by Deirdre Kelly
photography by McKenzie James
In 1981, as a recent graduate from York University’s dance program and still wet behind the ears, company member Christopher House (BFA ’79) became the first resident choreographer of Toronto Dance Theatre. It was a startling appointment. Then just 26, the wiry Newfoundland native had discovered a love of dance only a few years earlier when, as a political science student in Ottawa, he took a movement class as an elective.
Shifting academic gears, House came to York to study under influential dance pedagogue Grant Strate, who introduced him to choreography, pushing his hand. House’s first work, a solo entitled Timpan Reel, debuted at a student choreographic workshop on the Keele Campus in 1979. Remarkably, and showing just how quickly he could learn, House’s next two pieces were for TDT, one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies.
Founded in 1968 as a repertory company, TDT had hit a rough patch by the time House joined. Beset by financial difficulties and charmless homegrown creations, its future looked uncertain. House’s hire, endorsed by TDT founders David Earle, Patricia Beatty and Peter Randazzo, was meant to see the company through a difficult period, to give it a reason to live.
The son of a prominent physician, House did not disappoint. His first works for the company included Toss Quintet, set to the music of Steve Reich. The Globe and Mail, in a one-sentence review, called it “an oasis,” adding that House’s “subtle momentum, … filled with movements that swung, soared and allowed the dancers to let loose,” would nourish the financially and artistically withered company, helping it grow. Those words now read prophetic.
Nearly 40 years later, TDT is not only still alive, it is blooming. That’s all thanks to House, who advanced through the ranks to become artistic director in 1994, a position he still holds today. Over the past 25 years, under his guidance, TDT has become an internationally recognized company, touring Europe and Central and South America, in addition to major cities in the U.S.
As principal choreographer, he has added over 60 works to a repertoire that keeps on expanding and attracting critical acclaim. Collaborations with international dance artists, including those from Germany, Belgium, India, France and the U.S., have consistently given TDT a global presence and edge. For his achievements in dance, in 2017 House became a Member of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honours. Not bad for someone who found dance comparatively late in life.
“He’s always thinking about his creative process,” says Rosemary James (BA ’04; MA ’06), TDT’s rehearsal director, who studied under House in the 1980s. “Usually that starts with a question about something he’s been thinking about at the time, and it’s developed through his research and his curiosity. He’s always challenging himself, be it working with visual artists or young choreographers. He’s a phenom.”
By anyone’s estimate, it’s been a brilliant career. Come June, it will come to an end when House, turning 65 this year, takes his final bow. He’s going out with a bang. Still dancing and going strong, he danced in November’s world premiere of RING, experimental choreographer Ame Henderson’s latest work for TDT. In May, he will perform I’ll Crane for You, a solo created for him by longtime artistic associate Deborah Hay – his swan song. In between are revivals of past works including Vena Cava, Madrigal and Echo Dark, opening at Toronto’s Winchester Street Theatre in February. “It’s something of a last chance; people will never see these works again,” says House. “I have accomplished what I set out to do. And now it’s time. I am leaving satisfied.” ■