Dance Histories

Deanna Peters, June 2016

I was on the phone the other day with Robin Poitras, who was speaking from Regina. She mentioned that her company New Dance Horizons had been programming Françoise Sullivan and she asked if I knew of her. I said that I did not. She said, and I paraphrase, that it is a travesty that we do not learn our dance history.

This got me thinking back to the one dance history course that I took at Grant MacEwan College, taught by Heidi Bunting in 2001. In my archives, I came across the following LIST OF PAPER RECOMMENDATIONS that was handed out. I was surprised to see Françoise Sullivan's name on there, although with a typo.

Françoise Sullivan is a Québec-based multidisciplinary artist, creating from dance, painting, sculpture and poetry since the early-1940s. She was a part of the Les Automatistes, a group of dissident Québecois artists inspired by Surrealism and its theory of automatism. In 1948, Françoise was one of the signatories of the Refus global manifesto, which included her essay La danse et l’espoir.

I found a quote from Patricia Smart’s Les femmes du Refus global via a Library and Archives Canada webpage outlining the manifesto’s opposition to the ‘academic’ spirit: “The program of studies at the School of Fine Arts [...] reflected the spirit of imitation and fear of creativity, which coloured the entire educational system. The courses seemed to be expressly designed to impede individual talent and to shape all the students in the same mould. [...] Fear and passivity were instilled into the students [...] This 'academism', or practice of following established rules and traditions, reflected the authoritarian structure of society against which the Automatiste movement would constitute the first coherent philosophical 'refusal'." [translation from French]

On the same Library and Archives Canada page it says that: “In 1948, Sullivan and her dance partner, Jeanne Renaud, put on a performance at Ross House; today, that performance is considered to be the founding event of modern dance in Québec.”

On Regina's Mackenzie Art Gallery website, Sullivan’s Danse dans la neige is said to be “a revolutionary outdoor dance performance… that crystallizes the vision of an artist who was to profoundly influence the future of contemporary dance, art and film in Québec and Canada.” The film of Danse dans la neige, shot by Jean-Paul Riopelle, has been lost, but you can find several photos by Maurice Perron via La musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Sullivan discusses making the film in video portraits by the Art Gallery of Ontario and MoMA Multimedia.

As our name DANCE HOLE suggests, and following the ‘meta’ nature of internet research, this post could go on and on. You can get a glimpse of Sullivan’s painting on the Corkin Gallery website, read about her work past and current in Françoise Sullivan: Solar Spirit, an interview with Canadian Art, or get a sense of how the physical meets the visual in Francoise Sullivan on Trusting Blind Gestures, and Why Abstract Painting is Still Relevant, an interview with Sky Gooden via Blouin Art Info. Following these links, however, has me wondering: what is the role of dance history in our processes today?

Coming across words like ‘primitivism’ in descriptions of Sullivan’s work, I shudder at the idea of perpetuating a colonial, white supremacist history of dance. Why do our dance history courses start with the court of Louis Whoever and the early days of ballet? Not to negate Françoise Sullivan, but what about the history of dance forms from outside of a Euro-centric point of view?

Reading the LIST that Heidi gave us, I remember that I wrote my paper on Alvin Ailey because his company’s aesthetic was much more familiar to me than Judson Church Group or Nouvelle danse from Québec. A white girl of part-Mennonite descent (a culture that often denounces dancing) growing up on the Canadian prairies, I learned a lot of jazz and tap dance, terminology and history — forms that grew out of the African American diaspora and history of slavery. Looking back at this, some of my dance history, I see how problematic it is. What is my own role in appropriating the dance forms and traditions of other cultures? How do I confront the colonialist aspects of the dance histories that I grew up within without negating my current expressive abilities and potential to contribute to the dance arts? In just beginning to deal with questions like these in my own practices, I find that I am reading a lot and I’d like to share some articles that articulate ideas and experiences around these issues much better than I can:

Oh! You Black Bottom: Appropriation, Authenticity and Opportunity in the Jazz Dance Teaching of 1920’s New York by Danielle Robinson


Folk and Palace, a conversation about the contemporary body, folk practice and the palace initiated by Lee Su-Feh

Dance and Pop Culture Flash Cards

How to Decolonize Your Yoga Practice by Susanna Barkataki

Think Before You Appropriate: A Guide for Creators and Designers by IPinCH

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