Welcome to DCD's “Dance Historian of the Month” – a series that features interviews with Canada's dance historians. We hope to illuminate aspects of the person, their craft, the field, and to provide insight into what inspires those who interpret our dance pasts. The interview is accompanied by a photo, giving a face to the bylines. Often veiled by computer screens, untouched by stage lights and represented only by their printed words, historians are the intangible forces that spur dance on. Our interview is your introduction to the historian herself.
Amy Bowring is exceptionally dedicated to safeguarding Canadian dance heritage. She is currently the Director of Research at Dance Collection Danse, where she first worked as a summer student in 1993 and has been on staff since 1998. Amy manages DCD's collection and, as a subject specialist on Canadian dance, she can help visitors use DCD's extensive collection. Amy has also curated several online exhibits as well as DCD's first major exhibition, Dancing Through Time: Toronto's Dance History, 1900-1980, in collaboration with the City of Toronto's Market Gallery. Amy's exhibitions and essays are comprehensive and lively. Amy also continues her work as a copy editor for The Dance Current and she is the founder of the Society for Canadian Dance Studies, Canada's advocacy group in support of dance research. Additionally, she conducts research as an independent dance scholar. Amy's writings appear in Dance Collection Danse Magazine, The Dance Current, Dance Chronicle, Estivale 2000 Proceedings: Canadian Dancing Bodies Then and Now, Canadian Dance: Visions and Stories, Right to Dance: Dancing for Rights and DCD's latest publication, Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s.
Beyond Amy's impressive contribution to Canadian dance studies, she is also a generous mentor, wife and mother of two. Powered by hot chocolate and a lot of love, Amy has changed the way we use dance history in Canada.
Enjoy the interview.
Name: Amy Bowring
Date of Birth: July 29, 1971
Place of Birth: Oakville, Ontario
Place of Employment: Director of Research, Dance Collection Danse
CC: What brought you to dance?
AB: When I was seven years old, my mother signed me up for ballet, tap and jazz lessons in Woodstock, Ontario, with the Errington Graham Dance Studio. My mother and I had previously taken a dance fitness class together, and she probably noticed how much I enjoyed it.
Liliane Marleau Graham was my teacher and I studied with her until I finished high school. When I started dancing, there were only two dance schools in Woodstock and neither of them were based there. Dorothy Scruton and “Miss Liliane” drove in from London to offer their classes in Woodstock.
CC: What peaked your interest in dance history?
AB: My dad is a huge history buff, and so I grew up learning about history from the beginnings of the British Empire to the American Civil War, from the War of 1812 to the Newfoundland fishery. Our family visited almost every fort in Southern Ontario and we frequently went to the Royal Ontario Museum, despite the two-hour drive to get there. History is in my DNA. Additionally, while I studied dance with Liliane, she would often tell us stories about working with the London Civic Ballet Theatre. She told me about performing in Swan Lake, training with Celia Franca and Betty Oliphant, meeting Gweneth Lloyd, and taking on summer gigs such as the Melody Fair musicals and the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand shows. In addition, teachers such as Bettina Byers and Boris Volkoff adjudicated the school's examinations when Liliane was a student in the 1950s. I also had a number of ballet history books and a 1977/78 National Ballet of Canada souvenir program that I basically memorized. In 1978 I was supposed to go see Mary Jago in Giselle with my mother at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario, but I got the stomach flu. I was sick but I put on my dress anyway and tried to convince my parents that I was well enough to go. Tears streamed down my face as my mother told me that there was no way I could go. And to add insult to injury, she took my older brother instead! But she brought me back that souvenir program and I read about every ballet and every dancer and then re-read it until the binding was completely shot. When I started studying dance history as an undergraduate at York University, the names mentioned in lectures were already familiar to me but I was finally able to contextualize them.
CC: Can you tell me more about your undergraduate studies at York University?
AB: I began my undergraduate degree in dance at York University in 1990. I took an immediate interest in my dance history course, which was taught by Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt. At the end of my first year at York, I injured my back quite badly and I spent the following year dancing in pain. I decided that I needed to give my body the chance to heal properly, and so, during my third year at York, I decided to take time off from technique courses. I therefore took additional dance theory, film and art history courses. I took dance history and writing with Selma Odom and Labanotation with Mary Jane Warner; both of these professors became great mentors of mine.
CC: How did you find Dance Collection Danse?
AB: In the fall of my third year at York, 1992, I read a theme issue about dance preservation and reconstruction in the magazine Dance Connection and it mentioned Dance Collection Danse, which I had never heard of before. I decided to call DCD and ask if I could volunteer for the organization. Miriam answered the phone and explained that DCD did not need volunteers. I said, “Oh, ok” and I actually ended up volunteering for Sharon Vanderlinde in the National Ballet's archives.
In the winter of 1993, I came to DCD to do research for one of my classes with Selma, and I totally fell in love with the organization and its founders. I decided to use my course assignments as excuses to do research at DCD. I just kept coming back until they finally let me stay.
CC: What hooked you on DCD?
AB: For one of those research assignments for Selma's class, I decided to focus on DCD's ENCORE! ENCORE! reconstruction project from the 1980s. I interviewed Lawrence and Miriam Adams, DCD's co-founders, and they mentioned the Encyclopedia of Theatre Dance in Canada. It had begun as a project called the Dictionary of Dance in Canada by Jill Officer at the University of Waterloo. Lawrence turned it into a digital database and he wanted to show it to me. We sat at the computer and he asked me to give him a name of a dancer that we could search for in the database. I tried to give him a name that I thought might stump him, Liliane Marleau Graham. However, she was in the database and Lawrence got very excited that I knew her because she had danced with the London Civic Ballet Theatre but DCD had little information on that company. Lawrence decided to apply for an OAC summer Experience Grant to hire me to do research on London's dance history. I spent the summer travelling back and forth between London and Toronto, and I did oral histories with prominent teachers, such as Bernice Harper and Dorothy Carter, and a number of other people connected to the London Civic Ballet Theatre. I also did an oral history with Liliane and she donated Marion and Richard Errington's archival materials to DCD – the Erringtons were the founders and artistic directors of the London Civic Ballet Theatre; Liliane was a company member but also their daughter-in-law and she inherited the school from them around the time that I first began lessons with her. During that summer at DCD, I also helped out with general assignments such as digitizing the Amy Sternberg collection. Of course, I loved that summer project. I thought, “Well, how do I do more of that?”
CC: Did you start working with DCD immediately after you finished your undergraduate degree?
AB: No, after I finished my undergraduate degree I decided to pursue graduate studies. I loved learning and I loved being in school. I had taken a dance writing course with Selma, and this was a way that I could combine my three main interests: dance, history and writing. I discussed my interests with Selma, and she recommended that I pursue a degree in journalism, which she thought would allow me to help popularize dance. Selma had also started off in media, and she knew how valuable that training was to her career. I also knew DCD had a mandate to popularize Canadian dance history, and I felt that journalistic writing was a suitable medium for that. I wanted to learn a different, non-academic style of writing, and I thought that a journalism degree would help me achieve that goal.
During the winter of my fourth year at York, I did a work-study project with Selma and Mary Jane. They, along with Carol Bishop and Kathleen Fraser, were editing an anthology of Canadian dance studies articles, and I assisted as the production editor. I therefore had the opportunity to spend time with these four brilliant women, and I could ask them to explain their edits while I keyed in the changes. I learned a great deal. This experience also fed into my choice of doing a journalism degree.
While I was in journalism school, Lawrence and Miriam called me on occasion to do research, which I could easily do in the library at the University of Western Ontario where I attended the Graduate School of Journalism. I returned to Toronto after school to build a career in dance or journalism or both, and so I did a variety of research and copy editing projects for DCD while also working in the office at the School of Canadian Children's Dance Theatre and doing some freelance writing and research. In 1998, DCD received an increase in its funding and was able to hire me part-time; that quickly grew into full-time work.
CC: What do you do at DCD?
AB: My work at DCD is largely connected to the collection itself. I lead the collection management process, I meet with people about donating artifacts and I oversee the cataloguing and re-housing of objects and new accessions. DCD is also starting to do more exhibitions and so I curate some of those. I also continue to assist with our publishing projects doing copy editing, assisting with photo research and project management. I also help Miriam with some of the grant writing.
I respond to research requests, which we answer from far and wide, across North America and overseas. I create electronic packages for researchers that contain digitized artifacts, or I assist people with their research in person at DCD's headquarters. In most archives, the researcher must know exactly which collection they want retrieved, but DCD is unique in that regard because, as a dance historian, I can help guide people to documentation that is important to their research topics. Students come here and say, “I'd like to know about Alberta's dance history” but they don't know who to look for because they don't know the history yet. I get them to narrow down the time frame they're interested in and then I can suggest a range of artists to pursue.
CC: Why is dance history important?
AB: I actually ask myself that a lot. These days, I find that we are in a perpetual state of justifying ourselves, whether we work in the arts or heritage. Every time I turn around, I'm writing another letter to protest a cut or policy, and so I often ask myself why dance and dance history are important.
When we think about the ancient civilizations of the world, it is art that is left behind. It is art that informs us of how the Romans or the Aztecs lived. Often, there is an element of dance in those artifacts, for example, dance may be depicted on an ancient Greek amphora or piece of Egyptian architecture. I think that dance is an important part of our humanity and human expression, and it can therefore give us insight into social, political and economic history. We have to know what previous generations did in order to build from there.
But when you exist in a perpetual state of justifying what you do, it is sometimes easy to think that the naysayers are right. You really must believe in your work with great conviction. I think all historians are ahead of their time – they have to be – they have to think, “What are the people of the future going to need to know about the period I'm researching and how can I make it as accurate and meticulously detailed as possible?”
A few weeks ago I came across a photograph of Johanna Householder using crutches in a dance she made in the 1970s. Her props were similar to those used by Marie Chouinard in her bODY_rEMIX/_gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS from 2005 and I thought, “This is why I have to teach dance history.” We need the future generations of dance artists to make their artistic choices in an informed way. Props, movement motifs, costume elements – there are fashions and cycles and dance is not immune to that … but with knowledge, an artist can make a more conscious choice.
CC: How did you get interested in the professionalization of dance and the Canadian Ballet Festivals?
AB: The artistic life in Canada during the time of the Ballet Festivals, the 1950s, was fascinating. So much was happening, and I am inspired by how hard artists were working. Dancers worked in factories, retail shops and offices, and then they would rehearse during the evenings and weekends. They did short tours in areas that were not far from their home city. They had no lives outside of dance; they worked and they performed. And they were really building something. Canada had many dance pioneers but, for some reason, that post-war period generated a burst of creative activity that laid the foundation for our current companies. The Festival's mandate was not about competition, it was about collaboration, working together to build something positive and making a contribution to Canadian culture.
The Ballet Festival period also saw works inspired by Canada. For example, Ruth Sorel's La Gaspésienne and Boris Volkoff's The Red Ear of Corn. The period also saw a great amount of collaboration between Canadian artists in other genres. Dancers worked with composers such as John Weinzweig, Walter Kaufmann and Robert Fleming, and designers such as Joseph Plaskett and Stuart McKay. Collaboration was happening right across the country, from Kay Armstrong in Vancouver, to Gweneth Lloyd in Winnipeg, Elizabeth Leese in Montreal, and the Gotshalks in Halifax. I started a book on the Ballet Festivals before I had kids and I haven't touched the book since. It has been eight years … my life has been too hectic to return to it. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it, but there are 38,000 words I have written that encompass really great stories.
CC: You also researched Les Feux-Follets?
AB: One day, Gerry Gilbert-Gray showed up on DCD's doorstep. He had danced in Les Feux-Follets first with its founder Michel Cartier and then later when Alan Lund was the artistic director. He supplied materials that helped paint a picture of the company's work. I became quite intrigued with the work of Cartier and Lund who were very different artists from one another, but both visionary people. And as I combed through the material, I discovered that several of my current colleagues had performed with Les Feux-Follets. It's another great Canadian dance story.
I also find the 1930s dance scene in Toronto to be totally fascinating. There they were at the height of the Great Depression and one would imagine that there wouldn't be much activity … yet there truly was. Also, an increased amount of collaboration was happening, similar to that in the 1950s. For example, Hart House was a hub of activity for theatre and dance and there were many collaborations with musicians, composers and conductors from the Royal Conservatory (Toronto Conservatory at the time) such as Winifred Mazzoleni, Ettore Mazzoleni and Ernest MacMillan. Dancers were collaborating with designers such as Fred Coates, Allan Sangster and members of the Group of Seven. When you look back at the names of the people in the programs who were working during that time you have to know that many were virtually unknown or emerging artists and now some of these people have concert halls named after them. It's a fascinating period, and aesthetically the art reflects late modernism and art deco. It's beautiful and interesting.
CC: What is your favourite dance artifact?
AB: I love the Salome costumes – all the meaning they embody and the history that they reflect. The Salome costumes are from 1906, and they were worn by Maud Allan. She had two of them. Her primary costume was purple, and she also had a black costume that she used less frequently. The costumes are risqué for their time period, her entire midriff was visible and the fabric was semi-translucent. The costume is also shiny; metal is woven into the fabric. The costume was made before plastic was used in manufacturing and so the beads are made of glass and the sequins are metal. Since the skirt was heavily beaded, it is quite heavy to lift. I would love to be able to have it restored so we can exhibit it.
I love the bodies from Maud's era too. It's a pre-Balanchine body, more like a Renaissance body; its soft and buxom. It's interesting to observe how ideal body types have changed over time. Maud created the Salome choreography in 1906 and she performed it over 200 times at the Palace Theatre in London. Edward VII saw her perform it when he was on vacation and he encouraged the Palace Theatre manager to bring Maud's show to London. When your monarch tells you to bring in a new show then you listen. The show was huge and spawned a Salomania craze. There were Salome imitators and merchandise; we even have Salome corn plasters, cigarettes and a bisque nodder with an articulated upper body.
I also love Nesta Toumine's Blue Beard costume. It is a beautiful, small costume from 1918. Nesta wore it when she was six years old. It's pleated, pastel coloured, and each pleat is brought down to a point that has a little rhinestone sewn onto it to weigh it down. There is also a band across the chest with a series of rainbow coloured sequins. It is beautifully made.
CC: What do you do in the dance world outside of DCD?
AB: I've been heavily involved with The Dance Current magazine since its founding by Megan Andrews in 1998. I'm the copy editor and news editor and I have contributed a short column about Canadian dance history since the very first issue. I have to say that this magazine is a godsend to researchers who come in with more contemporary topics. DCD has had so many requests that connect to articles in The Dance Current that we invented our own specialized table of contents as a finding aid.
I've also maintained a certain amount of freelance writing over the years, though less of it since becoming a parent. I chronicled Peggy Baker's Choreographer's Trust project and have published articles in the odd journal or anthology. I founded the Society for Canadian Dance Studies in 2000, which is Canada's only academic association for dance. There are many such groups internationally, but I think it's important for dance scholars in Canada to have their own support and advocacy group. I stepped down as director in 2010 and passed the torch to my fellow historian, the very capable Kate Cornell.
I'm also a sessional instructor at Ryerson University, which I really enjoy. I have to say that I've seen a marked difference in the quality of work from students who make a research appointment and come to DCD. There is a level of detail and richness that appears in their assignments because they have spent time with the artifacts, the primary sources. This past year we did a very special project with Sholem Dolgoy, the co-director of the production stream at Ryerson Theatre School. Sholem's team of production students helped me to hang five of Slava Toumine's backdrops, which he had designed for the Ottawa Classical Ballet Company in the 1950s. We had a professional photographer, Jeremy Mimnagh, photograph the process and capture archival shots of the full drops. When the first drop rose up towards the fly in the Ryerson Theatre, I was filled with such emotion and blurted out, “It's like raising the Titanic!” It was truly amazing. These drops hadn't been unfolded in half a century and Miriam Adams and I had never seen them. The students were so skilled and had such reverence for what they were doing. We also took the opportunity to re-house the backdrops in a more conservation-friendly way. I was thrilled with the whole process and hopefully we'll repeat it until all thirty-five drops are recorded. We will soon display photographs from this project on DCD's web site.
CC: If you could travel to an era of dance past, where/when would you go?
AB: Oh, that's tough. There are a couple of time periods I would travel to. I would really like to travel back to Hart House in the 1930s and observe the work of artists such as Alison Sutcliffe, Boris Volkoff and Herman Voaden. I wish I could flit in and out of the past to see certain dancers and works: Ruth Sorel's La Gaspésienne, Gweneth Lloyd's Visages, Nancy Lima Dent's Set Your Clock at U235, Boris Volkoff's Exstase, Don Gillies's I Want! I Want! I've seen photos of these works and sometimes short film clips but I would love to see them live and in colour. I would also want to bring my grown-up self back to the time when I was growing up, in the'70s. Since I was just a kid on a farm in Oxford County, I missed the first twenty years of Toronto Dance Theatre and other companies of that period such as Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers, EDAM, Le Groupe de la Place Royale and the zany things that went on at 15 Dance Lab. It's not too late now to remount works from thirty or forty years ago because the creators and performers are still available ... but if we don't do it now, it will be too late. More people need to express their desire to see choreography from the past so that a groundswell of demand can be created and that in turn will support the artists who also wish to dance great work from the past. DCD does a very important job in safeguarding the dance community's heritage but, just as in theatre and music, we need today's performers to keep the past a living, breathing part of our present.
Photo Credit: Jeremy Mimnagh
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