Interview with Johanna Householder, Co-Founder of DanceWorks

In anticipation of our 40th Anniversary show, we spoke to Johanna Householder, co-founder of DanceWorks, performance artist, and professor at OCAD University. Johanna reflects on DanceWorks’ early days, memorable performances, and the Toronto dance scene.

DanceWorks:

Can you talk about how DanceWorks came about? What was the initial impulse for the development of DanceWorks?

Johanna:

The initial impulse was this fertile ground, in the mid to late 1970s to the early 1980s. Many of us were involved in the York University Dance program at the time, where Grant Strate helped create the conditions for a high standard of professional practice, but very wide open range of aesthetic approaches.  As well, there were these nodes to the legendary 15 Dance Lab downtown. You need two poles to give an electrical charge, so it really was a kind of an electrical charge of work that was coming out of York University dance with what was going on downtown. I will say in shorthand ‘15 Dance Lab’, but there were many other actors and players on that scene. So many of the people who later became involved in DanceWorks moving forward, met and started doing our first works at 15 Dance Lab, and were exposed to the downtown scene. People moved there as a whole arts and culture scene was growing up.

The other things that were growing up were the artist run centres. A Space took a lot of interest in dance as a contemporary medium, alongside literature, visual arts, poetry reading, the Talking Heads, and those kinds of things. In fact some of my first performances, choreographies, were at A Space.

The Music Gallery was a kind of anti-disciplinary artist run centre for music. That model of the Music Gallery was part of the impetus around DanceWorks. We wanted a similar kind of artist run centre, and in a way a collectivity, to support the kind of work that was coming out of the choreographers and dancers at that time.

DanceWorks:

How did you and your co-artists make this happen?

Johanna:

15 Dance Lab had a season and people would get their own little grants. Ontario Arts Council was really interested in looking towards dance. Dancers really made a vocal case for support, apart from the traditional, big dance companies like the National Ballet of Canada and established dance companies like Toronto Dance Theatre. The independent artists were led by Lawrence and Miriam [Adams] from 15 Dance Lab, who were real political rabble rousers. They were very interested in taking dance to the next level culturally, where it wasn’t prior to that, partly because it was company oriented.

People were producing their own shows, their own evening programs at 15 Dance Lab, and there were enough people who were interested in continually producing and showing new work. There was a critical mass that made it seem really possible to do a monthly or bi-monthly series of works in progress. I think that’s what it really was about for us at that point. A kind of works in progress, a real community building dialogue, a place to jam, or improvise and a place to try out radical new ideas.

DanceWorks:

The name DanceWorks, how did that come about?

Johanna:

It was called DanceWorks / Improvisations initially. It was called DanceWorks / Improvisations because we did want to, at that point, have a consistent way to show improvisation, as well as, ‘pieces’. DanceWorks came about because we were looking really carefully at the language connected to dance. Elizabeth Chitty started a series called Dance Artists because she, like many of us, wanted to be taken seriously as artists who used dance. Lawrence Adams was a proponent of the term ‘dance workers’ because he liked that reference to the left wing labour movement. People at the time were also referring to themselves as arts workers or culture workers. Those kinds of terms were coming up and it had to do with the politics of recognizing what artists do as labour wasn’t just free expression. DanceWorks was part of that, part of that examination of language, to look at the work of dance and try to find a way to forcibly wrench it away from the light, lovely stereotype and into what we were really trying to grapple with.

DanceWorks:

Did DanceWorks formalize itself rather quickly? Did you consider yourselves an organization? A presenter? A collective?

Johanna:

I’m going to have say a collective, initially. I think it evolved pretty quickly. Martha Lovell left in 1979 to go to New York. My focus was really turning to The Clichettes (with Louise Garfield and Janice Hladki) as my creative outlet. Irene Grainger took it over and worked briefly with Kyra Lober, and then Mimi Beck (who arrived in Toronto in 1976 from Pennsylvania and West Virginia). Joan Phillips took on the publicity cards and formalizing the program was partly to get the publicity out. God knows how we did that before the internet? How did people respond to a card? But it didn’t seem to stop people because they came.

DanceWorks:

Do you remember some of the early DanceWorks’ performers? Were there any similarities in terms of the early works you were seeing?

Johanna:

There was a strong feminist undercurrent, a real address of physicality, and also a responding to the space. Because I have seen the image recently, I have in my mind, Louise (Garfield) and Janice (Hladki) duct taped to the gallery floor. The Music Gallery was on St. Patrick Street and had two entrance doors, so the audience would come through two doors to the back space. The back space had a fairly narrow balcony, and pillars, and Louise and Janice were singing love songs and the audience would have to step over them to get in to the space. That kind of work was probably typical in some ways.

DanceWorks:

Just before we wrap up, is there anything else that you would like to share? Something we may not have touched upon during our conversation?

Johanna:

I think for me the interesting thing is what an incredibly supportive community it was. We would commit to be in each other’s work and unquestioningly, you need somebody and I’ll do it. Post that period, there seemed to be a kind of recidivism, a return to more dancey-dance and less radical pushing of the boundaries of what could be conceived of as dance. It is interesting to me that we seem to be returning to that period now, in terms of what’s going on in relation to galleries and museums paying attention to contemporary dance again.

I refer to the idea that Judson Church would be more known than what was going on here, even to Torontonians. But when you look at what was actually produced and done by dancers and choreographers at that time, it was equally ground breaking and very much invested in the local Toronto community and changing people’s minds of what dance could be.

Cheap Sunglasses is part of DanceWorks 40th Anniversary show running November 16 – 18, 2017 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.

Tickets are available online or by calling the Harbourfront Centre Box Office at 416.973.4000.

For easier reading, here is a PDF of the interview with Johanna Householder, co-founder of DanceWorks