A middle-aged man who looks and sounds like a college kid. A limber dancer in a heavy, itchy felt suit. A bespectacled figure ruminating amid a stuffed coyote, plastic bags full of goldfish, and a tangle of oven racks. You’re watching Christopher House, an intellectual force in the flighty North American dance scene, performing in his own hour-long Nest, which Toronto Dance Theatre performs at the Joyce from January 22 through 27.
The troupe’s dancing style, when the 12 performers finally burst into action, is both precise and free, with bodies bounding through an empty space bathed in amber light. Nest‘s narrative engages biology, architecture, literature, and the organic art of Joseph Beuys. Though the 33-year-old company is grounded in Graham technique, few vestiges of traditional “modern” sensibility remain in the look of these athletic, intense dancers. Casually dressed, the women as sturdy as and sometimes larger than the men, they appear completely at ease in their skins. Sometimes they appear in nothing but their skins; in an early moment a bare-chested man brush-paints Asian calligraphy on the nude back of a woman.
“I read somewhere,” House intones in voice-over as this process unfolds, “that choreography means writing on the body. That’s wrong. Choreography means writing with the body.”
Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the era when bilingualism and biculturalism were becoming central to Canada’s self-image, House attended the eastern province’s Memorial University “with the idea of going into the foreign service,” since “it was certainly not an option for a young man to take dancing.” He became friendly with the members of CODCO, the hilarious improvisational comedy troupe based in St. John’s, and then transferred to McGill, in Montreal, majoring in East Asian studies and learning Chinese, which, he notes, is “a tonal language.” Twenty years later, when he went to Beijing with the company, he found he was able to use his Chinese: “It was a nice closing of the circle.”
Still seeking his right livelihood, he made his way to Toronto, where he visited the TDT school, and then to the University of Ottawa, where he first took dance classes, studying with Elizabeth Langley.
“It took me about 20 minutes to realize that was exactly what I wanted to be doing: a lot of improvisation,” says House, back in Manhattan for a visit 24 years after he first arrived in 1977. He made that first pilgrimage at the height of the dance boom, studying ballet with Alfredo Corvino (who will receive the Martha Hill Award at a ceremony here on January 18) and dancing with a variety of experimental choreographers. He recalls waiting in line at 8 a.m. for standing-room tickets to see Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland perform.
Now, he says, “that concentration of energy and belief is in abeyance. It’s just a different time.” After acquiring “a few positive clips that legitimized what I was doing,” he returned to Canada, and began dancing professionally at Toronto Dance Theatre, then 10 years old, in 1978.
“I found it attractive. I was a jumper and a quick mover—their technique was everything I couldn’t do.” The company’s founders, David Earle, Patricia Beatty, and Peter Randazzo, were still in action then.
“I learned so much from David about art and art history,” he observes. “I came along just after Danny Grossman [a Paul Taylor dancer who emigrated to Canada] had left the company to start his own troupe. I was in the right place at the right time. Next thing I knew I was a choreographer. My stuff was different enough from his, and I was always making something new. All through the ’80s, I really didn’t look up at all.”
House has directed TDT since 1994, in a slow transition during which, at first, not much of interest was produced. “I tried to make everybody happy. There were way too many compromises. We had a big turnover in personnel about three years ago, giving me the core group I’m working with now.”
Benjamin Harkarvy, a longtime friend who now directs the dance program at New York’s Juilliard School, told him to set a really big challenge for himself. “I went away to Banff, and just disappeared,” says House. “It would either be the beginning of something new, or the last piece I ever did. The epiphany was, I could use whatever I want in my work! I had a modernist aesthetic, borderline austere—I thought that if it couldn’t be expressed in dance, it wasn’t worth doing. But I did a lot of reading, got in touch with my more cerebral side. I found a way to include different parts of myself, to acknowledge my ambivalence about the hazards of the creative process.”
He hasn’t retired from the stage, he says: “I just keep forgetting to be in things. But dancing’s the most fun, the frontline experience.” He seems content with his job, though cognizant of massive changes in Canadian and American governmental support of the arts. “We’ve done really well, weathered the storms. But the touring markets have disintegrated, and presenting programs have fallen apart. In Toronto, there’s an actual dance audience, regular people who go to dance all the time and have an understanding of what they’re looking for.”
There’s something faintly professorial—though hardly absentminded—about House, who appears much younger than his 46 years. His father, a neurologist, is the lieutenant governor of Newfoundland, and a pioneer in developing techniques for using computers to assist medical diagnosis over great distances.
If House had his career to do over again, he says, “I would have done it differently, enjoyed my dancing more. But because I never really wore myself out, I’m still happy to go and do workshops.” He’s studied recently with contact-improvisation pioneer Danny Lepkoff and choreographer Stephanie Skura, and takes a central role in Nest, his first full-length work, which premiered to rave reviews in Toronto in 2000.
Nest is not his newest choreography; that honor belongs to Severe Clear, the result of a commission from the Yukon Arts Center that took him on a wilderness trek: whitewater rafting, hiking, and swimming in the Arctic Sea. “I was reading Bruce Chatwin, and being shadowed by a journalist. I realized that I would have access to documentation of everything that happened on the trip. So I had exactly the ammunition I needed for the next piece. It’s about how you develop your official memory of an event when you’re traveling, which has to do with storytelling. You experience however many billion nervous impulses. It gradually gets filtered down—you embroider things, and lie a bit.”
So why isn’t he bringing Severe Clear to the Joyce? “I thought it would be a little bit too innocent to present in New York, maybe too specifically Canadian. People sing in it.”
In Nest, House quotes Virginia Woolf and bursts naked out of a cocoon. He’s probably made the right decision.