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Choreographing queer

Christopher House celebrates two decades at Toronto Dance Theatre—and the body’s erotic potential
The stereotypical debate rages on. In Dance Magazine (November, 2006)  Joseph Carman wrote an article entitled Gay Men & Dance: What’s the connection? He included a concise example of how queerness in choreographic circles has been bantered about, ad nauseam, in a most deceptive way. He writes, “Lest anyone think that men in tights are always gay, let’s not forget that ballet’s biggest box office attraction was Mikhail Baryshnikov, a ladies’ man who made a number of straight men think ballet class might be a good way to meet chicks.”

Carman further articulated his position by explaining that the word “tribe” often pops up in the discussion of the bonding that happens among gay men. He goes on to quote American performance artist Tim Miller’s thoughts on tribal activity within queer dance culture: “Maybe boys changing into their dance belts and tights are the closest thing we could be to a tribe.”

Christopher House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre for the past 20 years, is no stranger to this debate on sexuality in dance. Queerness, for him, in the broadest sense of the word, is integral to dance. “Dance by its very nature is queer,” says House. “It’s all about showing difference and inhabiting the body in ways that are different. Men of my generation have searched for expression, vulnerability and sensuality.”

By articulating these impulses through the physical body, House has frequently paired two men in duets that are not necessarily sexual, yet hint at this notion of ambiguity that represents his general approach to choreography. He says that he transforms anything that appears to be too story-based. “I resist ideas that tend to be clearly narrative or didactic,” says House. “In this question of how to be literal there is always a feeling of ambiguity in the work I make no matter now clear the relationship or task is.”

He has done at least a dozen duets for men and feels that this is a big part of his self-expression. Men dance with men as often as women dance with men in his work, a fundamental part of his overall approach. Articulating the gender demographic, House explains his own position within this queer equation: “I am obviously a queer man, so this is an authentic expression of who I am,” he says. “There have been periods of time when for no reason but for how the dice rolls every man in the company is queer or every man is not, but they all dance with the same commitment. No one would want to work with me if they resist this. You wouldn’t audition or express your interest if you didn’t want to work in that environment. In some ways it’s like scientists in a lab, a very sensuous lab looking at all of these questions about the erotic potential of the body, and sensuality, in different ways.”

As one of Canada’s most respected dance artists, House was born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1955. In 1979, he joined Toronto Dance Theatre and became artistic director in 1994. His upcoming production of Eleven Accords includes a duet between two men that he feels “is in some ways deeply intimate, but also speaks of a strength and a shared sense of power in using each other, literally, by doing things they couldn’t do on their own.”

House speaks passionately about the universal spirit of dance movement as a fundamental aspect of artistic expression. But he takes it one step further so that his art resonates with viewers long after the theatre goes dark. “Making art is always a political act,” says House, “because you are looking at questions of representation and the ethics of representation. You have to be very careful to show that the work is an attempt to embody the world as a better world.”

His work is spontaneous, energetic, risky and joyful with a sense of play, all of which promise to unfold in the production of Eleven Accords as 10 extraordinary dancers explore exciting fields of kinetic curiosity set to the music of celebrated American minimalist composer Steve Reich. First performed at New York’s Town Hall in 1976, Reich’s musical masterpiece, titled Music for 18 Musicians, embodies a pulsing journey of complex rhythm and harmony.

The idea of dance as theatre, embodied in the name of the company that House helped build, has become a historically timely evolution as he prepares to celebrate his 20th anniversary with TDT.  “The early sixties post-modern period was an era where all kinds of questions about body and the role of the performer were being asked,” says House. “During the seventies things swung back around physical fitness, becoming about being inventive and fabulously virtuosic,” adding that “people began to look at contemporary dance as a broader literature in our culture.”

Today, House would agree that contemporary arts across all disciplines use the word choreography in different ways. But as he prepares to celebrate two decades of dance creation with TDT, he continues to bring his audiences an exciting approach to what can be seen as the choreography of queer as it has evolved in the past 50 years.

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