The School of Toronto Dance Theatre was established in 1968 by the founders of Toronto Dance Theatre: Patricia Beatty, David Earle, and Peter Randazzo. All three had studied under the iconic modern dance pioneer Martha Graham in New York, and their decision to open a company and school in Toronto propelled Canadian dance in a radical new direction. The School was initially intended to provide a source of supplementary income for the founders’ artistic activities, as well as an opportunity to spread a new way of thinking and moving within the dance community.
In January 1978, after a decade of growth, the School incorporated separately from the company. In 1979 the Professional Training Program was established by David Earle, and together the company and School moved into the studios and offices of their current home at 80 Winchester Street.
Nearly five decades later, dance artists from our pool of over 1000 graduates contribute to the ongoing development of contemporary dance practice across Canada and around the world.
In the early days, a simple schedule of classes was posted and all classes were taught by company directors or members. Management and maintenance of the school was a communal effort, with senior students, especially scholarship students, taking on the responsibilities of cleaning, scheduling classes, arranging accompanists, helping the company in wardrobe, distributing posters for company performances, and stuffing envelopes with donation appeals.
The School began advertising in the early 70s, and formalized its own directorship by 1974, with Donald Himes and Marie Marchowsky (a student of Graham in the 30s) taking on duties as co-principals. Himes was a dancer and musician who had trained under Graham with TDT’s founders in New York in the 60s, as a complement to his ongoing development as a master teacher in Jacques Dalcroze’s Eurythmics system. By 1977, Himes was running the School’s programming on his own, with the help of a single assistant.
During this period, the school began to stretch out, developing autonomy while retaining a strong relationship with the company. Offerings included open professional classes, a popular recreational adult program, and introduction of a 12-week summer course. This summer intensive signalled a shift in focus towards structured recruitment of “serious” students who wanted to train as professional dancers. In the summer of 1977, the Canada Council for the Arts recognized these ambitions with the School’s first public sector funding, independent from company activities — a project grant of $10,000.
The school and the company shared a number of rented facilities for the first few years, before purchasing an old church and community centre at 80 Winchester Street. Renovations to convert the space into studios and a theatre were completed, and the Professional Training Program (PTP) was launched in 1979.
By 1981, Helen Jones and Christel Wallin (both former dancers with the Graham company in New York) were appointed co-directors of the School. Helen was also a featured dancer with Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT), and in spite of their formal backgrounds, both women worked hard to develop a curriculum that would expand the students’ horizons beyond the styles of either company. Although bound by these legacies, the wider goal was to prepare strong, versatile teachers and performers for a career in the field. Pedagogical connections were made through the introduction of Saturday creative movement classes for children.
While still heavily influenced by the aesthetics of the founders, core faculty, and frequent Graham guest teachers, the new directors worked to bring a variety of creative and stylistic viewpoints to the training. Course offerings expanded to include acting, voice, music, dance history, anatomy, improvisation, and composition. Guest teachers were brought in to expose dancers to Limón, jazz, ballet, and modern barre techniques. Repertory classes evolved into regular productions, and students began to develop and present their own choreography through workshops and community performances.
TDT dancer Billyann Balay took over as Principal in 1982, and worked to extend the one-year PTP into a full-time, three-year, post-secondary program. Her strong leadership style helped to raise the profile of the School, firmly cementing its reputation as a national training centre for modern dance. The progressive curriculum continued to develop, with the School offering strong foundational training, taught by working artists whose own careers would serve as inspiration to the students.
Balay left the School in 1992 to begin a long and distinguished career with the Ontario Arts Council. Longstanding faculty member and former TDT Artistic Director Kenny Pearl led the School through this transition. In 1993, the board of directors appointed Patricia Fraser as interim principal. With encouragement from the student body, Fraser was named Artistic Director in 1994, ushering in a new era that lasted over 25 years.
Following on her years of experience with Toronto’s Dancemakers, Fraser brought a fresh point of view to 80 Winchester, expanding the range of choreographic styles, pedagogical influences, and professional networking connections available to the students. She made a firm commitment to emphasize anatomically sound movement training while aiming to engage and support emerging artists at all levels of their growth. With vision anchored in operations, Fraser worked with a number of talented administrators to increase recognition and stable support for the PTP. In the early 2000s, the School received major funding increases, implemented a joint agreement with York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and was granted official status as a Private Career College.
Susan Macpherson, Patricia Miner, and Rosemary James took Fraser’s side as artistic associates, and the school broadened its horizons, expanding its roster of course offerings and guest artists. Investing in artistic potential and supporting professional development for faculty were key drivers for Fraser, as her team initiated partnerships that would open doors for career development and relationship building throughout the community.
Fraser commissioned new choreography and remounts of significant work from the repertoire of major Canadian artists, providing opportunities for both professional and emerging artists. In 2006, the School began a decades’ long collaborative performance project with the Canada Dance Festival and 5 other professional training programs across the country. Through this and the yearly showcases, the School presented hundreds of dances to audiences over 28 years, solidifying the organization’s importance in the ecology of dance training in Canada, and beyond.
Patricia Fraser’s retirement was announced in early 2021. An extensive search for a new director was conducted by a committee that included several PTP alumni.
In August 2021, Sasha Ivanochko assumed leadership of the School, with a bold vision to refresh and reignite the School’s core mission to prepare agential, creative artists for a career in the continuously evolving field of contemporary dance. Ivanochko is a provocative artist, and a passionate and dedicated pedagogue. As both a PTP graduate and former TDT company member, her vision for the School acknowledges our foundations, but from the place of where we are now in the continuum of the art form. Her student-centred curriculum incorporates newer techniques, promotes the understanding of a variety of lineages through a reconsidered dance history course, and increases the weight of improvisation, theory and composition in the program. To support the development of critical thinking and bolster literacy, the teaching philosophy of the School has shifted to a dialogic approach.
Sasha has high goals for student education and training. “The goal is to move beyond simply developing artists for the stage, but to prepare artists to participate ethically and knowledgeably in society.”
1968 – Founding of Toronto Dance Theatre – company and school
1974 – School advertises its classes for the first time
1977 – Canada Council project grant of $10,000
1978 – School incorporates as a legal entity with its own Board of Directors
1979 – School and company move into the newly renovated 80 Winchester Street facility
1979 – Professional Training Program established
1982 – PTP students become eligible for OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Plan)
1988 – student performances at the Aberdeen International Youth Festival
1997 – School’s PTP is one of the original recipients of the National Arts Training Program at Canadian Heritage (now the Canada Arts Training Fund)
2004 – School establishes a joint program with York University’s dance department
2005 – School obtains status as a Private Career College
2006 – Beginning of longstanding partnership to present biannual performances at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, in collaboration with 5 sister schools (The School of Contemporary Dancers (Winnipeg), École de danse contemporaine de Montréal, The School of Dance (Ottawa), L’école de danse de Québec, Main Dance (Vancouver))
2020 – Dance community mourns the passing of founding director Patricia Beatty