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Meet The Artists

Dance in Canada: A Rich and Varied Art

By Michael Crabb

One could say that dance in Canada has been around for as long as there have been people on the land, because rhythmic bodily movement is instinctive. Dancing comes naturally to human beings. However, dance as a theatrical form of entertainment, and especially professional dance, is much more recent in Canada and has been shaped by imported traditions.

Early European explorers encountered the dances of the First Nations peoples. While some explorers may have been intrigued to learn about these dances, advancing colonization saw the increasing domination of imported forms. European dancing masters instructed the daughters of the wealthy, and performances by visiting troupes, though sporadic, were popular in colonial times.

As Canadian cities grew during the 20th century, they became part of the North American touring circuit. Many of the leading foreign companies and artists, such as Anna Pavlova, performed in Canada and helped to broaden local interest in dance.

Ballet was particularly favoured. It was the leading form of European theatrical dance and the majority of Canada 's immigrants came from Europe. Most of Canada 's professional-level dance teachers, such as Boris Volkoff, also came from overseas. However, in the absence of professional Canadian troupes, their best students had to seek employment abroad.

Starting in the late 1930s, it took the pioneering vision of a succession of immigrant dancers and teachers, all women, to recognize the potential for change. Gweneth Lloyd, Betty Farrally and Celia Franca from England, and Ludmilla Chiriaeff from Latvia, were instrumental in establishing professional Canadian ballet. Today's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal are the result of their and others' efforts.

These three flagship companies and their respective schools blazed the trail for professional ballet and dance generally in Canada. By the late 1950s, these companies were also touring abroad.

Dancing breeds choreographers and, by the 1960s, a number of Canadians, notably Brian Macdonald, were establishing an international reputation for creative innovation that continues today.

Starting in the late 1950s, the decision of governments at all levels to make an investment in Canadian culture was crucial to the advancement of professional dance. The Canada Council for the Arts particularly, enabled dance to thrive.

Companies working in various contemporary genres emerged by the early 1970s in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Artists, such as Danny Grossman, Patricia Beatty, Rachel Brown, Paula Ross and Anna Wyman established companies, many of which still exist today. Montréal became particularly acknowledged as a powerhouse of experimentation and innovation, through the work of artists such as Jeanne Renaud and Jean-Pierre Perreault.

Today, Canada's cultural diversity is reflected in the success of dance artists working theatrically in such different traditions as South Asian, African, Ukrainian and First Nations, including Menaka Thakkar and Zab Maboungou. Some artists choose to work in classical styles, while others work in contemporary styles.

Canadian dance artists have an increasing respect for diverse forms of expression and a desire to learn new ways of moving. They are also developing unique collaborations that promote sharing among a broad range of disciplines, styles and cultures. With these new approaches, Canadian dance is becoming an extraordinarily rich and varied art.