By Graham Jackson
The following Excerpt from Jackson’s essay offers an overview of Toronto Dance Theatre in its earlier days while evoking the city’s atmosphere during the late 1960s and 1970s.
It is early September in that year of riots and revolutions, 1968. Here the afternoon light is softer than it has been … golden, almost tender. Autumn is in the air. I am leaving home for an orientation week at Victoria College, just across from the Royal Ontario Museum on the campus of the sprawling university called Toronto. As I put on my jacket, the radio is playing in my parents' kitchen. Janis Joplin is wailing her lungs out, demanding that her unheard lover take another piece of her heart. I'm crazy about this song and in my late adolescent blur of tortured feelings connected almost exclusively to fantasy lovers, I'm convinced I know how she's hurting.
However, this afternoon, I'm feeling mostly nervous, anxious even. I'm joining the big city, a city I've watched from a suburban afar for years with wide-eyed wonder and, lately, with a curiosity tinged with prurience. On the ride “downtown”, a ride I've done a hundred times before, I ask myself over and over, will I find my place there? And, more importantly even: will it accept me? An hour later as I climb out of the subway at the Museum stop, a car passes and there's Janis again crying for all she's worth, “Come on, come on, take it! Take another piece of my heart!” But she sounds different than she did in the family storey-and-a-half. Knowing, wise, been-here-before, life's-a-hard-ride different. At the sound of her voice, there on the busy corner, I feel suddenly a thrill of excitement, a sense of having arrived, and an overwhelming desire to have “Life” begin.
Over the previous year or so, I've had several glimpses or previews of this life waiting to begin. Toronto has been changing. Slowly, slowly, of course: Toronto never moves hastily. But some of its sober, good-fellow Presbyterian image has been slipping. There have been riots here, too, or, at least protests and demonstrations -- mostly against American involvement in Vietnam and the city is full of angry, committed draft-dodgers, largely professing a vehement left-of-centre, not to say Socialist, position. In the mundane world, Hungarians have established themselves as the aristocracy of the city's café society in haunts like Café de la Paix, Jack and Jill, and the Coffee Mill (still with us after all these years!); and Italians turn up everywhere, on City Council, boards of directors, playing fields, the opera stage and on great, garrulous Sunday promenades along College Street and St. Clair. The Central Library Theatre has recently played host to a Canadian-made cause célèbre from New York, John Herbert's homoerotic prison drama, Fortune and Men's Eyes, to which available tickets were incredibly scarce. And on the previous July 1, 1967 -- in Nathan Phillips Square, that concrete piazza fronting one of the city's bravest and most controversial forays into contemporary architecture, the new twin-towered City Hall -- thousands of people actually celebrated! … sang, laughed, shook hands, hugged, ate and softdrank their way into the 101st year of Canada's history! Near the Hall, the old Bohemian Village on Elm Street clings somewhat forlornly to its “rags-and-feathers-from-Salvation-army-counters” reputation, while further north, in the new-old village of Yorkville the crowds are flocking in from all the bungalowed outposts to gawk at the hippies and “flower children”, at the go-go dancers and folk singers who not only give the picaresque warren of streets their colour and vitality, but also their raison d'être.
It's in this variegated atmosphere, perfumed with sandalwood incense and patchouli oil, that a fledgling dance company called Toronto Dance Theatre has set up a studio in which to teach the passionate movement language of the great American pioneer of modern dance, Martha Graham. And not only her movement language but also her commitment to dance as the stirring and soulful medium of Eros. I'm not aware of this that day in front of Victoria College as I embrace Life in the great metropolis, but just less than three months later Toronto Dance Theatre has had its première at Toronto Workshop Productions and its star is sparkling brilliantly in the sparsely tenanted firmament of Toronto's cultural life.
I don't actually pay formal court to TDT (as it came to be known by everyone) until the steamy summer of 1970 when the company presented a summer season at the new municipal theatre, the St. Lawrence Centre. I had heard stories about the directors and their dancers. People who fancied themselves insiders referred to them as a special breed, demigods almost, physically stunning, sexually ambivalent, impossibly creative. And I saw them with my own eyes, flowing into the Yorkville Public Library where I worked summers to pay for the following school year's bedsit: long-haired boys and girls who looked to me like creatures from another planet, muscular, limber, scantily clad -- one of the young men (Barry Smith, I later learned) a veritable Apollonian giant. Under the guidance of one of their leaders they came often looking for inspiration from the poets, painters and legends of another era. Those who followed them, too, the groupies, the fans, the devotees -- and in those days these were numerous -- did their best to emulate this exoticism, aiming for as un-Toronto a look as they could devise: cape-wearing men, foreign-looking women with great ruffs of dark hair and kohl-lined eyes, svelte boys in tight sky-blue T-shirts and red bandanas, fiercely earnest sinewy girls who wanted to dance more than anything and did jewellery or Tarot on the side while they watched for their opportunity. They were all in the lobby that summer night, when I caught my first glimpse of what really made TDT newsworthy.
Works from all three of the company's artistic directors were danced that evening. From Bennington-and-Graham-trained Patricia Beatty, there was the haunting solo, First Music, set to Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question, as well as Hot and Cold Heroes, a quirky group piece inspired by media guru Marshall McLuhan's playful and provocative enquiries into medium and message. Peter Randazzo, New York-born-and-raised protégé of the great Martha -- he had danced with her for several seasons and had important roles in some of her late masterworks like Circe -- offered a furious male duet based on the Cain and Abel story, I Had Two Sons. And from the creative genius of the third, a Torontonian of Anglo-Protestant stock, David Earle, came two dances: a witty frolic called Operetta which spoofed the manners and morals of the silly medium that gave the piece its name and, in quite a different vein, a sombre, melancholic meditation on the experience of legend's most famous whore, Mary Magdalene. Entitled A Thread of Sand, it featured actress Jackie Burroughs as the aging Magdalene recalling Christ and his Passion with tender sorrow while dancers around her carved out her memories in remarkable sequences of movement, as sensual as they were spiritual. It was this piece that struck me most forcibly that evening, this piece that turned me into a TDT devotee. I remember feeling, when the lights dimmed on Thread of Sand, as if I'd just witnessed something absolutely unexpected, unknown, mysterious, “other”, and dazedly I wondered where I was. Was this Toronto? Or the moon? Or ...? I went home that night, back to the suburbs where I was again living temporarily with my parents, trying to make some connection between those bland streets and the misty, otherworldly landscape through which I had just been led. And I felt an indescribable longing to get back as soon as I could to the place of beauty David Earle had offered us.
Among TDT's founding directors, David Earle was the one most influenced by Toronto. Not in the way his colleague Peter Randazzo was influenced by his hometown. With Randazzo, the lean, mean, angular, street-smart edginess of New York found its way into his movement phrases and choreographic patterns. No, Earle was never touched by the spare grid work of Toronto's streets or the stubborn stolidity of its architecture in that way. But he was touched by Toronto nonetheless, as his long-standing rebellion against everything it has stood for demonstrates: its slow-wittedness, its smug cultural provincialism, its “stupid money” (a term I heard him use more than once twenty years ago), its coldness, its indifference to art and the aesthetic, its conservatism, its pinched soul. In fact, his hatred of the puritanical foundation on which Toronto was built could be said to be one of the most significant goads to his prolific choreographic creativity. Into the face of those who managed this Upper Canadian bastion of Goodness, he repeatedly flung vibrant, luscious, feeling-weighted dance images, inspired by his study of Martha Graham's dance idiom, of course, but also by his reading and travelling and his immersion in the art, music and poetry of other times and places. Ancient cultures; lost civilizations; the Renaissance; Catholic Europe including Italy, Poland, and most especially la France in her many variations -- Valois, Bourbon, belle époque, fin de siècle, Parisian between the wars. And in later days the Far East, particularly the stillness, the sense of ritual, the creative balance between sensual and spiritual demonstrated by Japanese culture. These were all part of the “other side” Earle fought for more than twenty-five years to get the good fathers of Toronto to take in. “Come on, come on, come on, and take it!” -- they could have been David Earle's words.
Not that Earle didn't find beauty in Toronto. He did. In fact, he was always remarkably open and sensitive to those unsuspected corners of Toronto that to him revealed magic, beauty, mystery, tension, eros. And when he discovered such, he shared his findings generously. Light-dappled parks, stray sculptures caught peeking incongruously out from between unlikely buildings, cafés that breathed out a European air, the Old Masters rooms at the Art Gallery of Ontario or the Chinese fresco galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum, even indisputably WASP corners that somehow managed to transcend their WASPishness -- places like Philosopher's Walk or Metropolitan United Church or the neo-Gothic Great Hall of Hart House on the University of Toronto campus. He sought these places out time and again, rhapsodized over them in his journals and photographs and image-collages and publicized them passionately to friends, colleagues, students -- even to Torontonians. You could learn a lot about the beauty of this city from David Earle. Many did, for he was an untiring educator and mentor.
To me this all seemed to be part of a greater mission which I would define now as the unflagging pursuit of recognition for passion, beauty and feeling from those contrary forces of reason, usefulness and thinking that have too long held the upper hand in Western, especially North American, culture. The terms eros and logos best capture the exact nature of this set of opposites, eros referring, of course, to the connective power of heart and body, logos to the more abstract power of word and head. This pursuit for recognition of eros I would say dominated all spheres of David Earle's activity: personal, collective, creative. Though it could occasionally take on a defensive and/or simplistic character, it produced an extraordinary choreographic oeuvre that will appeal to us as long as the pursuit is still relevant. (next page)
©2007, Dance Collection Danse
David Earle Exhibition Curator: Michele Green
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Keith Urban, Barry Smith, Merle Salsberg and Susan Macpherson in David Earle's Operetta