive solo performance by Mark Medrano), to her final work, Momentum, created before her sudden passing in June 2012. The thirteen performers in the tribute show were Winnipeg dance professionals, some of them WCD company members. They were joined in each city by young dance artists, reflecting Rachel’s work with emerging professionals.
I saw the Toronto performance at the Fleck Theatre, and I was truly moved. I was raised at the School of Contemporary Dancers, the school Rachel established in 1972. As a student I had the opportunity to work with and be taught by Rachel, and over the years I’ve been greatly influenced by the many artists, choreographers and teachers she has touched. The tribute performance was a chance to acknowledge the loss and legacy of Rachel Browne, and celebrate her riches.The evening was a beautifully performed homage, and the works seemed to not just stand the test of time, they brought the passage of time into significance. The woman who seemed to disregard the clock in rehearsal, certainly did concern herself with the importance of time.
Rachel’s dances marked events, phases of life and social concerns. On the program we saw 1991’s Freddy, which captured the social decadence of Germany in the period between the World Wars. This solo, beguilingly danced by Johanna Riley (with a twinkle in her eye and a painted-on moustache), reminded me of the dimension and depth with which Rachel created dances for women.
Sunstorm, created in 2002, set to Chopin’s Preludes, marked her recovery from hip surgery. The work is at once clearly simple and subversively complex, a combination I’ve always felt was trademark Rachel Browne. It was performed with an essential maturity and clarity by the six dancers (Odette Heyn, Kristin Haight, Ali Robson, Lise McMillan, Johanna Riley, Sarah Roche and Mark Medrano).
Radiance (2011), which closed the evening, was created in memory of the late Babs Asper and also the late composer Ann Southam, great friend and collaborator of Rachel’s. Dancer Kristin Haight, Rachel’s recent muse, was indeed radiant in the solo work.
Rachel’s dances are so full of life, so resonant with the dark and light of our existence, that one simply can’t ignore time. We, as viewers, are reminded of the fragility of our own existence, our age and our mortality.
Willow Island, (2001) is equal parts celebration and contemplation in its depiction of place (Rachel’s cabin retreat) and sentiment. It is evocative of pure joy, fearless and unabashed. The work was jubilantly danced by eight young artists of Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre (formerly the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre). Set to music performed by the Penguin Café Orchestra, the work lifted the room and the audience was delighted.It occurs to me that Rachel’s use of music in her works once again evokes the theme of time. Her choreography is completely musical, and she phrases time in surprising and thought-provoking ways. In my recollection as a student, she never formally counted anything, but she inherently ‘knew’ the music. I remember her demonstrating for a group of us, her slight frame ebbing and flowing on the diagonal, and thinking that with every pass, she would somehow fall behind, but she never did. She felt the music so deeply it seemed as if she was the moon and the music the tide.
The music of Keith Jarrett carried 1993’s KJ4, performed by four professional students from the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Rachel does Jarrett’s improvisations justice by choosing to illustrate the phrasing through repetition and finally, evolution. The work is relentless, for the dancers and for the audience, and the exalted ending is a reward (for everybody) for serving the music well.
Rachel was interested in working with different generations of artists, and on this tribute program, senior artist Odette Heyn (great friend and dancing partner of Rachel), gave beautiful, grounded performances. As she reprised the role that Rachel herself danced in Odetta’s Songs and Dances, we were given a special window into remembrance.
On May 25, 2012, Rachel wrote in a letter to former colleague Nancy Paris: “Would you believe I just finished a new work at age 77?” She was referring to her last work, Momentum, a brilliantly crafted trio performed with quality precision and technique by recent School of Contemporary Dancers graduates Rachelle Bourget, Sarah Helmer and James Thomson Kacki. Set to Chopin’s Scherzo in B minor, the work takes us on a remarkable, accelerating journey through space, time and personal relationship. It was so vibrant and alive that I found myself struggling to make sense of Rachel’s passing. I was able to find solace in the words of my former teachers — co-directors of the Professional Program, Odette Heyn and Faye Thomson — who wrote in the program: ‘This beautiful and vivacious piece expresses the momentum of her profound legacy carried forward into the next generation.’
This tribute show marked the launch of The Rachel Browne Trust, founded to preserve and disseminate the legacy of choreographer, mentor, teacher, humanitarian and Order of Canada recipient, Rachel Browne C.M. The Trust will be administered by Rachel’s daughters Ruth Asper, Miriam Browne and Annette Browne and WCD will manage the Trust. Stephanie Ballard (who also acted as artistic advisor for the Tribute tour) will handle the archival work and Kristin Haight will oversee the rehearsal direction.
Watching the performance, I wondered about what it must have been like for the artists to rehearse the works without Rachel there. She was such a force in rehearsal. “More.” “Bigger.” “More!” She always had notes, was always propelling forward the dancers’ artistry, and she always had the work, the best possible work, in the forefront of her mind. Knowing how Rachel’s influence has embedded itself, and how it spans generations, even her own, I am certain her spirit of hard work and excellence was in the room. And with a legacy that surpasses time, I like to think that perhaps maybe, just maybe, someone turned back the clock. For Rachel.