by Dena Davida, PhD.
My personal muse, dance anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku, once reminded me that we are all ethnocentric in the sense that each person’s unique point of is literally shaped by their position in the world. Yesterday’s initiatory panel, in which classical ballet and postmodern veterans alike recounted divergent revolutionary narratives, side-by-side, destabilized many of my unquestioned presumptions about what constitutes artistic rebellion. Judson Dance Theatre informed much of my belief system, and so the idea of artistic revolution has been attached to this historical resistance to previous schools of academic dance. And so own life-in-dance and views about the art world in the ‘70s most closely resembled Beck’s “dynamic non-conformity” (from Mimi Beck’s keynote) and those of Elizabeth Chitty and Margaret Dragu: I too rebelled against my training in ballet and modern dance in search of a way of dancing more closely allied with my political leanings as a feminist, ecologist and Vietnam war protester. I found Contact Improvisation…
The idea of renegade bodies in revolutionary times in the context of Montréal brings inevitably to my mind the Refus Globale of 1948: Françoise Sullivan’s poetic autonomist manifesto “La danse et l’espoir”, the interdisciplinary collaborations between dancers, musicians and visual artists, the solos and duets created by Sullivan and Jeanne Renaud, and the political urgency of embodying and defining the characteristics of a québécois culture. This was a time of virulent social upheaval in Québec society in which poets, writers, musicians, visual artists, and…dancers… seized leadership of a movement to define the parameters and qualities of an emerging québécois culture. Not only did dancers play a visible, kinetic role, but it remains a vivid collective memory not the least because its proponents — Françoise Sullivan, Jeanne Renaud, Françoise Riopelle — are still active and the first two continue their presence in the art world. The artistic renegades of what I have come to think of as Montréal’s “third generation,” largely because I see their outlook as one that is allied with breakthrough postmodern aesthetics – Locke, Laurin, Léveillé, Fortier, Perreault, Chouinard – along with the structures and institutions to support them, came of professional age three decades later, in the ‘eighties.
Introduction: initiation to archival research
So then what kind of a decade was the ‘seventies for Montréal dance? In seeking out the answer, I decided to examine events through the lens of a single year: 1977. With a nod to Sally Banes’ strategy in Greenwich Village 1963 (1993), I poured over microfilm (for the first time), excavated my memory and that of a few local inhabitants who came of professional age at that time, as well as Tangente’s archives and some of the literature, to uncover the climate of that year times in the subculture of our Montréal dance world. As I scrolled through the daily French newspaper Le Devoir page by page, it was impossible to resist reading the headlines, and sometimes the subheadings. (I was later asked by a conference delegate why I only researched in the French daily, because the English media would have provided an alternative view of events. While true, Le Devoir’s Angèle Dagenais was given ample space to cover all of the dance events, and I intended mainly to glean the facts of what happened. It would indeed be of interest to spend the same 35 hours in the future pouring over the writing of Linde Howe-Beck, the dance critic and reporter for The Gazette.)
From my anthropologists’-eye view, I believe that the historian’s work is to recount from her own observations what people said and what they did then, what everyone thought about it and what it might mean to us in the present time. These kinds of stories are all the richer when meticulously researched by a culturally situated scholar, and each one’s account is but a subjective story of many that might be told. I also found it interesting that in crafting the narrative of this paper in the role of storyteller, I experienced a subtle but informative tension in my multiple positions as outsider, newcomer, and protagonist.
This research process demanded many hours of squinting over microfilm (what a meticulous skill it is!) as I rolled through each of the 365 days of the newspaper Le Devoir. This kind of work awakened a passion in me for what Cynthia Novack called ethno-history (1), and I now know the search-for-buried-treasure excitement of plunging into archives to illuminate the past – to better understand the present. By far the most prolific tribune for dance in the written media in that year, the French-language Le Devoir yielded no less than that sixty interviews, previews, reviews and information pieces written that year concerning dance-making and arts-funding, the vast majority by a single dance writer (also the book reviewer) who appeared to never miss a beat: Angèle Dagenais (2). I was even interviewed by her myself on the occasion of organizing a workshop in Montréal with Steve Paxton, which resulted in a text about the “new dance form” Contact Improvisation (Dagenais, 30 sep. 1977).
1977: positioning myself in this story
Why did I choose 1977? Simply, it was the year of my arrival in Canada, and time of critical first impressions with fresh eyes in the skin of a landed immigrant moving to Montréal from Minneapolis, from the United States to Canada. I was undeniably an idealistic flower child and fervent ex-pat of the Vietnam War generation, as the letters I wrote to my mother confirmed. But the most frequently asked question I’m asked is: why did I choose to settle in Montréal? It was while hitchhiking across the Transcanadian Highway from Vancouver to St-John’s in my twenties that I found myself inevitably drawn to that cosmopolitan city, with its invigorating mix of North American and French cultures and vibrant artistic ferment. Not only have I never turned back nor regretted my choice, but because my unconventional mother chose a traveling lifestyle, Montréal is the only place I have ever really called home.
Landing in my newly adopted city with a decade of experience in social and artistic organizing and teaching, it had seemed to me from the encouraging conversations I had with new friends Diane Carrière, Jacqueline Lemieux-Lopez and Jean-Pierre Perreault, that my skills and ambitions might be welcome. At 28 years of age, I was poised in a transitional period between teaching modernist dance technique and my newfound passion for the emerging postmodernist form Contact Improvisation. It was Lemieux-Lopez who sponsored my immigration process with a contract to teach Nikolais technique (as yet unknown in Montréal) to her ballet company Entre-Six. There were immediately several invitations to teach Contact Improvisation, as well as interest in the classes I organized myself. And with several years of producing evenings of dance in Minnesota, I soon began organizing dance workshops and performances in my adopted city – with Steve Paxton, Melanie Hedlund and Jerry Zientara in 1977 – and began plotting the seminal programme of independent choreographers that took place the next year at the Musée des beaux-arts with the support of Chantal Pontbriand’s Service d’animation and which we simply called “Samedi soir au musée”.
To memory, what I found when I landed in Montréal in 1977 was an arts world that was burgeoning with postmodern innovators, particularly in the visual arts and “new music”, but a decidedly more aesthetically conservative dance milieu because composed largely of what I thought of as mainstream Modern, ballet and ballets-jazz dance companies. Of course, many of their choreographic works moved beyond old-school classical and were self-defined as “modern,” in particular those of Groupe Nouvelle Aire, bearing 20th century themes and characteristics of Modernism. I was particularly struck by Peter Randazzo’s remark at the conference yesterday about the socialist roots of Modern Dance. But apart from a few futuristic independent dance creators and educators – among them Vicky Tansey, Diane Carrière and Linda Rabin (more below) — Groupe de la Place Royale appeared to me to be alone in claiming the artistic territory of experimental, postmodern research: “to abolish the frontiers between the different arts within a dynamic conception of creation” (Dagenais, 19 fév. 1977). But because of antagonism (or was it indifference?) from audiences and funders, the company’s director Jean-Pierre Perreault prepared their radical move to Ottawa:
[…] at the present time and in the foreseeable future, neither cultural politics not the interest of the Québécois public is able to generate sufficient activities [performance opportunities, grants monies, student enrollments and touring dates] to support a professional experimental dance company.” (p. 14) Excerpt from an interview with Angèle Dagenais with Jean-Pierre Perreault published in Le Devoir on April 7, 1977.
(As a conference delegate later reminded me, it is true that this interview in the French media didn’t include Peter Bonehan’s account of events.) This public cri de coeur of Perreault is one of the fragments of memory that still floats in my memory 33 years later, and which certainly gave urgency to my desire to create a permanent venue for experimental dance performances.
To my mind at the time, the outlook for professional dance in 1977 was gloomy. There was no dance office as yet at the Québec arts council, almost no funding support for dance but for the Grands Ballets Canadians, no dance programmes in higher education, no dance festivals, dance-specialized venues or presenters. I remember an impression that the economic survival of company dancers at that time depended on income from teaching in the company’s dance schools, a fact confirmed recently by Sylviane Martineau (3). Also on this side of despondency, I was quietly warned by some of my new dance friends about the legendary divisiveness and individualism of the proponents of the Montréal dance world, an impression expressed by Angèle Dagenais when she wrote about the “Colloque-Danse” in 1977 (more about this below): “Despite these announcements [of the potential to found cooperative associations], it is not evident that all of the rivalries, quarrels and other antagonisms [among Montréal dancers] have been put to rest for the future […]” (my translation) (Dagenais, 18 oct. 1977). And who among us with a long memory doesn’t remember the Dance in Canada Association’s cathartic meeting in Winnipeg that year? I wasn’t there, but listened to many stories from Montréalers about this emotional, if philosophical, split in the national dance community(4) between those who would professionalize and those who would democratize the practice of dance, as if the two were incompatible. A similar debate was also simmering in Québec with the 1977 publication of the Livre Vert (Le Devoir, 22 déc. 1977) whose chapter on arts education would have educators draw away from amateur arts appreciation models and practice and advocate the notions of excellence and professionalism.
There were of course numerous promising encounters: wonderful dance conversations with Perreault and Carrière, a warm reception for Contact Improvisation by the “alternative” dance community, and the formation of a first Contact work group with colleagues. There was also a lively interest in Laban Movement Analysis, the chance to experience Cunningham during a Choréochange in the Nouvelle Aire studios, the support of Lemieux-Lopez during the immigration process, and the discovery of exceptional artists like Marie Chouinard and Edouard Locke. Invited to teach in various dance studios, the Québec Été Danse summerschool, and the festival of the Féderation de Loisirs-danse, I soon became aware of a vast community of dancers and dance companies with a relatively long history. One afternoon on Mont-Royal during the fête national in June even evoked a population-in-general who were intoxicated with dancing. Perhaps a passion for dancing was a cultural trait?
1977: from the archives and the literature
The sixty Devoir articles from 1977 revealed a dance boom of dance companies that I had not remembered, a choreographic world teeming with ballet, ballets-jazz, modern dance and folkdance companies, with numerous full-evening concerts, schools, national and international tours. From their interviews in the pages of Le Devoir, it seemed that they were aiming for the professionalism of their practice, clamoring for government funding and aspiring to fill the seats of the largest theatres in town. Most of their performances had passed me by unperceived because that year my attention was trained on seeking out more marginal and experimental dancers who, as Novack elucidated in her seminal Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American culture (1990), were preoccupied with embodying American (and Canadian) counterculture.
With the exception of the Grands Ballets Canadiens that was twenty years old in 1977 (or twenty-two if you count the Ballets Chiriaff), all of these dance companies had been put afoot within the previous 10 years: Les Sortilèges, Nouvelle Aire and Groupe de la Place Royale were exactly 10 years old; Les Ballets-Jazz were in their 5th year; Entre-Six was 6; Eddy Toussaint’s company was only 3; Pointépienu (and Danse Partout in Québec City) were created only the previous year. As written about in Le Devoir, this was also the year of visits from several of the international dance world’s best-known figures: Balanchine (who came to film “Chaconne” and “Bugaku” at Radio Canada), Nureyev (in town to dance the lead in “Sleeping Beauty” with the National Ballet of Canada), and Merce Cunningham (offering a lecture-demonstration on the occasion of one of Nouvelle Aire’s “Choréochanges” studio presentations). The predominance of mainstage, large scale dance was also evident in the presentation of out-of-town companies and the dance subscription series of the producing organization Concerts & Artists Canadiens, mainly at Place des Arts: Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Nikolais-influenced company of Pilobolus, the Georgian Dancers, Dancers and Musicians from Bali and The Shanghai Ballet (the latter as part of a tour organized by the Canada Council in the wake of Trudeau’s visit to China, the state ballet company of China with what was called “a communist modern ballet” “The White-Haired Girl”).
Like every ethno-historian, as I hinted earlier, I couldn’t resist slowing down the pace of the microfilm reader to catch the headlines and sub-headings streaming by, and it was the French language/québécois culture issue and impending independence referendum discussion that predominated every section of the newspaper almost every day that year. But also on the Devoir’s agenda were feminist issues (called la condition feminine), energy conservation, mounting unemployment, Carter and Trudeau, the rule of the new Parti Québécois, the huge cost of the Olympic Park, the development of social cooperatives and new local industries. But curiously, in the form and the fond of the choreographies created and performed that year, I found no traces in the interviews and reviews of choreographers who concerned themselves with these current events or even the increasingly heated discussions about québécois identity and language. The one and only hint of a discourse on social and cultural politics that I could find within the 60+ previews, reviews and interviews from Le Devoir, in fact, was the title of Dagenais’ interview with Chiriaff about her plans to create a ballet-specialized programme in the public school system: “The ballet ‘concentration’ prepares an authentically québécois generation” (my italics, my translation) (Dagenais, 18 fev. 1977). And I reminded myself that it is usually not the journalist who chooses her titles, but the editor.
There were of course some of these dancemakers who put bodies on the pulse of the contemporary condition by way of dancing to current-day music – from modern “classical”, to folk rock, electro-acoustic, and even rock opera (a photo of Vincent Warren in Le Devoir, 25 fév. 1977, dancing the lead in “Tommy” for the GBC comes to mind). And modernist abstraction was regularly on display, already well-established not only among Modern dancers but also in a ballet world modernized by Balanchine and Béjart. But, once again, it appeared to me that only the GPR was pushing this Modernist abstract paradigm into what we now call “postmodern interdisciplinary practices”, as advocated by Cunningham and Cage two decades earlier.
There were at least four events organized within the visual arts’ milieu that introduced innovative American and Canadian dance postmodernists (Québécois never adopted this term, preferring “nouvelle danse” or simply the generic “danse contemporaine”). Curator Chantal Pontbriand, a co-founder of the Festival international de nouvelle danse in 1985 along with Diane Boucher and myself, presented in November, from her position as director of the Service d’animation of the Museum of Fine Arts, “Looking at dance live and on film” in which a dance film series curated by Selma Odom was enriched by performances of Groupe de la Place Royale but also…Trisha Brown (Dagenais, 3 nov. 1977)! As I listened to Brown explain the mechanics of her emblematic postmodern classic line-up, I knew that Pontbriand and I would be working together I the future. Along with Normand Thériault, Pontbriand also put together an event sponsored by the Institut d’art contemporain and centred on the phenomenon of performance art (la performance or des performances) in the visual arts, and which brought to Montréal Judson veteran Simon Forti (no author, 4 mars 1977). I also uncovered a third event in the Devoir focused on the portapak variety of artistic experimentation, and which took place in January before my arrival. Sean Hennessey, the director of Véhicule Art Gallery at the time, organized a series on video and dance, deploring the scarce availability of these new technologies to artists, and bringing Montréalers their first glimpse of Toronto videographer Terry McGlade’s video work with Elizabeth Chitty and Margaret Dragu (Dagenais, 4 jan. 1977). And Chitty informed me yesterday that she had returned to Véhicule Art in February 1977 to perform the duet that she presented in the film panel.
I also encountered three gentle-natured renegade Montréalers in that year, whose aesthetic preoccupations were more closely allied with the softer side, the utopian dreams of the ‘sixities and ‘seventies — about nature and spirituality – and embedded in the local notion of expression corporelle. This approach to developing the body and spirit seemed to me to imply “freeing the body to express itself”. Dancer Diane Carrière, having just finished a doctorate in creativity, founded Amarelle in 1977 with non-dancer colleagues to foster movement exploration (from the Tangente archives). Vicky Tansey had formed alliances with members of Judson Church in the USA and was teaching voice and movement improvisation. Her performance work, which I later programmed and Tangente, I found reminiscent of Meredith Monk’s. And I reminisced with Vincent Warren yesterday about the wonder of Linda Rabin’s choreographic event “The White Goddess” created and performed in 1977, inspired by Robert Graves’ book and which the audience followed through various rooms in a kind of moving installation. Rabin’s creative and pedagogical work was, and remains to this day, a kinetic representation of a particular configuration of New Age spirituality (she is currently engaged with a theory of waves).
So was what kind of a year was 1977 in the dance world of my newly adopted city of Montréal? With my memory and perception now bolstered with information from Dagenais’ sixty dance articles and remarks from colleagues with long memories, I now perceive it as one of transition between a modernist generation and that of the so-called nouvelle danse movement which manifested in the ‘eighties. There were first cross-genre meetings between dancers and cultural bureaucrats about the need to fund supporting systems through which to develop professionalism. It was clearly a time of proliferation of, and consolidation for established ballet, modern dance and ballets-jazz companies. But in terms of the kind of rebellion that reflects the counterculture and rebels against an out-moded past, it might be seen as falling in/between two artistic revolutions, a period which laid the grounds for Montréal’s burgeoning breakout generation of the ‘eighties.
No author (unsigned). 23 fév. 1977. “Le Ballet de Changhai se produira à Montréal.” Le Devoir.
__________. 25 fév. 1977. “Les Grands ballets canadiens: Reprise de l’opéra-rock ‘Tommy’.” Le Devoir.
__________. 4 mars 1977. “Rencontre internationale d’art contemporain.” Le Devoir.
__________. 22 déc. 1977. “Le Conseil des Arts s’interroge.” Le Devoir.
Banes, Sally. 1993. Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN: 0-8223-1391-X.
Crabb, Michael. “Growing Pains.” Dance in Canada Magazine. Fall/Winter 1977-78, pp. 6-8.
Dagenais, Angèle. 14 jan. 1977. “Vidéo: Création d’une nouvelle expression artistique.” Le Devoir.
__________. 18 fév. 1977. “À la polyvalente Pierre-Laporte: La ‘concentration-ballet’ prépare une relève authentiquement québécoise.” Le Devoir.
__________. 19 fév. 1977. “Les dix ans du Groupe de la Place Royale: En créant plus que jamais.” Le Devoir..
__________. 30 sep. 1977. “Contact Improvisation: Une nouvelle forme de danse.” Le Devoir.
__________. 10 juin 1977. “Les danseurs devront se parler.” Le Devoir.
__________. 18 oct. 1977. “Un premier dialogue qui rapproche les danseurs.” Le Devoir.
__________. 22 nov. 1977. “Danse: Novembre sera un bon mois….” Le Devoir.
Novack, Cynthia J. 1990. Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture. London, England and Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN: 0-299-12444-4.
Odom, Selma, ed., “Dance and Film.” Souvenir programme from “Looking at Dance – Live, on Film, as Video”, October 19 – November 24, 1977, Art Gallery of Ontario. ISBN: 0-919876-33-1.
Zimmer, Elizabeth. “Many Minutes of the Meeting.” Dance in Canada Magazine. Fall/Winter 1977-78, pp. 5-7.
(For a complete bibliography of the 60 dance articles found in Le Devoir during 1977 please write to the author at email@example.com.)
1. For Novak, the hybrid ethno-history evokes/narrates historical events within the kind of cultural framework that is the trade of field-working anthropologist.
2. Dagenais also wrote book reviews, and not only published interviews and reviews of dance world events, but elaborated analytic essays on issues such as funding and aesthetics.
3. This is from an informal conversation on June 2, 2010. She was in the theater milieu at the time, later danced with Jean-Pierre Perreault and is currently the dance officer at the Conseil des Arts de la Ville de Montréal.
4. There are two dramatic, if optimistic, accounts of this meeting written by Michael Crabb and Elizabeth Zimmer in the Dance in Canada Magazine of Fall/Winter 1977-78.