Nestled between a nail salon and a strip of shabby pawn shops, Canada’s only dance museum sits on the third floor of a tawny-brick building on Toronto’s Church Street. There’s no sign out front to mark its existence. Passersby are likely to find their eye drawn elsewhere, toward the hulking neo-Gothic Metropolitan United Church that claims the entire opposite block, the ad for blue iridescent fingernails in the adjacent window, or the bustle of commotion just south on Queen Street East.
“We had a sandwich board out front for a bit and that brought in a few curious people,” says Dance Collection Danse co-founder and director Miriam Adams. “But we had to take it down.” She smiles with a touch of irony.
“A bylaw restriction.”
Despite its low profile, Dance Collection Danse, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is a remarkable repository of the country’s dance history. The museum’s tiny Church Street home consists of three bright and modest rooms – a gallery space, a work space and an office – all open to the public five days a week, with admission by donation. Its collection is as impressive as its housing is humble. In addition to a special exhibition that changes biannually, the museum has closets lined floor-to-ceiling with hundreds of written documents, 1,100 hours worth of oral history on cassettes, cupboards stuffed with aging costumes and quirky artifacts, more than 2,000 video recordings of performances dating back several decades and a vast off-site holding of backdrops and historic Canadian set pieces.
Visiting the museum for the first time last week, I had the sense that I’d happened upon the kind of hidden cultural gem you seek out and fetishize as a tourist. Amy Bowring, a dance historian and DCD’s director of research, dangled all kinds of fascinating ephemera and collectibles in front of me: Early 20th-century pointe shoes with metal toes for tapping, a purple chevron tutu from the 1960s, the red blazer worn by the dance contingent of the Canadian Olympic team in Berlin in 1936.
“We have amazing stories to tell,” Bowring says. “People think about dance as being frivolous, but it’s not. It reflects our immigration history. It reflects moments in politics.” As an example, she cites the balls held at the country’s Confederation talks in 1864, when networking took place while people waltzed. She adds that indigenous dances were banned in the 1880s through the Indian Act. “Dance was seen as subversive enough that it had to be banned in order to suppress a culture. It clearly isn’t frivolous.”
In the work space, two assistants were busy preparing for the upcoming exhibition on early 19th-century dancer Maud Allan, a Torontonian who made a name for herself performing a scandalous rendition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome across Europe. Bowring showed me the exotic, metal bustier that Allan performed in – a wide net of pearls overlaying a lattice of fake gold, then an intricate pattern of beads and coloured jewels across the main band. Bowring pulled out a stack of Allan’s small, leather-bound diaries. Together, we squinted at the perfect, miniature handwriting that fills their pages in all directions; Allan scribbled urgently up the margins once she ran out of horizontal lines.
At the helm of the museum is the dark-haired and bespeckled Adams, who has the buoyant mannerisms and eternally youthful deportment of a dancer. Born in Toronto in 1944, her biography forms an interesting tangent to the city’s dance history. She began her training with National Ballet School founder Belly Oliphant before the school existed, then attended the school upon its opening, remaining a student until she graduated in 1963. She went on to join the National Ballet as a corps member, and married principal dancer Laurence Adams in 1967. The two resigned from the company two years later and formed an experimental and aesthetically renegade dance collective, 15 Dance Lab.
On the wall beside the museum’s office is a small black-and-white photo of the Adamses and dancer Jackie Malden outside the Lab in 1974. Everyone is dressed in flares and looking like they might belong in Andy Warhol’s Factory.
“You need to know how amazing their history is,” Bowring says, referring to the way the Adamses left a renowned classical ballet company and swiftly established themselves at the centre of the 1970s booming modern dance scene. “15 Dance Lab was a place where important Canadian choreographers made some of their earliest work: Christopher House, Marie Chouinard, Jean-Pierre Perreault, Margie Gillis, David Earle.”
In the 1980s, the Adamses’ attempt to reconstruct Canadian choreography from the 1940 and 50s led to a burgeoning interest in dance preservation. They began publishing all kinds of material, ranging from an open-forum newsletter, a monthly tabloid newspaper called Canadian Dance News, then monographs and books. Eventually, they founded an improvised museum. For the first 27 years of DCD’s history, the museum existed in the Adamses’ home on George Street.
The current exhibition at DCD is the Toumine Collection, which features reproduced images of the oldest ballet backdrops in Canada, along with costumes, photographs, letters and other paper records from the erstwhile Ottawa Classical Ballet. The collection captures the era and mood of Canadian ballet at the height of its 1950s and 60s boom, when most of the country’s major companies (the National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) were established.
The Toumines were Ottawa-born dancer Nesta Williams and the Russian-born Sviatoslav (Slava) Toumine, who met and married as company members with the touring Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo. In 1947, the couple resettled in Ottawa and founded a ballet company.
For 30 years, Williams restaged many of Michel Fokine’s classics with her own dancers, while Toumine designed elaborate, hand-painted backdrops, consisting of modernist landscapes and castles with big atmospheric skies. Some look cartoonish; others are full of dark, expressionistic shapes.
The 25 backdrops belong to the DCD but, being far too big to display in the museum, they’ve been reproduced as part of a five-year collaboration with Ryerson University’s Theatre School.
“Some of these backdrops hadn’t been unfurled in half a century,” Bowring tells me. “It was pretty emotional, seeing these relics of Canadian ballet rolled out after so long.”
As I’m leaving the museum, one of the assistants shows Bowring and Adams a newspaper clipping that’s arrived in the mail. It’s a 15-year-old article about Pierre Trudeau’s notorious pirouette at Buckingham Palace in 1977, expressing his disdain for palatial pomp and protocol. While Trudeau’s aides have long since revealed that the pirouette had been planned and rehearsed, the article adds a bit more to the story. Trudeau allegedly took six months of ballet training in 1950 at a dance studio on Rideau Street. The studio was run by one of Canada’s most influential ballet teachers: Nesta Toumine.
Bowring and Adams are thrilled to discover this unexpected link between Canadian ballet and an iconic moment in the country’s history – more proof of Bowring’s claim that dance has a knack for reflecting political moments. But I might be just as interested in the medium as the message – history discovered on printed paper via snail mail – a medium that feels historical itself and seems like a perfect tribute to the hands-on collecting – in paper, cassettes, VHS and artifacts – that so distinguishes DCD’s unique acquisitions.
The Toumine Collection continues at Dance Collection Danse, 149 Church St., Toronto, until Sept. 9 (dcd.ca).