In the ODD Box: Tedd Robinson on … Tedd Robinson

The team behind An Autopsy or an Archive. From the left Johnny Spence, Riley Sims and Tedd Robinson. Photo: Peter Robb

The dancer/choreographer/performance artist Tedd Robinson has been putting works together through the lens of modern dance for some 45 years.

These days, because of a neurological condition, he isn’t dancing much but he can still create. And these days he’s making something out of the collection of clippings, recordings and memories of a career in dance that has been involved with many of luminaries of the Canadian dance world such as Louise Lecavalier, Margie Gillis, Ame Henderson and the composer/performer Charles Quevillon.

A few years ago, to some friends, Robinson threatened to destroy the mementos of his career … this record of his time. Tedd is very much influenced by Buddhist teaching (he was once a monk for some six years). Humility is the watchword and the trappings of the earthly life don’t mean much to him. Whether he does destroy the archive, however, is still in doubt as some institutions have expressed interest in it. But he did decide to do something create with these pieces of his past.

“I don’t think of myself as an intellectual. I think of myself as someone who had a lucky life performing and creating and I have been very lucky on my path.”

These days he lives simply in the Bristol, Quebec area in an old schoolhouse where his colleagues Johnny Spence, who has developed a soundscape for the performance out of interviews with Tedd, and Riley Sims have been working on a piece pf art called An Autopsy of an Archive which will be performed Feb. 27, 28 and 29 in the ODD Box at Arts Court.

Tedd has been working the project off and on for about a year and a half. Robinson also serves as a consultant on dance projects and on his own choreography.

“We’ll see how this piece goes. It may be the last time I perform, or be on stage. But I never say never. But people still seek me out as a choreographer and as a consultant.”

His physical condition limits the time which he can stay standing.

“It’s very inconvenient, but it’s not life threatening,” he said. He has been choreographing in Arts Courts’ spaces since 1990. In 1998, Robinson formed 10 Gates Dancing Inc. to promote the development and performance of contemporary dance creations. As artistic director, he has created repertoire for some of the most renowned dance artists in Canada alongside establishing choreographic consulting services for more than 40 choreographers. He moved to a farm in West Quebec in 2005 where he created La B.A.R.N. which he used as a rural venue for creation, residencies and performance.

Since then he has continued to present work in Arts Court and done some rehearsals here. He’s also been working on pieces for the Ottawa Dance Directive.

Riley Sims and Tedd have been working on projects since 2010. Johnny Spence has been working on Autopsy since December, 2018. He has been creating the music and sound design and interviews. His expertise includes work on radio documentaries.

He met Tedd at Toronto Dance Theatre. For this project, he says Tedd was interested in working with someone who is a composer but who also has skill recording and finding archival material.

In the initial stage of their collaboration, Spence said, they spent five days watching old videos and recording conversations.

“We were provoking each other to think about things in different ways. It allowed the piece to be expansive.”

Memories came up, Robinson said, and they were included in the performance.

“Most of the memory memories are fairly happy. It’s been a bit of an emotional journey for me. I have been up and down about the project because I was reviewing all this stuff and wondering where the scale of narcissism is.”

He realizes that there is a contradiction that because “it is totally an ego thing when I look at it.”

So, “what do I do with all of that and how do I make it more universal? That’s difficult.”

Riley’s role is now a live videographer who is complementing archival footage with live filming that he is doing. He’ll be training a video camera on the props and costumes and other pieces of Robinson’s life that are on stage. Normally, Sims is dancing in Robinson’s choreography.

Robinson said he calls the piece an “assisted solo.”

Spence notes that in this piece about the archive of a career, he and Sims are creating another archive that is this show. “To look at all the amazing things that Tedd has created in his career, it required us to create something else, which is interesting.”

Robinson says that he feels the work is now what he is physically doing in the show and in the making of the performance and offering information about what he is doing.

“I am using material like Lego and building a city of dreams past.”

On the stage, Robinson says he is building. “I assemble, out of old videotapes and cases and photographs and newspaper articles, a sculpture like an installation.”

How did he pick what he will use, you might wonder?

“I have a selection to pick from. Each night is slightly different. I don’t use everything that is accessible to me. We have certain things that we agree upon because things are co-ordinating for the piece to make sense as a work.

“We are still striving to make it logical as a work of art. At first I thought it would be random. We tried that but it’s too chancy.”

In the end it is totally abstract. It follows his working pattern over the years.

There is dance in the piece, Sims said, in the way that the camera itself hops around from subject to subject, image to image. And he says he also uses the rhythms of the music and of the soundscape to slow down or speed up his movement with the camera.

“I’m a dancer. I am aware of my body while I am filming. It works better when I have a slow body track when I am filming.”

Sims is using an old camera that Robinson bought in 2001. It actually filmed some of the archival footage that is being used. It’s another manifestation of the archive realized on stage.

Robinson says this piece involves the most use of technology, old and new, he has ever attempted.

In another example, Spence noticed a synthesizer that was used in a film in the early 1980s in Winnipeg. He has one and is using it on this work in 2020.

In the piece he performed in a gallery in an assisted solo with a pile of TVs and a videographer live on the stage.

“I have never thought that I was a very good dancer,” Robinson said. “When I first started choreographing I wanted the dancers to be called performers. I experimented with different things. I didn’t want to be considered a choreographer but sometimes the title is necessary.”

Half the time, Robinson said, he can’t talk about his work until it’s done

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I know more about it once it has been performed. And an audience is necessary to help shape the work.

“I usually don’t pre-think a lot of stuff. This piece is the most I have ever pre-thought things and I am finding it very demanding. I am tired all the time.”

He is forcing himself to look at himself. And, as he says in one Spence’s recorded interviews, he hopes this piece will stop him obsessing about his archives and leave well enough alone.

He didn’t start training as a dancer until he was 22.

He had always wanted to dance, even as a very young child. But his mother detered him.

“She said, ‘No, you’re not really interested in tap when I was about four. I loved her dearly but she asked me at seven years old, ‘What do you want to do Teddy?’

“I said I want to be an actor. She leaned in and said, ‘Teddy actors are very special people you and I, we’re not special people. She wanted to protect me.”

His great-grandfather was a voice teacher. His grandmother mother was a bit crazy. “She had a great influence on me. She allowed me a lot of freedom and I used to spend every other weekend with her. She allowed me a lot of freedom.”Her story is part of the archive.

When he asked to dance, it was replaced by music lessons. He took piano, played the bagpipes in the Cameron Highlanders and he also hoisted a French horn at Nepean High School, played guitar and sang.

His father ran Robinson’s IGA with his brothers.

Tedd says he always said ‘I didn’t want to work’. After high school, he worked for awhile and then was encouraged to try business school. He lasted two hours into the first day at Algonquin.

He phoned York University, auditioned for the music department and got in. He then took off for London, England in the early 1970s with the goal of making it as a rock star.

After his year in Britain, he came back to York music. But he also took one dance course and that was it.

“I had been wanting to do that all my life and everything fell into place.”

One day, years later, his father ran into someone who asked ‘Are you Tedd Robinson’s father? You know he’s one of the top choreographers in Canada.'” His father said no.

It was a good lesson.

10 Gates Dancing Inc. presents An Autopsy of an Archive/Tedd Robinson
Where: ODD Box, Arts Court
When: Feb. 27-29 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.