Court of Miracles Returns

Published in The Dance Current, December 2003
by Jim Reid

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Photo: Dean Palmer

The miracles began shortly after David Earle met my daughter Claire.  He could tell that she was a dancer before she spoke or even stood up, and he invited her to one of his classes.  She returned home and told me how excited she was about starting to train with David.  Then David and I met at his studio and we talked about the dance theatre he was establishing in Guelph.  As part of his plans, he talked about one in particular.  "I’ve been wondering about doing Court of Miracles again."  I asked, "What’s Court of Miracles?"  He looked at me with mixed emotions that were barely concealed by his considerate smile.  Then he handed me a tape of a production of Court, and with the usual gentle prodding that I’ve come to know, he suggested, "Maybe if you have a look at this."

I took it home and was astonished.  Astonished by the simultaneous vigour of the dance and the mediaeval enchantment of the music.  Here was none of the tired commercialism we have come to expect at Christmas.  Here was a contemporary dance piece, involving a large cast and powerful sets, all staged somewhere in a mediaeval European city.  And somehow, for someone who has been learning to enjoy Christmas again, it felt truly like Christmas.  No small miracle.  Maybe if you have a look at this, indeed.  What an introduction to the modest David Earle, Order of Canada, co-founder of Toronto Dance Theatre, and recipient of most of the awards given to choreographers in the country.

What was the source of the idea for Court of Miracles?  It was 1983.  Kenny Pearl was the Artistic Director of Toronto Dance Theatre.  He recalled that time recently, "I saw that we had a few weeks of creation time in the fall that weren’t filled.  The Premiere Dance Theatre had just opened and there was a week available in December.  The General Manager and I asked David if he had an idea for a Christmas piece.  I hoped he might come up with an idea in a week or so.  But before we even got out of our chairs, David calmly said, ‘Yes I have a piece in mind. It’s called Court of Miracles.’"

David Earle picks up the story, "Christopher [House] brought my attention to some minor characters in Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris.  They interested me.  They were a group of beggars, who lived in a small quarter in Paris.  By day they pretended to be lame and blind to encourage people to be charitable to them.  Each night they came home and were miraculously healed."  David lifts his arms up into the air at this point, "Then they tossed their crutches and bandages away, and celebrated. For that reason their quarter of the city was known as the Court of Miracles."  He adds, "Today it’s in the green Michelin Guide to Paris."

David continues, "I saw these beggars as the street performers of their day, not unlike the beggars I’ve seen in Lisbon."  In Court of Miracles, Hugo’s characters became Robin Hood figures. They take from the rich, often by performing for them and then receiving gifts, and then giving to the poor.  In Court, they give their simple gifts to the abandoned inmates in an asylum.  They perform a Miracle Play for them, complete with the ox, the ass, the shepherds, Mary and Joseph.  An angel leads the shepherds over the monumental set, bearing aloft a star of hope.  Then the beggars witness an unexpected miracle themselves.

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As Court came together, more characters appeared.  They came to represent the swirling panorama of life in a mediaeval town on the day of the Feast of St. Nicolas.  There were gypsies and penitents, a royal wedding party and lepers, banner dancers and stuffy priests, acrobats and courtesans, all presenting the richness of life of that time, and all presented through the idiom of modern dance.

During the creation of Court of Miracles there were some dark nights of the dance soul.  Part way through its development, David looked up at one point and asked Kenny if it might be better to just create some dance pieces set to traditional Christmas music.  But the decision was to continue.

The first year that Court was mounted, thousands of people were out buying their tickets for The Nutcracker as usual.  In Kenny Pearl’s words, "Anyone who heard about Court was probably wondering, ‘What the heck is Court of Miracles?’  Our ticket sales for the first few nights were a humbling experience.  Every afternoon I went down to the lobby at Queen’s Quay with a couple of students in costume, juggled oranges, and gave away free tickets."  On the weekend after the first few performances, following good reviews and good word of mouth, people started to show up.  The feedback was so positive, Toronto Dance Theatre decided to mount it the next year, and so began a ten year run.

From the beginning, David conceived the piece as a community event.  In that first year Toronto Dance Theatre invited all of Toronto’s modern dance companies to perform in Court.  Due to scheduling conflicts for some of them, it was Dancemakers, the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre and students from the School of Toronto Dance Theatre who joined forces with Toronto Dance Theatre.

Court of Miracles was first performed in 1983, and over the years has been developing through a collaboration that is unusually extensive for the Canadian dance world.  During the first year David Earle worked with James Kudelka, Christopher House, Carol Anderson, Peter Randazzo and Kenny Pearl as the choreographers.  Over the years new ideas developed, the production became more involved, and the characters developed new depth.  The Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre and the School of Toronto Dance Theatre remained partners over the years and Kenny Pearl continued to direct the production.

Michael J. Baker took David Earle’s suggestions for the music and meshed them with the unfolding choreography and through line.  From the opening notes in the darkness over the stage, the music places the audience firmly in a not too distant past that is both foreign and familiar.  Then the flame of a candle is borne by a blindfolded acrobat who crosses the void against a starry sky.

During the first year other challenges surfaced and were dealt with by a circle of inspired friends.  The story takes place at a number of locations and required a thoughtful solution to the question of sets.  David asked for three A-frame ladders.  Stage Manager Ron Ward appeared quietly one day with small scale models that he suggested could function polymorphously in various combinations as a cathedral, tavern, guest house or asylum.  They did work, and on stage, are both rustic and powerful, and in some way almost archetypal in the patterns they present.  Denis Joffre designed a variety of costumes for the burgeoning cast of about 45 dancers, dressing everyone from the beggars and townspeople to the sinners who inhabit the asylum.  Peter MacKinnon and Ron Snippe worked together on the lighting, and Ron will be back handling the lighting this year at the River Run Centre in Guelph.

In the first few seasons, David Earle and Toronto Dance Theatre continued to work with the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, and the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre.  Independent dance artists were invited to participate as well.  Senior artists that have performed in Court over the years include Lawrence Adams, Patricia Beatty, Jackie Burroughs, David Earle, Celia Franca, Angela Leigh, Susan Macpherson, Peter Randazzo, and Lois Smith.

In the early 1990s, members of Toronto Dance Theatre, the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and guests from Dancemakers, piled into a bus and took an extensive sold-out tour through the Maritimes.  In every city, children and local celebrities, including a number of mayors, joined Court of Miracles to become townspeople on stage.  Audiences and critics were gratified that a piece of contemporary theatre could celebrate the spirit of Christmas with so much generosity. More performances followed in the United States.

Everything has its cycle, and in 1992 Court completed its first.  Over the next decade David Earle moved away from Toronto, and eventually established Dancetheatre David Earle an hour west of Toronto in Guelph.  Once the new theatre’s roots were strong in this community, and people were involved who were excited about getting Court back on stage, David decided to begin again, in what will hopefully be at least another ten year cycle.

Veronica Tennant supported Court of Miracles from the beginning, and danced for several seasons in its Toronto productions.  She says, "Court, I can tell you first-hand appeals and speaks to generations in the audience and onstage." Commenting on the upcoming production, she says, "I would be overjoyed to see a revival of this luminous production."

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Photo: Dean Palmer

How is this year’s production shaping up?  Once again a strong cast of dancers will bring Court to life this Christmas.  Senior artists include David Earle and Donald Himes, the heart and soul of Court of Miracles since its inception, as well as Helen Jones, Susan Macpherson, Michael Menegon and Suzette Sherman.

Also featured will be a gathering of many of Toronto’s finest independent artists, most of whom have performed with Dancetheatre David Earle.  They include Kate Alton, Danielle Baskerville, Roberto Campanella, Evadne Fulton, Ray Hogg, D.A. Hoskins, Graham McKelvie, Michael Moore, Andrea Nann, and Barbara Pallomina.

The Danny Grossman Dance Company has provided great support to the production, helping to make its revival possible.  All the Grossman dancers, Mairéad Filgate, Eddie Kastrau, Dee-Dee MacArthur, Gerald Michaud, Gerard Reyes, Meredith Thompson and Marvin Vergara will perform key roles.

Dancers from the Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre will also appear.  Guelph based performers taking the stage include Sarah Jane Burton, Janet Johnson, Heather Roy, Steven Filipowitz and Michael English.

Twenty years ago there wasn’t much modern dance available at Christmas, a time of the year when most modern dancers were unemployed.  The response to this situation led to the creation one of Canada’s largest modern dance productions, the aptly named Court of Miracles.

Christmas is often a time of searching for the miracles that recall its true meaning.  In the dead of winter, Court of Miracles brings these miracles to brighten the darkest time of the year.  This joyous tale returns to the stage after an 11 year hiatus - mounted by Dancetheatre David Earle, with a lot of help from friends.  Toronto Dance Theatre is helpfully providing ease of access to the set and costumes.  James Kudelka and Christopher House are generously allowing their choreography to be performed.  With this support, and the excited commitment of so many great dancers and production staff, Court of Miracles is truly ready to begin again.

Looking forward to December and beyond, David Earle says, "Some of James Kudelka’s finest choreography is in this piece. It cannot be allowed to be lost.  Now more than ever we live in a time that does not allow us the luxury of cynicism. There is a new generation that deserves a demonstration of compassion, of learning to laugh at ourselves, and of the triumph of the imagination in the face of values unworthy of us all."

Jim Reid is a Guelph based writer, consultant, and Friend of DtDE. He has enjoyed the performances of DtDE since it was established in Guelph in 2001. His daughters each studied dance for over 15 years - he wishes the opportunity had been available for him. He received generous advice and assistance for this article from Kenny Pearl.