How a few idealists danced their way to becoming one of Canada's most influential art institutions

When they came together in 1968 to form Toronto Dance Theatre, none of them thought they were starting a company that would last for 50 years.

Reflecting on five decades of the Toronto Dance Theatre

René Highway, Judith Hendin, Charles Flanders, Susan Macpherson, Peter Randazzo, Claudia Moore, Nancy Ferguson and Danny Grossman in 1977's A Simple Melody. (Andrew Oxenham/TDT)

When Peter Randazzo, Patricia Beatty and David Earle came together in 1968 to form Toronto Dance Theatre, none of them thought they were starting a company that would last for 50 years.

The trio had been working with various choreographers in New York and wanted to import some the technical and artistic approaches of modern dance from the Big Apple to the Big Smoke. In 1994, current artistic director Christopher House took the reins after working with the company since 1978, first as a dancer and later as a choreographer.

Toronto Dance Theatre founders Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo in 1968. (Toronto Dance Theatre)

Sustained through the combined efforts of hundreds of dancers and choreographers — not to mention countless managers, designers, musicians and technicians — the company has flourished from fledgling collective to international performance powerhouse, strutting their stuff at New York's Joyce Theatre, London's Royal Opera House, the opening ceremonies of the Pan Am Games and Montreal's Festival Transamériques.

As TDT enters its fifth decade, celebrated with a cross-Canada tour, CBC Arts chatted with a tiny smattering of artists who've helped to make it what it is today.

David Earle in 1978's Ray Charles Suite. (David Davis/TDT)

David Earle (co-founder and artistic director 1988-94) on the founding of TDT:

"In New York, we (Earle, Peter Randazzo, and Patricia Beatty) had seen no less than 40 great dance companies at work. We'd been monumentally influenced by the greatest artists of the 20th century and we wanted to make a kind of dance theatre that would offer powerful images that had an element of truth to them. We felt there was something that could be said through dance that could only be said through dance. We were three idealists and we wanted to offer something nourishing and powerful to people."

We felt there was something that could be said through dance that could only be said through dance. We were three idealists and we wanted to offer something nourishing and powerful to people.- David Earle, co-founder and artistic director 1988-94

Susan MacPherson (company dancer 1968-1981) on the early years of being a dancer and her continued relationship with the company:

"We toured so extensively in those days. I remember going through the Maritimes and crossing the Rockies, both by bus, flying in rickety little planes where half of us would be green with motion sickness by the time we landed. That was the way I got to see the country, not just the big cities but a lot of smaller towns too. In 97 or 98, I came back and started working at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre doing administration. I had no idea 50 years later I'd still be here, watching the company rehearse in the studio right below my office. Watching that kind of work is so life-affirming and uplifting. It's the reason I went into all this in the first place."

Coralee McLaren and Michael Sean Marye in 1988's Artemis Madrigals. (Cylla von Tiedemann/TDT)

Coralee McLaren (company dancer 1988-1998) on growing up inside TDT:

"Working together every day and touring together, it stops being a job at some point and you're just living, sleeping, eating and being with this group of people. There's a closeness and an intimacy that develops from spending that amount of time together — an understanding and involvement in each other's lives. And when you come to know people in that way, it absolutely influences what happens on stage. Your life together starts to shape the art you're making. A lot of people are pretty young when they start out in the dance world, so it's like family growing up together. I literally grew up at TDT."

A lot of people are pretty young when they start out in the dance world, so it's like family growing up together. I literally grew up at TDT.- Coralee McLaren, company dancer 1988-1998

Alana Elmer (company dancer since 2005) on artistic director Christopher House:

The first piece of Christopher's I saw was Nest in 2001 or 2002, I think, when I was still studying at the School. It had all of the elements of what I wanted to do and it was, I think, also a shift in his choreography where you really started seeing the personalities of the dancers on stage. Christopher was the thing that hooked me into the company and kept me here. I was in awe of how much he worked on his practice and I felt mentored by him. He didn't want just one way of being a dancer or an artist. He's always wanted to continue to explore what those things mean. That's made me really proud of the work we've done."

Graham McKelvie and Christopher House in 2000's Nest. (David Hou/TDT)

Pulga Muchochoma (company dancer since 2009) on what the rest of the artistic world can learn from TDT:

"As a dancer, you don't always have the privilege of being paid for what you do. And so being in TDT not only means having a kind of security that you don't have when you're freelance but also that you get to learn from the people you work with. It's a privilege that I get to be in a space with so many amazing people. Today, the company has so many international people from different cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages, thinking about dance and the body and the world in different ways. I think we need to teach the world more about how and why bringing different kinds of people together to have conversations and create things is good for all of us."

TDT on Tour with House Mix. January 11-March 10. Halifax, Moncton, Charlottetown, Saint John, Fredericton, Vancouver, Edmonton, Vernon, BC, Whitehorse and Duncan, BC. www.tdt.org

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