CHRISTOPHER HOUSE: AHEAD OF THE CURVE

By Rosemary HOUSE

RINK RAT PRODUCTIONS - as PROD

Documentary - Completed 2007

Christopher House is Canada's beloved modern dance maestro, and artistic director of the popular and internationally acclaimed Toronto Dance Theatre. This intimate exploration of the art of choreography, stimulates as it entertains with its story of an artist and his search for inspiration.

    • Year of production
    • 2007
    • Genres
    • Documentary
    • Countries
    • CANADA
    • Languages
    • ENGLISH
    • Duration
    • 48 mn
    • Director(s)
    • Rosemary HOUSE
    • Writer(s)
    • Rosemary HOUSE
    • Producer(s)
    • Mary SEXTON (Rink Rat Productions Inc.), Rosemary HOUSE (Rock Island Productions, Inc.)
    • Synopsis
    • In his early years of voracious reading, when he had first discovered his artistry, my brother, Christopher House, pursued an intellectual life with great rigor, educating himself in art, literature and philosophy. At some point years ago, I came across a note-book listing his yearly reading, and was frankly astounded at his extraordinary appetite for knowledge and at the discipline and focus required to learn so intensely. He was always the brain of the family.
      We lived together for a year in Ottawa when he was 19. He had already left St. John’s behind him. I was going to Carleton and he was at the University of Ottawa, studying philosophy and Chinese (which he predictably aced) and aiming for a diplomatic career.
      A year later he suddenly discovered his true life as a performing artist, a dancer and almost simultaneously, a dancemaker. He moved to Toronto and has been there ever since. It was a radical shift; he was also leaving behind the still crucifying intolerance of the 70’s for gays and lesbians and finding an entire community where he could be at home anew. The parents were taken aback to say the least but soon the great reviews started coming and it’s hard to argue with success. The rest is history.
      He has guided the artistic direction of Toronto Dance Theatre for the last 12 of the 25 years he’s been with the company. As dancer, principal choreographer and artistic director he has been at the heart of the company’s enduring success and international stature. He currently has perhaps the most beautiful ensemble of dancers in Canada: he considers the dancers themselves to be a profoundly important element of his art. They translate what he imagines – they put his art in motion.
      Christopher’s work has evolved from shorter pieces marked by musicality and technical precision to full-length multi-media productions. He has received glowing reviews in newspapers around the world: his latest full length dance, which just premiered at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, on June 2, was lauded by the Globe and Mail’s Paula Citron as ‘dazzling’, ‘a work of such brilliance that it is ahead of the curve’ and ‘among the greatest dances ever created in Canada’. He has fame and recognition in his adopted city of Toronto and the enduring respect of the international dance community. TDT has performed in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Beijing…..
      Christopher is an aesthete of sorts, an intellectual certainly, serious and disciplined, rigorous in his powerful work ethic. But he is no monk. He leads a sophisticated big-city life and has a very active and eclectic social life. He is the very picture of an urban artist.
      But it is the rare Newfoundlander indeed who is able to resist the pull of his native land and Christopher is no exception. Over the years he has gone back regularly to St. John’s where he still has friends and family. This year is our father’s 80th birthday, and he’ll be home for the party. St. John’s is where Christopher was born and raised and he still slips back into the town like an old soft shoe. As we walk around St. John’s, tramping down the steep hills, gazing out to the harbour and the cliffs at the narrows to the great ocean beyond, we always feel the slight shock of knowing we’re at the very edge of a continent, that we are standing in the New Found Land.
      And then there is ‘around the bay’, in our case Glovertown, where Dad is from and where we all go whenever we can. We stay in our parents’ house at the head of Alexander Bay, a spectacular vista of sea and hills stretching into the distance, with the town strung along the wide arc of a bay that becomes another bay and so on and so on through island after island for twenty five miles down to open water. We always go out in the boat, always. We motor out through the channel and into the miles of watery roads taking us past rocky islands and green pastures, tiny fishing villages and wharves and bald eagles perched like sentinels in the tallest trees.
      Our experience on and of the water is very dear. We spent every summer of our childhood in Glovertown and the first thing we did when we got there was climb Buck’s Hill as fast as we could, and then we’d go out in the boat. By the time Christopher was ten he could take the little putt-putt out on his own and we spent days roaming round the wharves and endlessly clambering over rocks and fishing for sculpins (ugliest fish known to man) and avoiding hideous jelly-fish (gross!) and collecting sea urchins (cute!).
      Visiting Glovertown is an exercise in memory. As soon as you drive into this oasis of tranquility, time becomes suspended, because Buck’s Hill and the shady river and Billdick’s Head and the glassy water of the evening and the sun sinking behind the hills ringing the bay is always there, even when you’re not. This is the place to catch those ephemeral elements of memory that in a way parallel the ephemeral nature of dance, which only truly lives in memory itself.
      Christopher is always wanting to make the three hour drive, even when the weather is crap, which is usually; even when some of us would rather stay in St. John’s and go to the Ship for a drink. The ragged, rowdy port city of St. John’s is part of him as well. But hwile this isolated island is at the center of who he is, the man he has become is the consummate artist and urban sophisticate, a big-city artist with a million friends, or at least 100, assuming all the people who turned up for his 50th birthday like him as much as they say they do.
      In this past year Christopher directed and choreographed a tremendously enjoyable and accessible collaboration of dance and pop music called In the Boneyard, with Joel Gibbs and the alt-pop band The Hidden Cameras. It sold out every performance at Harbourfront. He recently spent two weeks in Banff with his dancers creating his new work: Timecode Break. The full-length dance piece incorporates film and video collage to create a world of fantasy, exploring the dynamic physicality of dream states and the often disturbing figures that occupy them. At the beginning of August he will rework the piece on Toronto Island (although from the sound of the Globe review it is hard to imagine that there is anything left to improve). Then he will go to Newfoundland, a far larger island, quite the opposite of Toronto Island in every way. One sits off the shores of a vast population, a towering, pulsing city. The other sits in the middle of nowhere, quite alone.
      In September he spends 10 days in Findhorn – famous, if not somewhat notorious for its spiritual-eco-artistic community and for gardens with tomatoes as big as volkswagen vans where people talk to plants and houses are constructed from large whiskey barrels. Christopher will be working with a British choreographer at Findhorn – 10 days to stretch the mind as he puts it.
      Ahead of the Curve will be a visually beautiful film – the gorgeous dancers and wonderful choreography will provide a visual fix to enchant and excite audiences everywhere. Movement and music are the constant companions of a dance-maker. And so is landscape. Which brings us to Toronto Island with its wonderful, almost bizarre lushness just minutes away from a massive big-city skyline. And to Newfoundland with its dramatic, mythic coastline and deep bays and its oddball, freakishly cosmo city at the very back of beyond. And to northern Scotland, where our mother’s family hails from, and its legendary landscapes of fen and loch and ancient castle walls. And then Christopher’s Toronto: his Queen Street East neighbourhood is a super strip of funky city chic; his loft condo, in an old factory, a beautiful, soaring room, filled with light and space. I envision Newfoundland at the core of the film and at the core of Christopher himself. And all around this island core is the city, the artist’s life, the work.
      It has been suggested that Christopher is somewhat of an island itself – an idea that the film can weave its heart around. Images from landscape and place and memory will provoke a compelling contemplation of art and performance, and of the mind that imagines and creates it. The things you take with you, the things you leave behind: this will resonate with people all across the country.
      You think about Newfoundland artists and it's always amazing what that place has produced. The rock and the sea, the folk, the stories, the struggle, the surge of self expression caught up with our sense of place and identity have given us writers, painters, actors and musicians all working on the world stage. But Newfoundland has also produced a dancer and choreographer at the forefront of Canadian modern dance whose work has likely been seen in more cities in more countries than any other Newfoundland born artist. But dance doesn’t work in these familiar ways of story and struggle – the more typical Newfoundland artistic expression – it has its own language, its own pure artistic manifestation which isn’t as easy to understand as a novel perhaps, but can grab hold of your heart in new and surprising and deeply emotional ways.
      As much as I want to explore the meaning of place to the artist’s soul I also want to explore the nature of dance and its startling beauty and strange originality. It just happens that Newfoundland is itself a place of startling beauty and strange originality. And that one of the country’s most celebrated choreographers comes from there. It’s a great starting point.
      I have excellent footage of rehearsal and performance from The Boneyard, shot this past fall. Nico Stagias shot a great deal of footage at the Banff Centre around the creation of Timecode Break. We would continue to shoot on Toronto Island, in Toronto, and of course in St. John’s and in Glovertown. Then to northern Scotland and back to Toronto as Christopher goes into rehearsals for TimeCode Break and its Toronto premiere at the end of October. Through rehearsals and performance we will have access to the creative process as it evolves. How does dance happen? How do we get from an idea in Christopher’s head to 15 dancers moving in an ensemble onstage through a complicated full-length performance piece? It’s a complex and lengthy process and I hope this film will give general audiences an insight into the meaning of dance that will make future dance experiences much richer.
      The vision of Ahead of the Curve is to capture Christopher interacting in the environments he chooses to inhabit, whether it be in rehearsal at the church on Winchester with its soaring stained glass windows, or working in the mountains of Banff, or creating on Toronto Island, or living in the hip streets of Toronto, going back to the source in Newfoundland or inhabiting the wilds of northern Scotland. I am fascinated by the juxtaposition of the sophisticated, intellectual urban environment with the wild rock and sea. Through these environmental interactions we thereby reveal something of who he is and how his art is found in his life. This interaction, along with conversation with friends and family will give audiences a delightful and entertaining look at a most charming and gifted and intelligent artist at the very peak of his creative powers, as well as insight into the artistic process and the meaning of memory and place in the artist’s soul.
    • Partners & financing
    • Rock Island Productions Inc.
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