David Earle

Dancer, Choreographer


It is a tribute to our community that a person of David Earle’s depth of perception and vision has chosen Elora as his home. He loves the river and its stone buildings reminiscent of the old world of Europe and pioneer days in Canada. Elora, David reminds us, is an area rich with natural wonder, a place that was sacred to people before us. It should not be treated simply like a playground. The value of beauty goes beyond that.

“I’ve paid attention to everything, all my life.” This statement opens the door to an understanding of the remarkable career of David Earle, pioneer of modern dance in Canada, esteemed teacher and master choreographer of over a hundred works. Honoured by many awards, including the Order of Canada, David continues to be a man of refreshing directness, simplicity, and spirituality. He writes: “I am not interested in that which is new as much as I am in what is true.”

It was this truth in movement which drew him to modern dance. In the words of his mentor Martha Graham, “I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.”

David studied acting at Ryerson, followed by four years of study on a scholarship at the National Ballet School. During this time he saw the Lithuanian dancer, Yoni Kvietys, performing the Laban technique in Toronto. Modern dance had seldom been seen in Canada at that date, and the power of the idiom to convey emotion opened vast horizons of personal expression to David. He trained with Yoni Kvietys and performed with her company before leaving Canada in search of other teachers.

He first explored this new vocabulary of movement at the American School of Dance. It was here that José Limón made the statement that set the direction for David’s future teaching: “Of course, we cannot teach you how to dance in six weeks, but we can hopefully give you back something of yourselves.” At the same time David met the greatest influence on his career, Martha Graham, a dancer whose innovative and humane physical language remains the basis of his work to this day. David is counted in that seminal generation of artists inspired and trained at Graham’s New York studio on 63rd Street who have changed dance throughout the world.

Later, when David was dancing with the José Limón Dance Company in New York, an extraordinary opportunity came to work in London, England. The Martha Graham Dance Company was touring in Britain, but Graham’s style, spirit, and social values were not understood. However, a wealthy recluse, Robin Howard, was so moved by the performances that he re-engaged with life, offering to establish the struggling dance company in London at his expense. Graham, whose identity was strongly American, felt unable to accept the offer. Howard then financed the London Contemporary Dance School and Company, which espoused Graham’s concepts. David joined the new company, later becoming assistant to director Robert Cohan.

 My dancers have always been individuals, powerful and clear. They have touched people profoundly on every continent.

The late ‘60s saw many Canadians dancers return from abroad to share the evolving performance scene in Canada; David also returned to Toronto. In 1967, he joined with Peter Randazzo and Patricia Beatty to present “Fragments”, a work to a score by Martha Graham’s conductor Eugene Lester, choreographed by Peter Randazzo and presented by Patricia Beatty’s New Dance Group of Canada. It was enthusiastically received. In response, David, Peter Randazzo, and Patricia Beatty co-founded the Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) in 1968. Theirs became the first Canadian company to devote its training and repertoire exclusively to modern dance.

Canada loved them. “There was a growing appetite for more freedom of expression,” David says; “this was the ‘60s, and people were experimenting with consciousness”. The eight dancers of the TDT toured internationally, electronic music was introduced, and only original choreography was presented. In 1979 David initiated the TDT Professional Training Program, and in 1987 he was appointed sole artistic director of the company. He writes: “My dancers have always been individuals, powerful and clear. They have touched people profoundly on every continent.”

Interwoven with these developments has been David’s prolific creation in dance choreography. He recounts how, when he was about four years old, he loved to take handfuls of buttons from the bins at his father’s Toronto button factory. He would bring them home and form patterns with them, designating roles through style and colour, moving them about as he later patterned his choreography. Even today he will cry “Stop!” as he drives along the road and sees a grouping of cows or a pattern of trees latent with potential for his work. Each choreographic creation has a corresponding journal filled with handwritten notes, texts of inspiration, and images from his own rich photography and other visual sources, ancient and modern.

In 1996, David left the TDT. It was a painful departure. He felt that the institution, the establishment, had taken over. But his great repertoire of choreography remains his alone, to set on his newly founded company Dancetheatre David Earle, or any group he deems worthy of its authentic interpretation. “I’ve spent my whole life sharing and collaborating. Now the time is very limited, the wisest use of my last years would be to devote them to my own vision.” The first performance of his company was at the Elora Festival in the summer of 1997, and they have performed constantly ever since.

… the ability to achieve the exceptional is worth all the hours, days, weeks, months and years of effort.

David views recent changes in his life as an energizing rebirth. His soft, thoughtful voice and calm exterior mask a drive to create, consolidate, and teach. His breadth of association in the world of dance and music brings many commissions, and recording his original works on film is a project just begun.

In the present effort to establish a physical centre for the arts in the old Elora Junior School building, David is a moving force, urging us to seek quality and strong identity. Dance must take its place as one of the roots of this endeavour. The potential of the spacious third-floor room of the school, with its huge windows and hardwood floors, leads his ever-creative spirit to plan and dream.

Of his own future David says: “When birth and death and love are out of fashion, then I’ll know that my work is no longer relevant.”

by Beverley Cairns, November 2001

UPDATE – 2005

In June 2004 David Earle gave a Convocation Speech at Sheridan College in which he endeavoured to express in words the wellsprings of his silent art. He affirms, “The ability to achieve the exceptional is worth all the hours, days, weeks, months and years of effort.” David is greatly influenced by the visual, deriving inspiration from images, paintings and cinema, and keeps his camera close at hand. His photography is frequently exhibited. He continues to explore the expressive potential of the human body through Dancetheatre David Earle, which now make its home at Temple Studios in Guelph. Unfortunately, because of problems of commuting, he no longer lives in Elora. A book will be published on all David Earle’s choreographic works, so, as he says – all his children will be known and all be described. In July 2004, he received an award from the Canada Council of ten thousand dollars for his project to create, recover and record the lifelong relationships that have been his greatest reward.

David gives this message, “Every moment is a miracle. To learn to take possession of it, that is the task”. And, “Care passionately – take a stand. Share your existence in Life and in Art.”

“Life is full,” David says. His projects seem too many to count. Commissions lie ahead. Queen’s University honoured David with a Doctorate of Law degree in June 2004.