Bill Coleman’s interest in dance was sparked by Fred Astaire films. He started by studying tap, then at age 19 was invited to work with Anton Dolin and the Dublin City Ballet. He has since danced with Toronto Dance Theatre, the Wiesbaden Ballet, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co., Tere O’Connor Dance, William Douglas Dance, Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, The Martha Graham Dance Company, and many others.
Coleman’s own creations have been described as “broadly appealing,” “uproarious,” “inventive” and as “filling the choreographic void” (Dance Magazine), and have been performed on stages from North America to Europe to Asia, including the Tramway in Glasgow, New York’s Dance Theatre Workshop, Place Des Arts, Montreal, Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland.
He has put rock bands, animals, office staff, and his own family in such productions as Baryshnikov: The Other Story (Jerome Foundation First Light Award winner); Zorro; Shane; The Iowa Sheep Buggery Trials; The Brothers Plaid, with Mark Shaub; Glory Days; Arc, in a water-filled set featured designed by his brother, Robbie; Welcome Back, Buffalo Bill, with Vietnam veteran and pow wow dancer Boye Ladd; Monsters Midway, “a drug-induced dream choreographed by Fellini” (Toronto Star); Convoy PQ-17, a tribute to his father, a merchant marine stationed in Russia during WWII, which debuted in St. Petersburg; a Dada opera, Zurich 1916, for the Banff Centre, and the musicals Sunday in the Park with George and Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women for the Shaw Festival; and Heartland, a solo that inspired Laura Taler to document Bill’s life and work in a multiple award-winning film – one of several that have now been created featuring his choreography.
In 2008, he collaborated with the legendary Sun Ra Arkestra to create Hymn To The Universe, voted Best Live Music by Eye Weekly and a Toronto Star Top Ten dance event. Featuring “staggering coup de théâtres” and “magic moments when music and dance came together as different dimensions of a similar thought” (The Globe and Mail), it was “a party that would’ve made Tim Burton proud …” (Exclaim! Magazine).
In Dollhouse, originally presented by Canadian Stage, Coleman inhabits the experimental music installation of composer Gordon Monahan, wearing a costume by artist Edward Poitras. Martha Schabas of The Globe and Mail described it as an “immersion into a hyper-sensory world in which sound, light and movement volley between chaos and control … both lighthearted and beautiful, creating images of joy and suffering alongside a remarkable range of noises… intense and innovative work”.
Bill has also created a collection of bold site-specific events, ranging in scale from the monumental to the intimate, and created in collaboration with organizations such as Parks Canada and Toronto Community Housing, with community residents, local organizations, and a wide array of internationally-renowned artists. Renate Klett, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote that no one created events as “mystical, unpretentious, and full of wonder.”
In Grasslands: Where Heaven Meets Earth, “dancers moved in and out of the golden landscape, while groundhogs and wild horses served as unwitting extras in the performance” (Canada Council on the Arts, For the Arts). It ended with a community feast and dancing in the Val Marie Hotel bar – where Michael Caplan made his public singing debut for the enthusiastic crowd until closing. The Gros Morne Project: Feel the Earth Move attracted close to 3000 people. The Manitoba Project: From Pointe Shoes to Powwow, presented in downtown Winnipeg and at the annual Competition Powwow in Long Plain First Nation, featured some of North America’s oldest dance traditions side by side with remounted works by some of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers. In Breaking Ground, the Regent Park construction site came alive with dancing wonders, wild creatures, heavenly music, and a “dance” for back-hoes (created by Anne Troake). In 2010, Toronto’s Luminato Festival commissioned The New World, which involved the entire student body and staff of Nelson Mandela Public School, local drumming groups and singers, a Chinese marching band and a local brass band, construction workers and heavy equipment, all culminating in a free community feast.
His recent work, Le Flâneur, combined the site-specific and the virtuosic. In an elaborate costume with steel taps on his shoes, he traverses a variety of urban locations, including Montreal and Peterborough, never settling in one spot for long. These travelling performances discourage the gathering of crowds, affecting the public instead through small, spontaneous encounters at unplanned moments along the way. With the Covid-19 pandemic, taking his art for a walk through the streets and meeting people at each step seemed a most appropriate response.
Created in 2018 in collaboration with kindergarten children and with support of the Mongolian Arts Council, FELT was performed on a circular, handwoven felt rug with the dancers tightly surrounded by the spectator-participants, diving into our felt experiences of the natural world. And in The Soul of the Whale, Bill works with Makka Kleist, renowned Greenlandic actor, teacher and director, to bring together oral tradition and contemporary dance, exploring a story found among Inuit cultures throughout Siberia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland/Kalaallit Nunaat.
Most recently, he’s been developing This is Tap? – a convergence of solo tap dance, illusion, comedy, and Foley sound effects, a surprising work that unleashes tap and takes it into more spiritual, atmospheric, and sometimes anarchic dimensions. Delving into his dancing past, Bill Coleman resurrects tap dancing, his first love, to create a virtuosic tour de force synthesizing tap with magic and illusion, Foley art and ritual imagery.
Bill also developed a unique methodology of movement designed to access an embodied cognitive state through a heightened awareness of the senses. He has explored this work in the studio, in natural environments, and at the LiveLab at the Department of Cognitive Science, McMaster University, a research facility designed to investigate the physiological experiences of performers and spectators. The methodology informs all Bill’s dance practice now, and also led to director Anne Troake’s OutSideIn, shot entirely in 3D using high-powered macro lenses and premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale – a stereoscopic meditation on body and environment, an exploration of the human body and its boundaries (or lack thereof).
Bill has been teaching for over 25 years, including at Nipissing First Nation, Ontario; Environmental Arts Festival, Scotland; Prostur Plus, Croatia; Centre For Indigenous Theatre, Toronto; New Dance Horizons, Regina, as well as at the University of Archangelsk in Russia, Concordia University, L’École de danse de Québec, School of Toronto Dance Theatre, Alberta University, Victoria University, University of Toronto and the University of Regina.
In 2002, Coleman received the Canada Council Jacqueline-Lemieux Prize, with the following words of recognition: “Coleman’s presence is pan-Canadian and international. His work as a creator stems from a deep place within himself. He is a visionary, a humanitarian, whose work shows uncompromising originality and immense vision.” In 2018, he was also awarded the Council’s Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts.
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