Margie Gillis | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Margie Gillis

Margie Gillis, CM, CQ, dancer, choreographer (born 9 July 1953 in Montreal, QC). Since bursting on the scene in 1975 with her first solo performance, Margie Gillis has been compared to Isadora Duncan for her weighty, cathartic dances that stem from her deep response to music and her political and social activism. An acclaimed international soloist, she was named a Canadian Cultural Ambassador in 1981 and a Quebec Cultural Ambassador in 1986. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier of the Ordre national due Quebec, and won a Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts In 2011.

Career Highlights

Margie Gillis took ballet and gymnastic lessons as a young child. Later she began to forge her own direction, studying with such teachers as May O'Donnell, Linda Rabin, Lynda Raino and Allan Wayne.

Although primarily a soloist, Margie Gillis has danced with companies such as Montréal's Shango in 1975, as well as in New York's Garden of Earthly Delights by Martha Clarke in 1984 and Clarke's Vers la flamme in 1999. As guest artist, she also toured with Les grands ballets Canadiens in Dracula in 1985. She performed with the National Ballet of Canada in 1999.

Gillis made several appearances with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, in which her brother and occasional partner, the late Christopher Gillis, was a leading dancer. From time to time throughout her career, she has invited close friends to choreograph and perform with her, often returning the favour. These performances have been many and memorable; for example, in 1999 she joined a group headed by opera star Jessye Norman for concerts dedicated to jazz artist Duke Ellington. In 2007, Gillis toured a stone's poem throughout Western Canada, to public and critical acclaim.

Characteristic Traits

Gillis's simple, direct choreographic and dancing style is characterized by great swoops of emotion, which in her early dances she translated physically into dolphin dives and flips. Later works have been much more subdued, sometimes even sombre. Gillis's hip-length chestnut hair and voluminous costumes are her trademarks. Mercy, premiered at the 1977 Dance in Canada conference in Winnipeg, became one of the most important moments in Canadian dance history for its raw physicality and hair and skirt dancing.

Cultural Ambassador

Gillis's inimitable stage persona is known from Moncton to Malaysia. In 1979, she introduced modern dance to China, becoming the first performer, teacher and lecturer in the art since the Cultural Revolution. She was named a Canadian Cultural Ambassador in 1981, and a Québec Cultural Ambassador in 1986. In 1991 she performed at the opening of the new Canadian embassy in Tokyo.


Besides performing works created for her by others, Margie Gillis has choreographed at least 100 cathartic pieces for herself. The largest, M.Body.7, for 7 women aged 13 to 72, included Canadian ballerina Anik Bissonnette and contemporary dancer Laurence Lemieux as well as New Yorker Risa Steinberg, and marked Gillis's 35th year onstage in 2009. The following year she premiered Thread/Filatures in Montreal and created another new piece in New York City.

Alongside performing, Gillis has maintained an international career teaching her method of dancing "from the inside out," as she calls her emotional journey to stage.

Other Activities

A frequent spokesperson for fundraising benefits — particularly for those living with AIDS — Gillis was a regular guest at the Gala des Étoiles. She performed with the Quebec and Montreal symphony orchestras and gave biennial week-long seasons in New York for many years. She has choreographed several solos for Cirque du soleil and regularly mentors students at the international Springboard career-launch workshop held annually in Montreal. She has served as a spokesperson for OXFAM and the Planned Parenthood Foundation and been involved in various environmental causes.

Film and Television

Gillis is the subject of several television films, including Body Emotions (1981), L'Univers de Margie Gillis (1985), The Gillis Mystique (part of the Eye on Dance series) (1990), Wild Hearts in Strange Times (1996), Margie Gillis: Inside Out (1998) and Source (2011).

Honours and Awards

Margie Gillis was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1987 and received the Walter Carsen Prize for career achievement in the performing arts in 2008. That year, New York's Stella Adler Studio gave her their first MAD Spirit Award for exceptional humanitarian actions by an artist. In 2009, Gillis was made a Chevalier of the Ordre national due Quebec. In 2011, she won a Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts. She was inducted into the Dance Collection Danse Hall of Fame in 2021 and received an honorary degree from Concordia University in 2022.

Further Reading