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Oration honouring Christopher House

Tuesday, May 25, 3 p.m.

The registrar stands before you and has confidently certified all the undergraduates for their degrees. He is a little less comfortable now because this last candidate is actually a MUN dropout. Christopher House started in Philosophy and Political Science at Memorial and he is only here today to claim the degree that he abandoned in 1974. Truth, however, must always get in the way of a good story, and it has to be said that he did complete his initial studies at Ottawa, and, having been drawn into dance through a movement class, went on to do a Fine Arts degree at York.

Nonetheless, there is a neat circularity about his progress backwards to this our stage. Indeed one can argue that those academic subjects undertaken at Memorial have very clearly influenced his dance work. From his studies in philosophy, rooted as it is in the Greeks, we find at least two of his dance pieces: Persephone’s Lunch and Echo’s Object. And if we extract the science from political science – not such a stretch, Chancellor, if you see what Mr. House has done with some of his themes – you will find, from biology, programmed cell death in Nest, the idea that our skin is a major organ in Sly Verb, and, from physics, particle theory in Dis/(sol/ver). This broad learnedness is something that he shares with Martha Graham whose monumental work in American dance so strongly shaped the directions of Christopher’s predecessors in Toronto Dance Theatre. To this learnedness he brings the additional dimension of dry humour, a capacity to parody the art and the learning. It all may take a new turn in the future as he was recently observed playing with a bunch of seafarer’s knots. Will a rereading of The Shipping News be the basis of his next production?

Having come late to dance and without the standard background in ballet that many of his colleagues might have had, he was both cautious and adventurous. Christopher joined Toronto Dance Theatre in 1978 and, by 1981, was resident choreographer, by 1994 artistic director, making TDT the premiere dance troupe in Canada. He has been able to achieve this in part because of his own capacity for reflection and change. This applies as much to the inventive subjects of his pieces as to his techniques. His work is all about relationships between objects, bodies, souls. His dance piece, Severe Clear, done 10 years ago, is based on a journey to the Canadian Arctic; Echo’s Object looks at narcissism and the instability of gender roles; his most recent, Pteros Tactics, looks at desire. At one point he realized that he had to make the movement take precedence over the music, the choreographer over the composer and to assert the art of the dance. This principle he also applied to the other supporting arts, so when he, in the extraordinary piece Timecode Break, used video, he used it with such great care that the videography gave a new dimension to the dancing allowing variant images, variant views on particular movements, but always ensuring that the video was integral to the whole composition, no mere adjunct to it.

And yet, for all this care and control, he is ever alert to what his dancers can offer to any composition, is open to their inventiveness in the ensemble. As he says, the dancers he collaborates with “are the reason it all happens. They are the inspiration for the work.” In doing this Christopher House answers the question Yeats put almost a century ago, “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” by making clear that, in high art, no such distinction should be made.

It is not surprising then, Chancellor, that his work is so highly regarded. His Timecode Break, described by the Globe’s Paula Citron as “a work of such brilliance that it is ahead of the curve," won three Dora Mavor Moore awards in 2007. And further testament to that regard is the fact that Christopher House has been asked to choreograph work for Ballet Gulbenkian of Portugal, the National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. José Saramago, the Portugese novelist, has said “God is the silence in the universe and man the cry that gives meaning to that silence.” If we are to ask ourselves how man delivers that silent cry we would answer it is through dance and the dance of Christopher House its finest expression, an expression of the multi-foliate meaning of humanity: what we have discovered, how we relate, what we are. Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters (honoris causa), Christopher House.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator