Bill Coleman and Laurence Lemieux are committed urban activists. That wasn't the plan when the dancers relocated back to Toronto from Montreal a few years ago.
That activism took concrete form this week, when the Citadel, a contemporary dance centre created out of a historic Salvation Army building, opened its doors. On Wednesday, Lemieux unveils her new solo, Les cheminements de l'influence, which will christen the Citadel's studio theatre.
When the couple bought the 1912 building, a former soup kitchen and worship hall at Parliament and Dundas Streets in Toronto, they had no idea that right across the road, Toronto's Regent Park Revitalization Project was rising – a massive reimagining of the public housing development.
And it was Regent Park that became the key to Coleman and Lemieux's vision for integrating the arts into urban planning. "We are a point of synergy with the whole Regent Park community," Coleman says. "The character of the Citadel will grow with the neighbourhood."
The housing project is being developed by Toronto Community Housing Corporation and its private- sector partner, the Daniels Corporation. "Mitchell Cohen, president of Daniels, came to talk to us as a sort of welcome to the neighbourhood," Coleman says. "He thought it important that artists be involved in Regent Park."
And the couple jumped right in. In 2009, they presented On Broken Ground, which included choreography amid the mud of the construction site and a ballet for backhoes. In a show called The New World for the 2010 Luminato Festival, they choreographed the student/teacher ceremony for the closing of Nelson Mandela Public School for renovations, and the opening of Cole Street, the first new road in Regent Park. Ongoing plans include pay-what-you-can yoga classes and free youth dance classes.
Two of Canada's most distinguished dancer/choreographers, the couple met and married when they were both members of Toronto Dance Theatre. Lemieux, 47, was born in Quebec City, and Coleman, 50, in Berwick, N.S. They founded their company, Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, in 2000, after a move to Montreal in 1999.
In part, the lure of Montreal was Quebec's excellent daycare system; Lemieux was pregnant with their second child. She also wanted her children to be raised in the francophone culture that was her heritage. For Coleman, it was the stimulation of fresh pastures and working with new people.
Artistically, Montreal was a success. The couple performed with iconic choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault, among others, while also creating their own repertoire. But there was a problem. "Although I was born in Quebec," says Lemieux, "I was regarded as an outsider, maybe because I had established my professional career in Toronto."
As Coleman points out, being outsiders made them want to reconnect with the vibrant Toronto dance community, particularly choreographer James Kudelka. On a personal note, a move back to Toronto meant that their children, Jimmy, now 15, and Juliette, now 12, could be day students at Canada's National Ballet School, where they were both successful auditionees.
What makes the Citadel ideal is its width. Older buildings in the downtown core tend to be narrow, but the Citadel's 25-foot frontage has allowed for the second-floor 1,800-square-foot studio/ theatre, and the small 900-sq.-ft. yoga/rehearsal studio downstairs. The Coleman/Lemieux family live on the third floor, which also contains a guest suite for visiting artists.
The couple had help with their project: After learning that architectural firm Diamond + Schmitt did pro bono work for a non-profit organization every year, they applied with their project. The result was a design by Robert Boyd, and a renovation that was two and a half years in the making. The couple has also done much fundraising on their own, both from governments and the private sector, to cover the $2-million tab.
"In the dance world, we're known as risk takers, and buying and renovating the Citadel has been a huge risk," Lemieux says. "We hope we've created a safe place for the arts that is affordable, accessible and welcoming."
A personal tribute
To inaugurate the Citadel as a performance space for contemporary dance, Laurence Lemieux has created a very personal solo in honour of her father, Vincent.
She took the title of her piece, Les cheminements de l'influence (Pathways of Influence), from a book written by Vincent Lemieux in 1979. He is considered one of the most eminent political scientists in Quebec.
"Of course I can't dance political science, per se," says Lemieux, "but I can pay tribute to my father's life-long research into the Quebec people. There are also similarities between his approach to pure science, and my approach to choreography – his scientific path, and my artistic path, and the way they converge, his visionary fusion of the practical and the theoretical, and my vision to create movement with meaning. In digging into his story, I can begin to understand where I'm from, where I fit into that story."
The sound score, by Gordon Monahan, contains piano passages merged with a soundscape of political speeches and interviews from Quebec politics.
Les cheminements de l'influence runs at Toronto's Citadel from Feb. 15 to 25.