Skip to main content

Jeanne Robinson with her husband, Spider Robinson, relected in a window behind her in Halifax in 1986.

Choreographer and author Jeanne Robinson, 62, took her final bow in North Vancouver on May 30 surrounded by friends and family including her husband of 35 years, novelist Spider Robinson.

Although her death was expected - she was losing an 18-month battle with cancer - friends say they can't believe the driven artist with the pioneering spirit is gone. She founded Halifax's first modern dance company, Nova Dance Theatre, and was working on a lifelong project to develop dance in zero gravity.

"I loved her gorgeous impatience: she was fierce. Determined. She hated to give up," says Pamela Anthony, who worked as Nova Dance's manager, and later (at Robinson's urging) became a dance critic.

Anthony recalls Robinson produced dance-theatre with richly imagined stories in an era when abstract dance was the North American fashion. She kept her eight-member company on the boards from 1980 to 1987, touring rural Nova Scotia on the strength of audience enthusiasm and her own tenacity. She was snubbed by the Canada Council, which irritated the outspoken Robinson, who snapped back at the bureaucrats in a 1985 interview with The Globe and Mail.

"Why they want nothing to occur [in dance]on the East Coast is beyond me," the new Canadian said.

Anthony suspects that they dismissed all Maritimers as "homespun artists" and didn't realize the Boston-born choreographer had an impeccable modern dance resume and a "distinct, fresh vision" for what dance could be.

Robinson was born Jeanne Rubbicco on March 30, 1948. She began dancing at 5 and knew from the moment she saw Jerome Robbins' West Side Story at 11 that she wanted to be a dance-maker. By 15 she was teaching. She studied at the Boston Conservatory and trained in New York with the major schools including Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Erick Hawkins. She danced with a Hawkins company alumna Beverly Brown and later commissioned her to choreograph for Nova Dance.

The passionate performer wound up in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley because, as she liked to remind people, she was a child of the sixties. She and her first husband, Daniel Corrigan, joined the back-to-the-land movement in 1972. She embraced Buddhism and became a disciplined practitioner who could sit zazen for hours, to the amazement of anyone who knew her restless physicality. Her teacher, Tenshin Reb Anderson, named her "Buchi Eihei" meaning "dancing wisdom, eternal peace," but her nickname in the Zen community was far more apt "wired Buddha."

Her marriage ended, but her love affair with Canada didn't, and in 1975 she met and married another ex-pat American, science fiction writer Spider Robinson.

In 1977 they wrote the first book of what would became the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning Stardance Trilogy. Spider later recalled that the saga began as a short story he cobbled together in a desperate bid for cash. (The two young artists were often broke.) To save time, he decided to write about a dancer in zero gravity assuming he could lean on his wife's expertise. But it wasn't long before she pointed out that the heroine wouldn't follow his plotline because "she wasn't that kind of a person." He realized her character judgments were as astute on the page as in person, and invited her to pull up a chair.

While the warm, big-hearted dancer with the deep spiritual side seemed an unlikely match for the wry, witty writer who often criticized religion (in his Globe and Mail columns, among other places) friends describe it as a brilliant marriage. Spider often joked that artists should never marry civilians and he recalls that he fell in love with her midway through the first time he saw her perform.

"She was my moral centre," Spider said, after her death. "She made me a better man and she made me a better writer - I had nothing to say before I met her. When I put pages in front of her, I could tell from the look in her eye if it was any good … and disappointing her was unthinkable."

Daughter Terri Luanna da Silva says that her parents had a deep understanding of each other because they both knew what it meant to have a calling. But she thinks her mother's greatest talent was her ability to love others unconditionally.

"She was the most compassionate person I've ever known. She was accepting of people: To her, everyone was significant and she got to know them, their whole histories," da Silva says, noting that her mother inspired her own career as a social worker.

After Robinson closed her company in the late 1980s, the family moved to Vancouver where she continued writing and working on her interest in zero-g dance. Robinson had been short-listed for NASA's Civilians in Space program, which ended with the Challenger explosion, but she kept her dream of weightless dance alive with a film project called Stardance. In 2007, she finally experimented with being a stardancer through a company that offers flights in 727s that do aerobatic manoeuvres called parabolas, which simulate zero gravity.

Robinson also leaves behind her granddaughter Marisa, 1, her mother Dorothy Rubbicco, four sisters - Kathy Rubbicco, Laura O'Neil, Mary Rodericks, and Dori Legge - and her son-in-law Heron da Silva.