When audiences attend Toward Light: A Tribute to Rachel Browne in Toronto and Vancouver this month, they will see eight dances that capture the essence of the late and much mourned matriarch of Canadian modern dance.
The prolific Browne passed away on June 9, 2012, at age 77, leaving a repertoire of more than 80 pieces. The works on the program span 48 years, from her first choreography, the joyous solo Odetta's Songs and Dances (1964), to the poignant trio Momentum (2012), which premiered a month before her death. The tribute involves a huge cast of more than 20 performers, ranging in age from teens to dancers in their 50s.
The Philadelphia-born Browne moved to Winnipeg from New York to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but her heart was always in modern dance. She founded one of Canada's first modern dance companies, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers (WCD), in 1964. When she stepped down as its artistic director in 1983, she continued to contribute as a freelance choreographer.
Browne's role as a pioneer in the development of modern dance in Canada is monumental. Through the School of Contemporary Dancers, which she established in Winnipeg in 1972, and her work with other training institutions across the country, she helped to nurture and inspire countless choreographers and dancers. Her teaching, workshops, master classes and residencies are a huge part of her legacy.
One piece on the program is dedicated to dance students. In each of the performance cities, eight local students of dance will perform Willow Island (1997), Browne's lyrical paean to nature and her beloved cottage on Lake Winnipeg.
Stephanie Ballard, archivist for the School of Contemporary Dancers and legacy adviser to WCD, performed with the company for 11 years. She considers herself one of Browne's dance "daughters."
"The way Ray worked with individual dancers – shaping them, moulding them, setting physical challenges – her incredible attention to detail and nuance," Ballard recalls, "was an experience you never forgot."
Brent Lott, the current WCD artistic director, is another of Browne's dance children, her "kids" as she called them. He performed in Browne's works during her indie career. "Ray was my mentor," he says. "She was the biggest influence in my dance life. She always was supportive of my career. In fact, once she took an interest in you, it was a lifelong commitment."
When asked what constitutes a Rachel Browne signature work, Lott says: "Ray used movement as communication. Each piece is carefully crafted; the physicality for each moment is deliberately chosen. There is nothing superfluous. Everything is pared down to the essentials."
Speaking about Browne's creative process, Lott reveals what made the dance champion so iconic. "She would come into the studio completely prepared, the movement totally thought out, which she would then give to the dancers. She never talked about what a piece was about, and would only comment on the physical task. And yet, in the act of performing, the meaning would become clear."
Toward Light will be performed at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre on Saturday and Vancouver's Scotiabank Dance Centre on Tuesday.