York students dance into Canadian choreographic research

“Shall we get up and dance our hearts out?”

The invitation came from visiting artist David Earle encouraging a group of third-year dance students in one of the sunny studios in York’s Accolade East Building. Only one week into the legendary choreographer’s residency in the Department of Dance, professors and students alike were energized and amazed at all they had accomplished.

Left: David Earle

Throughout the residency, Earle and his company led a daily technique class with the young dancers, setting two of Earle’s acclaimed works on the group – Sculpting Time (2006) and The Ray Charles Suite (1973). Graduate dance students documented the process with video, still photography and written essays.

An informal presentation of the repertoire will take place today at 1pm in the McLean Performance Studio, 244 Accolade East Bldg. It marks the conclusion of Earle’s three-week residency. The works are double cast so each will be shown twice.

The documentation of the project will feed into the research of Dance Department Chair Mary Jane Warner, who has been working on a scholarly project – documenting the work of senior Canadian choreographers – for the past four-and-a-half years.

Documenting dance is one of Warner’s longstanding passions. In 1997 she collaborated with colleague Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt on the first dance history CD-ROM, Shadow on the Prairie, an interactive multimedia tutorial that was published on the York Fine Arts recording label.

“Dance is an ephemeral art form,” said Warner. “In some countries, strong efforts have been made to preserve the dance heritage, but in Canada modern dance preservation is still in its infancy. Choreographers are encouraged to create new work, but minimal attention is given to preserving or documenting their masterworks. The choreography of our senior choreographers is in danger of being lost forever."

A prime example is the work involved in reconstructing Earle’s The Ray Charles Suite. Considering the dance was originally created over 30 years ago, recollection alone is not sufficient to recreate it. The original archival film footage is on deteriorating reel-to-reel tape. The DVD dubs commissioned from the original are full of static, but it’s the best reference material available.

Earle himself has a huge dance legacy; Warner’s research will only be able to scratch the tip of the iceberg.

A co-founder of Toronto Dance Theatre, one of Canada’s most influential contemporary dance companies, Earle has created over 130 works in his 40-year career as a choreographer. Among numerous tributes and honours, he has received the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, Clifford E. Lee and Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and the Jean A. Chalmers Award for Distinction in Choreography. He was invested in the Order of Canada in 1996 in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to dance in Canada. Also that year, he established Dancetheatre David Earle in Guelph to continue his work as a choreographer, mentor and teacher.

Left: Third-year dance students practise the choreography of David Earle

“Watching Earle work with pre-professional dancers is really the ideal situation for documenting the teaching process,” said Warner. “The grad students record everything on video, and in the editing suite they find the teaching moments – a question on the correct posture and the demonstration of how to get it exactly right. Hours of footage are condensed into minutes where the process really shines.”

Six members of Earle’s company assisted him each day, working in small groups with the students. “The professional dancer’s studio etiquette is rubbing off on the students and it’s amazing to see how much the learning process has accelerated,” said Warner. “Earle and his dancers are natural teachers, very positive and encouraging; they have brought out the best in our students.”

Earle demonstrated his gifts as a teacher working with young dancers by keeping them engaged during a break by telling amusing stories about performing on tour.  “Once the music came on backwards, but we were already on stage, and we had to dance to it. Another time the music started to skip. The dancers repeated this very athletic sequence several times, but the skip was never fixed and they were getting exhausted. Eventually one of them simply lay down and the rest followed suit. Luckily the stage manager figured out they were done, and turned down the lights.”

Right: David Earle (centre) talks with dance students

Warner initially launched her choreographic research project with her own resources, but was awarded a three-year major grant by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada in 2006. In addition to Earle, she has also been documenting works by two other seminal Canadian choreographers: Patricia Beatty and Danny Grossman.

Warner’s research will ultimately be archived in key dance collections including with the choreographers themselves and at York University. At present, the works are strictly copyrighted, but she imagines that someday, once they come into the public domain, the choreographies she’s documented might be resurrected on a new generation of dancers who will enthrall audiences with them – just as they’re doing today.