Edited by Allana C. Lindgren and Kaija Pepper
On May 7, 1977, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau used dance to make a political statement. At the end of an official photography session at Buckingham Palace, as Queen Elizabeth II and visiting political leaders were leaving the room to attend a state dinner, the Canadian Prime Minister lingered behind. Suddenly, the iconoclastic politician pirouetted. In a photograph that travelled the world, Trudeau is seen in mid-revolution, his back to his royal host. The image invites the viewer to see his renegade body engaged in a dance of defiance against the rigid protocol of the event and expressing in aesthetic terms his discomfort with the larger issue of Canada’s colonial relationship to England. Trudeau had apparently choreographed his protest, rehearsing pirouettes prior to his appearance at Buckingham Palace. In other words, when conveying displeasure verbally was not a politically astute option, he chose the visual power of dance to shock observers and critique the moment.
Not everyone approved of the Prime Minister’s performance on the international stage. Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a staunch monarchist, responded to the pirouette by telling a reporter “he was surprised that Mr. Trudeau had not danced a can-can while in Paris recently.” Certainly for his critics,Trudeau’s dance move represented a lack of dignity and respect.
For scholars, however, the prime ministerial pirouette raises intriguing questions about how dance provides opportunities to examine the social issues and political debates that fuelled the period. To this end, Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s queries the ways in which the art form contributed to and was informed by the decade’s vibrant zeitgeist. How did the major issues and ideas of the day influence dancers and choreographers? What can dance institutions and events tell us (often unwittingly) about the attitudes and values of the period?
The fervent nationalism that inspired many artists in the 1970s, including dance artists, was of a particular moment when many Canadians wanted to distance themselves from the United States and its involvement in the Vietnam War. The patriotic pride fostered by Expo ’67 and the country’s centennial that same year still reverberated across the country. The October Crisis of 1970 created a need for national unity and a clear national identity, while the election of the separatist Parti Québécois in 1976 (cause for rejoicing by some in Québec) was a seismic shock. In other words, it was a period when Canada was simultaneously gaining confidence, yet also in peril of falling apart.
Advocacy for second-wave feminism and a growing sense of community and empowerment within gay and lesbian communities mobilized ordinary Canadians who felt they had the responsibility to participate in social change. At the same time, Canada became the first country to embrace racial and ethnic diversity at the federal level when the government adopted multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971. Subsequent scholarship has pointed out the shortcomings in the grassroots movements and federalinitiatives of the period; second-wave feminism, for instance, oftenessentialized women without considering economic and cultural inequities. Nevertheless, during the 1970s the Canadian mosaic grew and became more complex. It shimmered with possibility, and the image of Canada that emerged was young, hopeful and socially progressive.
The 1970s were also a time when many western industrialized countries were experiencing an unprecedented dance boom. The art form flourished in Canada and Canadian dancers travelled the world as unofficial cultural ambassadors. The craze for ballet, modern dance and, particularly in Québec, jazz ballet intensified as aficionados packed studios and theatres. The National Ballet of Canada’s Karen Kain became an international star. Mikhail Baryshnikov defected in Toronto to great public interest. Modern dancer Margie Gillis charmed Chinese audiences as the first dance artist to perform in the country after the Cultural Revolution. Young dancers in Canada rejected hierarchical company structures and struck out on their own. Innovative choreographers used the new video technology to record performances across the country in black-box theatres, churches, farm fields and even in the middle of traffic. One evening, dancer Lawrence Adams walked on stage and built a brick wall as a way to challenge tra-ditional definitions of dance. In this way, he and other like-minded Canadians were part of the rethinking of dance already initiated internationally by proponents of the experimentation that later would become known as “postmodern” dance.
Our intention in this anthology is to move beyond narratives that perpetuate the “great man” approach to history, which when applied to the arts often validates the Romantic idea of the lone genius without considering how artists are always part of larger social networks. We likewise did not want hagiography motivated by patriotism; we wanted to study the decade, not to unthinkingly replicate its nationalist blind-spots.
To this end, our writers analyze their subjects and the times with a wide critical lens. Dance scholarship is still a relatively new undertaking in Canada: it was only in the 1970s that dance was introduced as a serious area of study within Canadian universities. Naturally, it took time before dance scholars could look beyond their own discipline and begin to develop conversations with colleagues in other fields. We wanted to align our particular interest in Canadian dance in the 1970s with current scholarship that positions dance within the framework of cultural history. While much of the history contained within these pages reveals and highlights important moments from the art form’s past, we also hope it educates and informs readers about larger social issues by providing access to the ideological allegiances and debates present in the seventies.
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