TOWARD LIGHT - A TRIBUTE TO RACHEL BROWNE choreography by Browne. Presented by the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers and NextSteps at the Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queens Quay West). Saturday (January 12) at 8 pm. $25, stu/srs $15. 416-973-4000. See listings.
Dance is an ephemeral art form, but Saturday's tribute to one of the country's most iconic figures should keep her sizeable body of work alive for generations of enthusiasts.
Rachel Browne, who died last June - at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, as it happened - founded Canada's oldest modern dance company, the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, in 1964. Now WCD's current artistic director, Brent Lott, has compiled a wide range of her dances for a national tour, which ends in Toronto.
"We wanted to pick work that reflected all of Rachel's interests," says Lott from Winnipeg. "There's her feminism. We wanted to make sure there was something that was intergenerational, featuring dancers from different points in their career. And we wanted something performed by students."
The oldest work is a series of excerpts from 1964's Odetta's Songs And Dances, Browne's first piece of choreography, which she created a few years after leaving her career as a dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Lott admits it might seem dated to modern eyes, but at the time - and even into the 70s - it was liberating for dancers and audiences alike.
"We reached out to original cast members and people who danced it over the years to talk to the company," he says. "And one dancer said that when she danced it she felt like she was conquering the world: hair down, not wearing leggings or pointe shoes, and telling stories about being women and having babies."
Also on the bill is Willow Island, inspired by the choreographer's cabin on Lake Winnipeg. It's part of the Rachel Brown Trust, which enables company members to travel to dance schools to teach students; Kristin Haight, one of the piece's original performers, has worked with Toronto's Canadian Children's Dance Theatre on it.
"This ensures that the student dancers get to see what Rachel thought was important about the movement," says Lott.
A bright light in the company, Haight will also dance Radiance, one of Browne's final pieces.
Lott danced with WCD for several years and performed in a number of Browne's works, which he admits were challenging.
The company's performing a 15-minute excerpt from Sun Storm, which he helped premiere.
"You have to stay so present when dancing," he says. "I remember one section where we were all reaching and grasping in unison, having to curl our fingers eight times, then jump and stop on a dime. You had to be so alert. But that made dancing her stuff exhilarating."