The Demise of Le Groupe Dance Lab

The End of An Era, Part 2 By Michael Crabb

Ottawa’s Le Groupe Dance Lab, for more than twenty years a vital incubator of dance creativity under the artistic direction of Peter Boneham, closed permanently last summer. In making its decision, Le Groupe’s board of directors pinpointed, among many factors, the difficulty of evolving from a founder-led organization to one with new artistic leadership.

Le Groupe Dance Lab had initiated a plan that theoretically would provide for a smooth transition but, as Michael Crabb explains in the second installment of his account of the company’s demise, a concatenation of intricately entwined events conspired to bring Le Groupe down.

Tony Chong, having served a three-year apprenticeship as Le Groupe Dance Lab’s associate director, formally took over the company’s leadership on July 1st, 2008, with Peter Boneham retaining a close involvement as senior artistic advisor. Boneham continued to teach and serve as a “monitor” for visiting choreographers as requested but Chong assumed the responsibility for artistic planning and daily operations. The circumstances in which Chong began his new job, however, were less than auspicious.

On the financial front things had been looking bleak since the spring. A major cash-flow crunch that could have triggered layoffs was only averted by board intervention. Board members covered a bridging loan until the grant money finally arrived. The departure of general manager Anthony Pan that summer meant Chong began his first season without a senior administrator; but then Chong himself, with what can only be judged the most inopportune timing, was initially absent in Toronto, creating Bloodletting and Other Pleasant Things for Dancemakers.

Boneham kept the artistic side running more or less normally but in an atmosphere of uncertainty. Lainie Towell, an independent Ottawa dance artist who began working in Le Groupe’s office four years earlier, was, by 2008, occupying a fulltime position as director of communications. “Without a manager there were a lot of areas where we just didn’t know what was going on,” Towell recalls. “There was definitely a problem.” Eventually, a respected former manager of Le Groupe, Marlene Alt, was brought in on a part-time basis to try to figure out the finances. Meanwhile, the City of Ottawa, in one of its recurrent threats to economize by slashing arts funding, precipitated even greater worries.

It may sound merely technical but in terms of Le Groupe’s financial management there was a chronic problem with the timing of the city’s grant. The city’s fiscal year matches the calendar year. Le Groupe’s was July 1st to June 30th. Laura Cyr, Cultural Planner - Funding for the City of Ottawa, explains that some years earlier Le Groupe had forgotten to apply for an annual grant. From then on it meant that Le Groupe’s current grant, in terms of the city’s budget, was posted retroactively to the company’s previous fiscal year. For example, because of this six-month accounting discrepancy, Le Groupe applied the city’s 2008 grant of $125,000 to its 2007/08 fiscal year. It was thus unable, given the vicissitudes of city budgeting and recurrent threats of cuts to the arts, to draw up a current operating budget with a dependable estimate of the city’s subvention. With yet another arts funding cut looming, Le Groupe’s board of directors was understandably anxious.

The Ontario Arts Council’s annual contribution, despite modest increases in 2007 and 2008, had been declining for almost a decade - from $96,350 in 1999 to $75,750 in 2006. The Canada Council’s grant remained fairly stable throughout this period, ranging from $205,000 to $210,000.

The board was thus seriously concerned about Le Groupe’s financial situation and was looking to cut costs. The roster of dancers was reduced from six to five. Normand Vandal, Le Groupe’s longtime resident designer - a title that hardly comprehended the range of his activities - was peremptorily let go with only the reassurance that he might be re-engaged as needed on short-term contracts. Boneham was outraged. Vandal was his partner - and he was not well. Le Groupe’s decision could not have come at a worse moment for Boneham.

The termination of Vandal’s fulltime contract may also have been connected to Chong’s desire as the new artistic director to do things differently. Why would he necessarily accept the need for a resident designer? Like the board, Chong was seeking increased flexibility in terms of contracting needed services. Whatever the rationale, however, the decision was unlikely to sweeten relations between Boneham and his successor.

Chong was also mulling various ideas about how to heighten Le Groupe’s visibility. “People had a hard time understanding what we did. It made it difficult to raise private funds.” Chong was prepared to change the mandate if necessary, perhaps even remove Le Groupe to another city with a more developed dance culture. “All the talent had to be brought in,” he explained. “We could have had a more flexible structure.”

Chong was also aware that Le Groupe was at risk of becoming the victim of its own success and of Boneham’s proselytizing. You can copyright choreography but you can’t patent a process. Boneham so conclusively proved the value of the model he conceived - of creating opportunities for choreographers to explore and experiment - that it had spawned if not copies then certainly variations of Le Groupe’s approach in the form of creative residencies.

Chong’s ideas never went anywhere because in early December 2008 he resigned. Le Groupe had become too big a headache and his personal ambitions lay elsewhere. Chong’s decision may have been hastened by the board’s decision to cut the 2008/09 season short, ending it in late January 2009 with the scheduled residency of Toronto choreographer Susanna Hood. It was almost certainly influenced by his belief that any meaningful change would take many years. “I just saw the futility of it,” says Chong.

Boneham, needless to say, was not about to see “his baby” go down the drain; nor could he apprehend that his own desire to remain involved, even if only as a teacher and occasional monitor, might be an impediment to preventing that very calamity. Although, at age seventy-four, he did not want the burden of leadership, Boneham’s personal connection to Le Groupe was part of his identity.

Peter Boneham is a passionate man of single-minded vision; a formidably strong personality. He is also a volatile person who elicits strong and not always positive reactions. Even those who revere him acknowledge that at times Boneham can, as one described it “be very scary”, say dreadful things and then return to his more typical generous self without comprehending the hurt he has inflicted. With Chong gone and the finances uncertain, the issue of Boneham’s continuing place with Le Groupe made the task of finding someone else willing to take over the reins all the more problematic.

For Boneham the solution was obvious. In a proposal he submitted to the board, Boneham would return as interim artistic director in a collaborative arrangement with Tedd Robinson’s own company, 10 Gates Dancing. The board, however, had a counter proposal to consider, submitted by one of its stalwart volunteer supporters, Anika Houle. The board’s acceptance of hers over his, as it struggled to decide the best way forward, was tantamount to a rejection of Le Groupe’s founding genius. At least Boneham saw it that way and made it a war between himself and Houle. In the end both lost and Le Groupe perished.

Montréal-born Anika Houle entered the life of Le Groupe as a beneficent “fairy godmother” - Boneham, she says, dubbed her thus - bearing smiles, cookies and encouragement. Houle, forty, is married to a French diplomat. For some two decades she lived outside Canada, studying, travelling the world and “reinventing” herself, as she explains, in each location. She is a lover of dance and trained in both ballet and modern, but as an amateuse not a professional. Houle describes herself as a designer and event co-coordinator, and through her personal interests, travels and husband’s profession, she is well connected in international diplomatic and cultural circles. With her husband ensconced as cultural attaché at the French Embassy in Ottawa, she decided to take Le Groupe under her wing and help it any way she could.

Before Chong’s resignation and the board’s drastic decision to cut short the season, most people viewed Houle as a benign presence and emphatically positive spirit. Once the board announced in January that it had accepted Houle’s proposal to act, in effect, as interim artistic director (there is still some dispute about what her exact title was to be), stabilizing the organization and implementing Chong’s plans for the 2009/10 season while Le Groupe sought a new artistic leader, there was general bewilderment.

It was known that Boneham had offered to fill the breach. Why would the board put its trust in a woman who, however well meaning, had no apparent credibility in the Canadian dance community? For Boneham, who had previously considered Houle an amiable dilettante, she became a dangerous threat. His life’s work and his own continuing association with Le Groupe appeared to be in jeopardy. It was almost inevitable that his relations with Houle would soon disintegrate into outright hostility, on his part at least. Houle insists she had great sympathy for Boneham and tried to maintain a positive, non-adversarial attitude.

Boneham began badgering. Why had the board not launched an immediate search for a new director? Why was he, the founder - or for that matter anyone else of artistic stature - not being consulted?

Houle says she understands the emotional source of Boneham’s enmity but, with the board’s endorsement, was doing what was necessary to stabilize the organization at the financial and managerial level. There was no point putting out a call for a new artistic director, so she reasoned with board concurrence, unless there was a salary in place and the promise, going forward, of sound management.

Predictably, accounts of what happened over the ensuing months vary according to whom one asks. By raising his battle flag, Boneham had essentially asked the dance community to choose sides. You were either for his cause to save Le Groupe from the clutches of an ambitious but unqualified interloper or against one of the most senior and respected figures in Canadian dance. What Boneham did not comprehend was that there was a grey area in which people who certainly did not want to hurt him or diminish his achievement also felt it was time for Le Groupe to move beyond him. Their concern, however, was whether Houle was the right person to chart that course.

Houle claims to have consulted widely. She made overtures to Yvonne Coutts - not as a potential artistic director but as someone who might be interested in teaching and perhaps monitoring when, all being well, Le Groupe resumed operations in September 2009. Coutts came away unclear of Houle’s intentions.

Houle believed she had put together what she calls “an exquisite season” that only needed the support of government funders to be activated. There was no rush to advertise for an artistic director since with the appropriate line-up of choreographers, dancers, teachers and monitors and her own custodial supervision, Le Groupe would be on a solid footing. The only problem was that the funders were not so confident.

By the time these pressing issues were coming to a tipping point, Boneham had insisted that Le Groupe make clear that he was no longer associated with the organization. A suitable amendment to the website was duly made - and the locks to Le Groupe were changed.

Boneham, who felt humiliated to arrive at Arts Court and be denied access to his old office without advance permission, says he merely wanted to retrieve personal archival material that he intended to donate to the National Archives. Houle says there was some confusion over what rightfully belonged to Boneham and what was Le Groupe’s. The non-relationship had become toxic.

Boneham, by his own admission, had meanwhile orchestrated a write-in campaign from reputable figures in the dance community to protest the course the board and Houle were taking.

Houle still believed her plan could succeed and in late May put out the call for a new general manager. “The position works closely with the Artistic Director and reports to the Board of Directors,” read the posting. But what artistic director? Houle? The posting was perplexing to those still trying to fathom what was really happening at Le Groupe; a manager more important than an artistic director?

Then, as John Manwaring explains, the funding imploded. While the Canada Council remained stalwartly supportive, the Ontario Arts Council delivered what from Le Groupe’s perspective was a double whammy. Not only would the grant for 2009/10 be smaller but, because the organization had not fulfilled the terms of its 2008/09 grant, there would be a claw-back to account for the foreshortened season. The City of Ottawa’s 2009 grant - the threatened across-the-board reduction in arts funding had not materialized - was also reduced by almost fifty per cent. “They’d already stated they were only functioning for six months,” says Laura Cyr, “and the jury acted accordingly.”

Even if the funding had come through, Houle was discovering that some of the artists planned for the 2009/10 season were unwilling to cross the her-or-me line in the sand drawn by Boneham. In a contest of loyalties, Houle was inevitably proving the loser; but then so was Le Groupe. It is not hard to understand why a wearied board of directors, assailed by Boneham and without adequate financial resources, finally decided that effecting a transition of leadership was “too difficult”.

The question inevitably remains. Why did Le Groupe Dance Lab succumb? Can fingers be pointed specifically? Government funders? The board? Anika Houle? Peter Boneham?

There is no simple or conclusive answer. As with most seismic events it was a combination of things. Yet, beyond the predictable dismay of those with close personal attachments to Le Groupe, was it really that seismic?

Admittedly the midsummer closure notice came at a time when most people’s attention was elsewhere. Yet, given the purported value of Le Groupe, it is perhaps worth asking why the dance community - so far as it functions as a community in a country as large, diverse and regionalized as Canada - did not try to save the organization.

There were a few newspaper articles, quite a lot of tears among those closest to the action; then it was almost as if nothing had happened. The world moves on.

As Boneham, who turns seventy-five on November 7th, reflected in the aftermath of Le Groupe’s closure, with perhaps more explanatory resonance than he understood: “Maybe everything has its lifetime.”~

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