For many arts fans across this country, the name Christopher House is synonymous with Toronto Dance Theatre. And that’s as it should be. The national arts icon has spent most of his life, the past four decades, with the company—first as a performer, then as a choreographer in residence, and then as artistic director, a role he’s held since 1994.
So House is well-positioned to help the company celebrate its 50th anniversary. But when it came time to mark the occasion, the dance innovator was not about to do a straight-up remounting of all his best pieces over the decades.
“The founders of the company planted some very powerful seeds: they really engaged in collaboration, in creating new work, and in developing a strong group of dancers,” reflects the choreographer, who was recently named to the Order of Canada, speaking over the phone from his company’s historic Cabbagetown headquarters. “Then maybe in the second 25 years it was about me needing to be learning something new and really following my curiosity. At the same time, a more limited definition of contemporary dance has withered away; most people making dance think of themselves as broader artists now. So things have gotten way more stimulating. And that’s one thing this program reflects.”
Helped by a grant from Toronto’s Metcalf Foundation for a program called Reimagining Repertoire, House has been able to go into his past body of work and retool, deconstruct, and rebuild it using all the benefits of hindsight—a luxury most people never get in dance, let alone life itself. The result, on the anniversary-celebrating House Mix program that is coming to Vancouver as part of the DanceHouse series, includes pieces like Echo Dark, in which House has zeroed in on the last two sections of a 2005 piece and “tossed all the rest”; 1990’s meditative Fjeld, transformed from a five-movement epic into three chamber pieces set to the music of Arvo Pärt; and the new quintet Thirteen, in which House riffs on the movement themes of his breakout 1983 work Glass Houses, using a different piece of music from the original’s composer, Ann Southam. As House puts it: “Distance is clarity.”
“I’ve always had an ambivalent approach to repertoire,” explains the ever self-effacing choreographer with a small laugh. “I’ve felt that works are more in dialogue with the moment in which they’re created. They can be very fragile and can feel dated or naive; plus production elements can be difficult to remount.
“Then my thinking changed. What if we didn’t re-create repertoire as it happened and really harvested from the repertoire the way composers and writers do? What did you maybe miss 25 years ago? What did you try to do but maybe didn’t have the skills to accomplish? I was able to look at what, 25 years later, appears to be the essence of the work. It’s been really exciting to have that luxury, and you can really only do that in an organization like ours.”
The program also features more recent creations, including 2016’s 12-dancer Martingales, an elaborate, high-speed game of catch that plays on the theory of probability that gamblers use, all set to composer and frequent House collaborator Thom Gill’s electronic music.
“I’m really excited to bring this program there,” House says. “It’s a kind of a retrospective of mine, but to me, it also shows very different approaches to making and to performing. Also, there’s something about seeing how one creator is both changing and remaining the same.”
In both the new and reworked pieces, House’s sculptural artistry and his minute attention to detail and shaping space are the throughline. What House Mix may ultimately illustrate is that the company, on this historic occasion, is not entirely interested in looking backward—even if it was one of only a handful of pioneering contemporary-dance companies when it began, and even though it’s had such lasting effects on this country’s cultural scene. (Local names like Ron Stewart and Lara Barclay have performed there.)
“The main thing that’s most exciting is that 50 years later we’re dealing now more with the future and moving forward,” says House.
DanceHouse presents Toronto Dance Theatre’s House Mix on Friday and Saturday (February 23 and 24) at the Vancouver Playhouse.