She was a classically trained ballerina and feminist who literally let her hair down in the '60s when she left the precise and ethereal world of tights and tutus for the earthy, visceral realm of modern dance.
Rachel Browne may have broken ground for generations of dancers and choreographers, but the revered founder of Canada's oldest contemporary dance company wasn't finished blazing her own trail when she died suddenly last June at the age of 77.
"She was very prolific right up until the end. She premiered a piece a month before she died," says Brent Lott, artistic director of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers (WCD).
That piece, titled Momentum, will be featured in Toward Light: A Tribute to Rachel Browne, which begins its three-city tour with two performances in Winnipeg on Jan. 8 and 9. The show moves to Toronto on Jan. 12 and ends in Vancouver on Jan. 15.
Browne, the influential performer, choreographer and teacher who founded WCD in 1964 and its affiliated School of Contemporary Dancers in 1972, served as the company's artistic director for nearly 20 years. She died on June 9, 2012, while in Ottawa supporting students who were performing in the Canada Dance Festival.
The former Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer (1957-61), who's been called the matriarch of modern dance in Canada, created more than 80 original works during a career that saw her perform on stage up until the age of 75.
Choosing just eight signature works to celebrate Browne's "fearless" life and showcase the scope and depth of her creative achievement was no easy feat, says Stephanie Ballard, her fellow choreographer and friend of 40 years.
"She went through so many choreographic stages. And there's so much growth that happens, especially when you're as alive and vibrant as Rachel was," says Ballard, artistic adviser for the tribute tour.
"She was a tough cookie and she made a lot of things happen in this country with modern dance and dance in general."
The first step in putting together the tribute show, Lott says, was to meet with Ballard and Browne's three daughters (Ruth Asper, Miriam Browne and Annette Browne). The five brainstormed around a table covered with index cards bearing titles of Browne's choreographies.
"We set parameters, too," he says. "We wanted to make sure the evening reflected some of her feminist work and some of her intergenerational work and that it had a legacy element to it because a lot of her work lately has been about passing on or passing down."
Browne created Momentum, Lott notes, specially for three dancers who graduated from the professional program of the School of Contemporary Dancers in 2012. The trio are among the 21 performers who will pay homage to her on the Winnipeg stage.
The tribute show -- the title of which is taken from a 1995 Browne work and also Carol Anderson's 1999 biography, Dancing Toward the Light -- will open with Odetta's Songs and Dances, the first piece Browne choreographed for WCD in 1964.
Based on the music of American folksinger and civil rights activist Odetta, it reflects Browne's passion for giving women a strong voice through the arts. The performance will recreate the three suites, Lott says, right down to costumes constructed from the patterns used in 1964.
"It's five woman dancing what is obviously outdated choreography, but we were talking to someone who danced this piece an awful lot -- (Browne's former muse) Gaile Petursson-Hiley -- and she said, 'You have to remember when we danced that, we felt like liberated women. Our hair was not in buns, it was down. We weren't wearing stockings and we weren't wearing pointe shoes. And we were moving our bodies in new ways.'"
An intense and tenacious performer and teacher who demanded dedication, Browne would give her dancers "almost impossible" physical tasks. It was always about the physicality of the movement, Lott says.
"She'd say she wanted it bigger, she wanted it faster, she wanted more edge to it, or more clarity between fast footwork and a slow-moving torso," he recalls. "She was always asking you to do it better, and it was in the effort, in seeing you try, that made her most happy."
One of the pieces in the tribute, 1991's Freddy, which is set to the music of German composer Kurt Weill, is so aerobically challenging, Lott says, dancer Johanna Riley has been running it every day in order to build up the stamina for her six-minute solo.
Toward Light will close with 2002's Sunstorm, which Browne dedicated to family, friends, colleagues and medical staff who supported her through hip replacement surgery.
"It's very autobiographical. She didn't say that, but we as the dancers could figure that out," says Lott, who was among the original cast. The 38-minute piece, based on Chopin's 24 Preludes, has been condensed to just over 14 minutes, with a focus on the sections that reflect Browne's later life.
Toward Light: A Tribute to Rachel Browne will have audiences smiling right off the hop, says Lott, and for those mourning the loss of the dance world's "grande dame," of course, some of the pieces are sure to be emotional. During rehearsals, he says, it was hard to watch Odette Heyn performing All My Trials, the final suite from her 1964 debut work and Browne's signature solo for many years, without getting choked up.
"There's hardly been a day around here where there hasn't been some tears somewhere."
The Rachel Brown tribute tour kicks off in Winnipeg on Jan. 8 with a gala at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre (MTYP, at The Forks) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $75 each, with a $50 charitable tax credit.
Tickets for the Jan. 9 show, also at 8 p.m., are $25 for adults, $20 for seniors and students. Tickets for both shows are available through Ticketmaster or www.winnipegscontemporarydancers.ca.
Launching a legacy
Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers will kick off its three-city tour of Toward Light: A Tribute to Rachel Browne in Winnipeg on Jan. 8 with a fundraising gala.
The gala, which takes place at 8 p.m. at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre (MTYP, at The Forks) will launch the Rachel Browne Trust, created to preserve and disseminate the modern dance icon's body of 80-plus original works. Tickets are $75, with a $50 charitable tax receipt. The trust will be administered by Browne's three daughters and managed by WCD. The fundraising goal is $200,000.
A life on the stage
Toward Light, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers tribute to founder Rachel Browne, will feature eight of its iconic founders signature works:
Odetta's Songs and Dances (excerpts, 1964): The first piece Browne created for Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers, the company she founded in 1964
Momentum (2012): Browne's final work, which she created for three dancers for their graduation from the School of Contemporary Dancers' professional program
Freddy (1991): Satirical compositions, featuring the music of German composer Kurt Weill, created in Germany between the two world wars, capture the tone of social decadence that characterized that era
Willow Island (1997): Inspired by Browne's summer home on Lake Winnipeg, this work was created for the 25th anniversary of the School of Contemporary Dancers' professional program
Radiance (2011): A solo created for dancer Kristin Haight and dedicated to the memory of Babs Asper, this was the Browne's last work to be presented by WCD
My Romance (1990): Set to the music of Rogers and Hart and Hoagy Carmichael, this piece was created for Browne's daughter Miriam
KJ4 (1994): an ensemble piece originally called KJ3, it was commissioned by Toronto's Canadian Children's Dance Theatre and later remounted at the School of Contemporary Dancers in Winnipeg and by the students of the School of Toronto Dance Theatre
Sunstorm (excerpts, 2002): Featuring Chopin's 24 Preludes, the creation of this dance coincided with Browne's recovery from hip replacement surgery and she dedicated it to the people who supported her through that ordeal