By R.M. Vaughan

Excerpt from:

Vigilante women and dancing queens: two shows that know the tropes

Dancing Through Time: Toronto’s Dance History From 1900 to 1980 at the Market Gallery in the St. Lawrence Market
Until July 2, 95 Front St. E., second floor; Toronto

Balletomanes and living-room dancers alike will be intrigued by Dancing Through Time: Toronto’s Dance History From 1900 to 1980 . I have three left feet and bloated ankles, and I loved it.

The visual culture that supports dance performances – everything from the costumes to the playbills – is rarely presented as a genre in itself, but Dancing Through Time offers viewers a near-century's worth of material to engage. Naturally, there is a lot to plow through here, so I suggest you take the chronological approach, and let the inevitable narrative – how Toronto grew from an outpost of European dance to a hotbed of home-grown contemporary dance – be your guide.

The playbills, posters, and newspaper clippings are a goldmine for anyone with an interest in 20th century commercial design, and students of the politics of body size will be fascinated to see what constituted a “dance body” in 1911 – the shift from healthy, even stout and sturdy ideals, as evidenced by dancers working before the First World War, to wispy and skeletal standards (starting in the 1950s), is marked, and alarming.

The exhibition is speckled with great finds: a mid-century dancer’s pink makeup box, complete with her good-luck charms and half-used makeup, sits open, ready for opening night. A skimpy costume design for a male dancer, created by painter Harold Town in 1964, is less an outfit than a collision of fabric panels, silver alternating with cobalt. And Phyllis Osborne’s costume designs, again from the 1960s, are fantastical, lurid and primitive, works meant to turn the dancer’s body into a moving element, a flicker of flame or splash of water. Yma Sumac could have taken some lessons from Osborne.

In these days of alleged restraint and austerity (funny how that all depends on which team you play for), a time when the city's arts community will undoubtedly be confronted with the tired and illogical arguments about art as a necessity vs. art as a luxury, an exhibition that chronicles the very tangible, inarguable contributions of a critical mass of artists, people who built and grew an entire culture via public investment – and made it last, and thrive – could not be more timely.

Mayor Ford and allies, consider this your invitation.

Dancing Through Time Main Page