Progress Festival exhibit sheds light on the history of Canadian Black dance

ITS ABOUT TIME: DANCING BLACK IN CANADA 1900-1970 curated by Seika Boye at the Theatre Centre, Upstairs Gallery (1115 Queen.

ITS ABOUT TIME: DANCING BLACK IN CANADA 1900-1970 curated by Seika Boye at the Theatre Centre, Upstairs Gallery (1115 Queen West). Open daily during Progress Festival, noon to 7:30 pm, to February 15 (except Sundays). Curated tours January 31 and February 5 at 6 pm. Free.

Its About Time indeed. Thats the title of a collection of artifacts and images pertaining to the Canadian Black dance experience.

Curated by historian and writer Seika Boye, the revelatory exhibit has already had runs at Dance Collection Danse (where it was originally commissioned) and OCADUs Ignite Gallery. Recognizing the importance of this material to Toronto performers and audiences, the SummerWorks Festival has now programmed it for Progress.

The exhibit will adorn the upper lobby of the Theatre Centre throughout the festival.

I am so excited for this material to be in a performance venue, says Boye, whos just wrapping up a six-month stint as artist-in-residence at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Im curious about this history of reception, and who we see hanging on the wall. Reading about these people and events right before you go into the theatre is a different kind of exposure than a gallery setting. Im excited for it to be shared in this way.

Many of the objects and images that make up Its About Time reinforce the idea that history is arbitrary, and that exclusion from the record is a form of oppression.

Boye says shed been looking for years for evidence of a rich history of Black social dance and stage performance before 1980.

I knew it was out there, even though I hadnt seen proof, says Boye, a former dancer who performed with Ballet Creole, Judith Marcuse and The Electric Company Theatre.

We know that Black people have lived in Canada for centuries and that all people dance, especially prior to the TV era. But the conversation about race was missing.

Boyes steadfast search was fuelled and sustained partly by personal questions about race, place and practice, but also by repeated queries from her dance history students at York and now the University of Toronto, where she is director of the Institute for Dance Studies.

An opportunity to examine some of the vast partially uncatalogued holdings of Dance Collection Danse, Canadas largest dance archive, yielded images of influential Toronto dancer/teachers Len Gibson and Ola Skanks, and Montreals Queen of Tap, Ethel Bruneau.

Its About Time also contains artifacts that examine the blackface phenomenon and newspaper clippings that chart a parallel history of dance as both resistance and a source of inter-racial harmony.

Following threads and lines of enquiry initially sparked by her mentor and professor, the poet George Elliott Clarke, as well as Dionne Brands labour history book No Burden To Carry eventually led Boye to a treasure trove of images of Black kids dancing at huge downtown social gatherings that were regularly thrown by University Settlement House near Grange Park.

Boye feels a particular fondness for this series of photos.

I see myself reflected in them. And thats meaningful, having grown up in Hamilton and not seeing images of myself growing up there. It really moves me.

Its About Time is an energetic mix of social and stage dance narratives that may be new to many Toronto theatregoers. And thats by design.

No matter what kind of dance we do, says Boye, its about the same thing: the exchange that we have in the moment with others, and coming to know yourself through moving and music.

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