Dance and the Media | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Dance and the Media

Perhaps Canadians' first glimpse at dance in a mass medium occurred at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1896 when an exhibit of the Lumière cinématographe projected images of Loie Fuller performing her Serpentine Dance.
karen kain in <em>Giselle</em>
Karen Kain performs in the National Ballet of Canada's production of Giselle, choreography by Peter White, broadcast as part of the CBC series Musicamera on 10 November 1976. Frank Augustyn can be seen in the background (courtesy CBC-TV/National Ballet of Canada).

Dance and the Media

The art of Dance has embraced the mass media that permeate Canadian culture. While nothing can replace the impact of a live performance, the marriage of dance and media has increased exposure to this ephemeral performing art. Film and television have greatly expanded the dance audience and led to the new art form of dancefilms, while video and computer technology are aiding in dance creation, preservation, education and marketing.

Perhaps Canadians' first glimpse at dance in a mass medium occurred at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1896 when an exhibit of the Lumière cinématographe projected images of Loie Fuller performing her Serpentine Dance. This relationship with the movies continued as dancers performed divertissements before and between movie showings. Boris Volkoff, who helped professionalize ballet in Canada after emigrating from Russia, had a job as a divertissement dancer and choreographer at Toronto's Uptown Theatre in the early 1930s. Likewise, Hylda Davies's dancers performed works such as Ship Ahoy prior to the movies at the Capital Theatre in Halifax.


With the advent of television in the 1950s, dance could reach a much broader audience than in a theatre. CBC television began broadcasting dance in entertaining shows like The Big Revue, L'Heure du Concert produced by composer Pierre Mercure, and On the Spot, General Electric Showtime, Folio and Mr. Showbusiness with famed Toronto entertainment producer Jack Arthur.

Ludmilla Chiriaeff's company Les Ballets Chiriaeff (later Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) of Montréal benefited from the development of television, appearing more than 300 times in three years. Montréal choreographers profited greatly from television because of the strong demand for arts programming by and featuring Québec artists. Performers in English Canada faced competition from their American counterparts as programs such as Folio constantly imported talent from the United States. However, many Canadians appeared on television, including Alan and Blanche Lund; Brian MacDonald and Olivia Wyatt, who danced as the d'Aincourts; Carlu Carter, Victor Duret and Bill McGrath of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet; Ruth Carse and Sydney Vousden; and Willy Blok Hanson. Hanson's group made several appearances on The Big Revue, On the Spot and Folio. The Willy Blok Hanson Fine Arts Academy was part of a 15-minute National Film Board film for On the Spot. And Folio presented a film of Hanson's ballet based on the Louis Hemon novel Maria Chapdelaine. Other choreographies such as Elizabeth Leese's Lady from the Sea and Yoné Kvietys's Dark Vision were featured on television specials.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the CBC filmed many ballets and musicals, increasing the exposure of dance to Canadian audiences and providing work for Canada's rising population of professional dancers. Prominent in this era were producer-director Norman Campbell and dancer-choreographer Gladys Forrester. Forrester, nicknamed "Mighty Mouse" by Campbell for her combination of small stature and powerful presence, worked with Campbell on many productions, including The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience and The Mikado. The CBC also worked with the National Ballet of Canada on productions of Romeo and Juliet (1965) featuring Earl Kraul and Veronica Tennant; Cinderella (1968), which earned Campbell an Emmy for his use of slow motion and trick photography; and Emmy-winning The Sleeping Beauty (1972) with Rudolf Nureyev and Veronica Tennant, which was shot by six cameras. Other landmark productions by Campbell included the National Ballet of Canada versions of Swan Lake, Giselle and The Nutcracker, as well as two programs on Karen Kain and a gala honouring Erik Bruhn.

Bravo!, a division of what was Moses Znaimer's CHUM-City broadcasting conglomerate, began in 1995 and helped to boost the coverage of dance on television at the end of the 20th century after a lull in the 1970s and 1980s. Programming has included feature films of a dance nature, classic Hollywood musicals, documentaries that profile dancers and choreographers, and dancefilms. Bravo! also covers dance in its arts news program, Arts and Minds.

The 21st century has seen a resurgence in the popularity of dance on TV unparalleled since the 1950s. In 2005, producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller launched the television competition dance program So You Think You Can Dance in the US. The show was seen worldwide and created such a demand that versions were launched in Australia, New Zealand, Greece, South Africa, the UK and Canada, among other countries. Produced in Canada by Sandra Faire and Trisa Dayot through DanseTV Productions Inc in association with CTV, the show debuted in 2008 and was CTV's number one program for the season; it has subsequently been produced each season with increased popularity. Many dancers from the series have continued into professional careers.


Canadian filmmakers have created many dance documentaries and performance films, initially through the National Film Board (NFB). Animator Norman McLaren experimented with methods of filming dance. In Pas de Deux (1968), dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens wore white and danced in front of a black backdrop. High-contrast back and side lighting made the dancers appear outlined by light. McLaren then exposed individual frames up to 11 times and overlapped them, creating a stunning effect. In Ballet Adagio (1971), McLaren filmed and projected dancers Anna-Marie and David Holmes four times more slowly than normal. In 1978, Denis Poulin used experimental techniques to create the psychedelic-looking NFB film Ni scène, ni coulisses, choreographed by Martine Époque and featuring Michèle Febvre, Paul-André Fortier and Solange Paquette, dancers of Le Groupe Nouvelle Aire. The NFB also produced several dance documentaries, including Gala (1982), a record of a performance of eight Canadian dance companies at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, which provides a wonderful historical account of some of the canon of Canadian choreography; For the Love of Dance (1981), which follows seven of Canada's dance companies backstage; Flamenco at 5:15 (1983), which shows a flamenco class at the National Ballet School; and Dance of the Warrior (2001), which presents war dances from six continents, directed by former dancer Marie Brodeur. The NFB short film Vistas: Dancers of the Grass (2009) reveals traditional hoop dancing through stop-motion animation.

Documentaries that combined stage works with interviews and rehearsal coverage presented dance as more than performance. In 1986 Moze Mossanen produced The Dancemakers, a six-part series hosted by Veronica Tennant and featuring a cross-section of Canada's leading contemporary choreographers, such as Danny Grossman, Christopher House and Ginette Laurin. After broadcasts on CBC television and TV Ontario, these half-hour programs were made available for home and school use by Dance Collection Danse, the Toronto-based dance archives and publisher. The programs have since been released on DVD and include an interview with Mossanen and digital galleries of Cylla von Tiedemann's photographs from the productions; they provide a valuable record of works that are now considered part of the canon of Canadian choreography, such as Grossman's Endangered Species, David Earle's Sacra Conversazione and James Kudelka's In Paradisum. Lisa Cochrane's path-breaking film portrait, Emotional Logic: William Douglas Transformed, appeared to great acclaim in 1995, the year before the choreographer's HIV-related death (see William Douglas).

In 1995, Frank Augustyn began his documentary series Foot Notes: The Classics of Ballet, which consists of 20 half-hour programs. Topics covered include classical ballets, gala performances, men in dance and portraits of dance personalities like impresario Serge Diaghilev. Insightful documentaries on Canadian dance artists continue to emerge, such as David Langer's widely broadcast films about ballerinas Karen Kain and Veronica Tennant and Gil Gauvreau's Betty Oliphant: A Life in Dance (2000). Montréal filmmakers Philip Szporer and Marlene Millar produced Moments in Motion/Au fil du mouvement (2004), which profiles seven culturally diverse Canadian choreographers of the new generation, and the award-winning Byron Chief-Moon: Grey Horse Rider (2007), a study of an Aboriginal artist's cultural survival.

Beginning with its film of choreographer Robert Desrosier`s's Blue Snake (1986), Toronto-based Rhombus Media opened the doors for independent dance filmmakers by creating a steady stream of prize-winning dance productions for international broadcast. These included Le Dortoir (1991), François Girard's adaptation of Gilles Maheu's stage production set in a convent dormitory; The Sorceress (1993), a fantasy featuring Kiri Te Kanawa singing arias from Handel operas intercut with Baroque dances created by Opera Atelier; Satie and Suzanne (1994), with Veronica Tennant in the role of Suzanne Valadon performing with artists of Cirque Du Soleil in a show evoking Satie's turn-of-the-century Paris; Falling Down Stairs (1995), chronicling an intense year-long collaboration between cellist Yo-Yo Ma and choreographer Mark Morris; and both The Four Seasons (2000) and The Firebird (2004), which capture the exhilarating choreography of James Kudelka as performed by the National Ballet of Canada.

Their Montréal counterparts, Agent Orange/Ciné Qua Non, also produced several internationally acclaimed films, notably Bernar Hébert's collaborations with post-modern choreographer Édouard Lock on La La La Human Sex Duo No. 1 (1987) and Velásquez's Little Museum (1994), both of which featured the dynamic dancer Louise LeCavalier. Hébert also directed a film version of Ginette Laurin's Déluge/Night of the Flood (1996). Among its many productions, Ciné Qua Non co-produced Sanctum (1996) with Halifax-based filmmaker Lisa Cochrane. Covering the life and work of dancer-choreographer Peggy Baker and musician-composer Ahmed Hassan, this documentary combines interview footage with moments from the couple's life together and their work in the studio. Édouard Lock directed the film adaptation of his stage work Amelia (2004), which won two Gemini Awards.

Choreographer-filmmaker Laura Taler has created more than a dozen dancefilms that have been screened and broadcast internationally. She won two Cinedance Awards for her films the village trilogy (1995), which evokes images of her own family's immigration from Romania, and Heartland (1997), a moving documentary about dancer, choreographer and "regular guy" Bill Coleman. Taler's third film, Dances for a Small Screen (1997), was produced with Mark Hammond and takes the form of three segments presenting the work of directors Taler, Mossanen and Nick de Pencier, filming contemporary choreographers Tedd Robinson, José Navas, Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras. At Berlin's Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Taler developed Uniglory (2008), a six-channel video installation.

After her retirement from the National Ballet of Canada, dancer Veronica Tennant began to host her own series on the arts and to produce dance specials for CBC television such as the 1994 AIDS benefit Salute to Dancers for Life, which showcased major companies and independent dancer-choreographers from across the country. She has continued to make documentaries and dancefilms, including the profiles Margie Gillis: Wild Hearts in Strange Times (1996) and Karen Kain: Dancing in the Moment (1998), which earned Tennant an International Emmy Award. She has also received Bravo!FACT grants for such dancefilm shorts as Words Fail (2000), choreographed and performed by Peggy Baker, and Song of Songs (1999), choreographed by Tennant and featuring ballet dancers Jaimie Tapper and Johan Persson. Her one-hour performance film Shadow Pleasures (2004), written and narrated by Michael Ondaatje, won many awards and led to a short film, The Cinnamon Peeler, with Tennant's choreography set to Ondaatje's poem. Her documentary Tour de Force (2006) celebrated Celia Franca, founder of the National Ballet of Canada, and Vida y Danza - Life and Dance (2008) profiled choreographer Lizt Alfonso with her all-female company Danza Cuba.

Mark Adam, also a former dancer, has built a career in the dancefilm milieu since 1991. His many projects include collaborations with choreographer-filmmaker Allen Kaeja on a series of films capturing Kaeja's haunting holocaust-based works Witnessed (1997), Sarah (1999), Zummel (1999) and Old Country (2004). Adam also made film versions of Christopher House's Pingo Slink (1997) and Kate Alton's Nerd (2001), among others. He adapted Victor Quijada's cutting-edge choreography to make Hasta La Proxima (2003), a film evoking the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US.

Kaeja d'Dance, the Toronto-based company led by Allen and Karen Kaeja, collaborated with co-directors Mark Adam and Allen Kaeja to make the award-winning Asylum of Spoons (2005), a dancefilm drama about an eccentric family. Allen Kaeja, inspired and mentored by British master dance filmmaker David Hinton, developed his own directorial approach and later published a book about transforming stage work to screen. At Ryerson University he introduced the first hands-on dancefilm course in Canada and began teaching it in 2007. Kaeja believes dancefilm is exploding, thanks to the popularity of workshops such as Dance for the Camera in Victoria, BC, which has counterparts in many countries. Accessible technology, with high-definition videocameras and editing software now in the hands of millions of cellphone users, is having a huge impact on the field.

A growing number of choreographers are working interdisciplinarily in film and dance, handling both direction and choreography. Examples include Anne Troake's The Sinking (1997) and Michael Downing's Soap Opera (1998) and Terrain (1999), which earned him a Cinedance award. Downing has created numerous dancefilms, moving between the various roles of director, choreographer and dancer. His 1999 film Sporting Life, which explores violence and aggression, received two Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations for Outstanding New Choreography. Actor-dancer Michael Greyeyes, featured in the documentary He Who Dreams: Michael Greyeyes on the Powwow Trail (1997), choreographed and co-produced the short film Triptych (2007), which explores through dance the emotional impact of Canada's residential schools. Calgary-based Nicole Mion creates for both stage and screen. She has made prize-winning music videos and dancefilms such as Porcelain Tattoo (2003).

A key exhibitor for Canadian dancefilms was the Moving Pictures Festival of Dance on Film and Video, which showcased Canadian and international dancefilms from 1991 to 2006. Based in Toronto and spearheaded by curator Kathleen Smith, the festival toured to major centres across Canada. Today the Canada Dance Festival, the Banff Centre and many other festivals and venues across the country feature dancefilms in their programming, and Canadian works are chosen competitively for screening at international dancefilm festivals and media industry events.

While Bravo! primarily airs productions from many external sources, the Bravo!FACT (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent) program has contributed significantly to the production of original short films that incorporate the fine arts. This foundation both encourages the creation of art work and stimulates public interest in and recognition of Canadian art and artists through the broadcasting of Bravo!FACT shorts. Thousands of projects have been funded by these grants since 1995, including numerous dancefilms less than six minutes long by Veronica Tennant, Mark Adam and many others. Drew Mullin's Firedance (2001) features Kathak dancer Joanna Das and flamenco dancer Esmeralda Enrique; Isabelle Barsive's Flock of Flyers (2001) captures the humorous dance and clown choreography of David Danzon and Sylvie Bouchard and the company Corpus. Sometimes multiple shorts come together to form a larger feature, as in Moze Mossanen's acclaimed Rings of Saturn (2001), choreographed by Robert Desrosiers. Following the theme of unrequited love, the five vignettes of Rings of Saturn are pulled together by a narrator and a traditional storyline. The versatility of the Bravo!FACT films has given Canadian dancemakers and filmmakers extra exposure through exhibition at festivals, special events and benefits and broadcasts on other channels. Largely because of such incentives along with global broadcasting and the fast growth of distribution on the Internet, Canadian dance filmmakers of the 21st century are highly esteemed throughout the world.


Canada has become a leader in pioneering new interactive computer applications involving dance. The second and third international dance and technology conferences were held at Simon Fraser University (1993) and York University (1995). Computer specialists along with dancers and educators have collaborated to invent software for creating, teaching, notating, archiving and promoting dance. Life Forms, developed by Simon Fraser University professor Thomas Calvert and dancer-computer scientist Thecla Schiphorst in the early 1980s, generates computer simulations of human movement using key-frame animation. The program can be used to choreograph on the screen, allowing the choreographer or teacher to view movement before setting it on dancers' bodies, thus saving the dancers the physical stress of repeating movements numerous times. A more specific dance version of the technology called DanceForms was developed by Rhonda Ryman, former professor at the University of Waterloo; stills of the animation were used by Ryman and teacher Nadia Potts in a book that illustrates exercises once taught by National Ballet School founding principal Betty Oliphant. Ryman has used Life Forms/DanceForms animation software to develop several innovative content libraries, including Ballet Moves, which provides more than 100 positions and movements that can be used variously in educational and creative projects. Working in conjunction with the Computer Graphics Lab of the University of Waterloo, Ryman also developed MacBenesh, capable of creating, verifying, storing, retrieving and modifying dance scores written in Benesh notation. This software is a complement to the American-designed LabanWriter, used to record dance through Labanotation.

Motion capture technology is being used in dance for both preservation purposes and creation. At the leading edge of choreographic creation using motion capture are Martine Époque and Denis Poulin of L'ARTech, which they founded in 1999 to further both artistic and scientific goals. Together they developed "Technochoreography," which they have used to create such digital choreographies as NoBody Dance and Le Sacre du printemps. They describe the work as the human body manifested by "carrying the signature of its motion," adding, "Liberated from the traditional reference to body, this new work magnifies the danced movement and its energetic expression."

In 1990 York University professors Mary Jane Warner and Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt began a pilot project exploring the potential of using HyperCard for teaching dance history through a tutorial. Using the topic of Gweneth Lloyd's ballet Shadow on the Prairie, they created an interactive tutorial that provides the user with information on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, its co-founder Lloyd, Arnold Spohr, who was artistic director for 30 years, and on Shadow on the Prairie. It contains text, still images, hypertext that allows the user to click on words that are in bold typeface to retrieve more information, questions so that users can test their knowledge, and video and sound clips from the NFB's film of Shadow on the Prairie. The interactive nature of Warner and Fisher-Stitt's project enhances learning; the user must be actively involved in the tutorial, making decisions in order to proceed through the lesson.

Eddie Kastrau, a dancer with the Danny Grossman Dance Company, designed Performance History Database (PHD) in 1994 after the trials of locating specific repertoire in Grossman's collection of video tapes. Kastrau's project began by cataloguing the dances on the company's video tapes; the more information he entered the more he changed the database to make it user friendly. With the advice of Toronto dance administrators, PHD now records performance dates, locations, times, casts, attendance, sponsors, repertory, dancers, media coverage, video catalogues and even royalty payments. It also has the capability to store video footage and photographs. It is used widely by major modern dance companies.

Electronic archiving has been used by Dance Collection Danse (DCD) for many years. By the scanning of images such as photographs, clippings and programs, artifacts from Canada's dance history can be preserved long after the original materials have deteriorated. DCD also developed the Canadian Integrated Dance Database (CIDD) for cataloguing its collection; this collections management software was designed to be used by artists and companies to catalogue their own archival collections as part of DCD's Grassroots Archiving Strategy. Data from artists and companies using CIDD can be uploaded to DCD's website, creating a national database of archival materials. DCD has also been using the Internet as an effective tool for disseminating Canada's dance history through virtual exhibitions that incorporate text, images, sound files and video.

Internet and Social Media

Marketing on the Internet is probably the most recent use of computer technology implemented by dance companies. Many of Canada's dance companies use the Internet to promote their next performance or new choreography, to attract donations, or simply to keep their audiences aware of company activities. The Dance Current magazine is using the Internet to provide supplementary content to its print edition, including reviews and interviews. The magazine also provides a valuable service to the dance milieu through its Destination Dance/Danse performance calendar; companies and artists can upload information about their shows, and audience members can search the database for performances based on artist, date or location. Dance Passport, initiated by Julye Huggins and Jessica Baran in 2008 through the Dance Umbrella of Ontario and supported since 2009 by The Dance Current, is an online videoblog that highlights dance and features dance artists and activity in Canada.

The Internet site YouTube, launched in 2005, is rapidly changing the public's ability to access dance. Many artists and companies now use YouTube in conjunction with their own websites to promote their activities through video clips of their choreographic works. Another pop culture phenomenon widely available on YouTube is video footage of flash mob dances, which are pre-choreographed dances that occur in public spaces. They usually begin with one or two dancers who are quickly joined by several more dancers until there is a "mob" of movers; music is generally heard by everyone in the surrounding area. The participants range from untrained amateurs to highly trained professionals. These urban performances are frequently recorded and spread "virally" over the Internet.

Social media have become widely used by Canada's dance artists and companies who frequently make use of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and other social networking sites to promote their activities.