Patricia Beatty, Co-Founder of Toronto Dance Theatre, Remembered as a ‘Warrior Queen’

Collaborators and friends remember the Canadian modern dance icon By Emily Latimer
  • Beatty in Lessons in Another Language in 1980 / Photo by Andrew Oxenham, courtesy of Dance Collection Danse

In 2009, Patricia Beatty was driving when she heard a beautiful piece of music by Arvo Pärt on the radio. Beatty, known as Trish, phoned Danielle Baskerville, a Toronto-based dancer who works with some of Canada’s leading contemporary dance companies and creators. “Darling,” Beatty said, “I’ve decided I have one last piece of choreography in me, and I think it’s going to be a solo for you.” That last piece was The High Heart, which Beatty described as her “final feminist statement.” It premiered in MOonhORsE Dance Theatre’s Older & Reckless 10th anniversary season on Dec. 11, 2009.

“That was a very big thing for me, to hear she was only going to choreograph one more piece, and she was going to make it for me. A great honour for any dancer, and certainly coming from someone like her,” Baskerville says. They had a special relationship; Baskerville has danced all of Beatty’s five solos, except one.

Beatty was a multi-faceted artist: a choreographer, a dancer, a teacher, a poet. She was a true pioneer – one of the most influential figures of modern dance in Canada. She’s best known as co-founder of Toronto Dance Theatre, along with David Earle and Peter Randazzo. Her death at age 84 on Nov. 20 marked decades of choreography, teaching and writing that inspired thousands of young dancers.

Those close to Beatty describe her as an uncompromising artist, a profoundly deep thinker and, like other trail-blazing artists, at times a challenging person. She was a direct and forthright visionary – exacting about her opinions and her beliefs. “She did rub some people the wrong way,” her friend Terrill Maguire says. “I could see this, and my eyes would kind of widen and I’d go, ‘Uh-oh, here we go.’ But she meant well. It was always about what’s best for the art form.”

Beatty was born in Toronto on May 13, 1936. She attended Havergal College in Toronto, an independent boarding and day school for girls, and was known as a leader; from 1954 through 1955, she was what the school calls a “leadership prefect” or, these days, a “school captain.”

“Trish always had a certain kind of confidence. She talked about having had a lot of energy as a kid growing up,” says Maguire. “She had a lot of life spirit that was sometimes too much for her parents and for her teachers.”

In 1994, nearly 40 years after she graduated, she was inducted into the Havergal Old Girls Association’s Hall of Distinction. The award is “a way of recognizing that Old Girls [the internal label for school alumnea] whose achievements in business, science, sports, the arts, volunteer work or a personal area of endeavour, are noteworthy and stand apart from the ordinary,” reads the school’s website.

Outside of school, she was sent to Jean Macpherson’s creative dance classes for children and did ballet studies with Gladys Forrester and Gweneth Lloyd. From 1955 to 1959, she attended Bennington College in Vermont, a progressive liberal arts college that emphasized creative and artistic expression. There, she discovered modern dance. As Beatty said in a 2019 interview with Dance Collection Danse, “I knew that there was no future for me in sociology 101 at the University of Toronto.”

In New York City, she went on to study at the José Limón school but later switched to the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance, opting for the more grounded Graham technique. During these years, she danced with Sophie Maslow and Pearl Lang. In 1965, she returned to Toronto, ready to share Graham technique with a new generation of Canadian dancers. She launched the New Dance Group of Canada in 1966, one of the first modern dance companies in the Toronto area at the time.  

In 1968, Beatty joined with two other modern dancers and choreographers, Earle and Randazzo. Together they founded Toronto Dance Theatre. “I remember saying, ‘This city can’t handle two Graham-rooted companies,’ ” Beatty told Dance Collection Danse. “1968. It was enough hard work as it was.” At that time, modern dance was just beginning to take root in Toronto, while other modern dance companies were sprouting up in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Montreal. These companies marked the beginning of the 1970s dance boom in Canada. The School of Toronto Dance Theatre has since become one of Canada’s leading professional dance training programs. In 2004, Beatty was awarded for her contributions to dance; she was named a member of the Order of Canada.

In the late 1960s, in the suburbs of Edmonton, 16-year-old Peggy Baker attended a provincial drama seminar. For a month one summer, she trained alongside other theatre kids from across Alberta. It was there that she first encountered modern dance, in a movement for actors class taught by Beatty. “I had no notion of modern dance until that moment. She was my introduction,” Baker says. “I didn’t know very much about the world at all.”

As a teenager, Baker saw Beatty as this strong, beautiful, passionate 32-year-old woman. Beatty was connected with the earth and with her power as a female. “She was a woman like I had never laid eyes on before,” Baker remembers. She had long hair that went down to the middle of her back; she didn’t wear any makeup; she wore jewelry from some far reaches of the world; she didn’t wear a bra; her beautiful leotard was backless. She taught class accompanying herself with a hand-held drum. “We were a bunch of teenage theatre students and into our midst walked this incredible artist who really initiated us to the higher purpose of the arts,” Baker remembers. Baker then went on to a robust career including becoming a founding member of Dancemakers in Toronto, dancing with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in New York City, dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the White Oak Dance Project and founding Peggy Baker Dance Projects.

In the early days, the novelty of Beatty’s works also made an impression on audiences. Arts journalist Paula Citron remembers how she felt after seeing Beatty’s solo First Music in 1970. “I just had never seen anything like it in my life, in real life. Although I’d certainly seen Martha Graham’s works on film. But it’s not the same as sitting in a theatre and seeing something new that really tussles your mind. You have to grapple with, ‘What is this about? What am I seeing?’ That’s why I was stunned at the depth of it,” Citron says.

Decades later, Carol Anderson, a dance artist and writer, still retains an image of Beatty onstage, wearing a long, simple dress, barefoot, her dark hair flowing. “I first saw her New Dance Group of Canada in 1967. And that was something that I never ever, ever forgot. I truly have never seen people move like that before. That made a very deep impression on me and has always stayed with me,” Anderson says.

You can see Beatty in action in a 1974 performance of Against Sleep. In the video, Beatty dances with Danny Grossman. The work is a darkly themed duet with a deep psychological exploration of the temptation of suicide.

In an interview with Lawrence Adams about the piece, Beatty said, “Against Sleep is a very dark piece because it came from a very dark experience of mine. And I thought it was universal enough that it would have meaning for other people.” She looks down, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, her jaw moving as if she were chewing gum.

“It’s about suicide, but it’s about overcoming suicide. I thought of the idea as a temptation, so I thought of it as a seductive kind of thing. ’Cause I wouldn’t be tempted to do something that wasn’t attractive in any way. And the most attractive thing for me was a man.” She takes a deep breath, thinking carefully before she speaks.

“The image of it is very sexual, and a lot of people like it because of that. And I like it because people will watch it from the beginning to the end, and because it’s very novel to do.”

Indeed, Beatty was considered ahead of her time; her works covered subjects that some people are still hesitant to touch today. “It’s a huge loss at a time when we’re all thinking about life differently,” says Pat Fraser, the artistic director of The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. “We’re concerned for the environment, people’s well-being and the state of the world. It brings those things into high relief.”

Her works fostered a strong feminine heroine. “She made room for strong independent women to make a name for themselves when the term ‘strong independent woman’ was not a catchphrase, rather, didn’t even exist,” says Nicole Rose Bond, who danced Beatty’s works and who was also a friend in later years. Earle remarks that Beatty gave women tremendous confidence in their femininity. “She became a real icon and role model for women who aspired to have a powerful feminine presence. Trish herself onstage, she was a bit like Wonder Woman. She was gorgeous,” he says.

Many of the dancers who worked with Beatty describe her as a nurturing and generous teacher, who was tough, strict and powerful. “Creation took a long time with Trish. But it was rewarding because when you got there, you knew you really were there,” says Suzette Sherman, a follower and friend who danced in many of Beatty’s works. “I used to always say about rehearsal with Trish, by the time you learned a piece, you were ready to perform it,” she says.

Christopher House, former artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, had similar experiences learning Beatty’s work. “Her coaching was so specific. She taught the choreography very slowly, and by the time you actually learned the choreography, you were ready to perform it because you had been so thoroughly coached,” he says. “Working with her was really a master class in choreographic economy, specificity and clarity of intention. She was just so razor-sharp.”

Being in the studio with Beatty, or in class, or rehearsal, Bond says it was impossible not to grow, shift and change in the most beautiful ways. The very ethos of Beatty’s teaching was unique, too. After dancer Graham McKelvie left Canada’s National Ballet School and joined Toronto Dance Theatre, what made an immediate impression on him was the way the founders taught their classes, guided by an investigation into human existence. “Sure, it was about the dancing, but it was also about the human being. It was their preoccupation to talk about the nature of human existence, and that was a fairly prevalent theme in all their work,” McKelvie says. “I don’t ever remember talking about human existence at the National Ballet School,” McKelvie laughs.

“For Trish, technique is only ever a vehicle for the presence of the dancer,” says Baskerville. “Which is a big deal because I think before then, I’d only ever known people using technique as a vehicle for the realization of choreography. But for her, it’s secondary to the presence of the dancer onstage.”

But her teachings went beyond dance; Beatty mentored people in life. Sherman says Beatty taught dancers practical things, like how to eat right, how to deal with stress, how to ground yourself with the right exercises and rituals. “She had been there. She was a dancer, and she knew the glories but also the pitfalls, and she shared all of her knowledge so generously,” she says.

Earle remembers a trip he took in the late 1970s with Beatty, who he sometimes referred to as his “mad sister.” “When my father died, I didn’t actually do any creative work for about a year, and Trish decided that the cure was to take me to Guadeloupe. So, she booked flights and hotels, and the next thing I knew, we were swimming in the ocean together,” he says. When they first arrived in Guadeloupe, a French region, they took a cab to the hotel on the ocean and unpacked. Beatty went out to the balcony, came back inside and said, “We can’t stay here.” Earle asked why, and she replied, “Don’t ask. Just put your things back in the bag.” To the front desk they went, and then into a cab headed nowhere. “We had no idea where we were going,” Earle remembers. Then Beatty saw a sign on a building, “Oh wait, arreté!” she said. “Eco-hotel, we must stay here.” They paid the cab and got out with their luggage. “Well, it wasn’t ‘eco-hotel,’ it was ‘école hôtel,’ a school for hotel employees,” Earle laughs. “Now if that doesn’t tell you what travelling with Trish was like.”

She was a co-founding artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre writing letters to a young girl in Edmonton who thought she might want to dance - Peggy Baker

As Beatty got older, she turned to poetry. “That was a way for her to be dancing inside of words,” says Baskerville. She has published three books of poetry: Windwords (2007), Slow Words Dancing (2013) and Two Voices (2019). Beatty wrote her poems in the middle of a single piece of paper, placing the words centre stage. She would write it down whole and rarely change anything. “Trish, she sort of steeped things, and then she would write them down in her distinctive handwriting. Even as she was writing it, she had this sort of graphic representation going on,” says Anderson, who collaborated with Beatty on Two Voices.

Beatty’s 1985 book, Form Without Formula - A Concise Guide to the Choreographic Process, is considered a bible of creative process. One of the main lessons in the book is to pare down to the absolute essence. Sherman says this is something Beatty believed about teaching, creating and dancing: “She was not into decorating things. She was into stripping away until you had exactly what you needed. No more, no less.”

Beatty wrote in Form Without Formula, “If you are as honest, probing, and physical as you can be, you have the precious opportunity of saying something about the universe, something unique between you and great energies of existence.”

Writing has always been a part of Beatty’s life, whether it was writing books, crafting poetry or sending handwritten letters. Baker corresponded with Beatty over many decades, with the oldest letter dating back to 1971, when she was still a teenager living in Alberta. “They were talking about what it would be like to come to the school,” Baker says. The bundle of letters, with Beatty’s signature loopy handwriting, is emblematic of her generosity to young dancers. “She was a co-founding artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre writing letters to a young girl in Edmonton who thought she might want to dance,” Baker says. The last note Beatty wrote Baker was in September of this year. “Whenever she wrote, there was a sense of poetry.”

Beatty leaves behind a decades-long legacy that has impacted dancers all over Canada. Her teachings left an impression on generations of dancers, and her choreography is still taught today. Those close to Beatty remember her as a warm person, loyal to her friends, extremely generous and a sincere and intense thinker. They spoke of her as headstrong and direct in the studio, while also having a kooky, outrageous side. Maguire describes her as a “warrior queen.”

“Teaching dance, I wanted to empower people. That’s what I was doing, hopefully,” Beatty said in an interview with Dance Collection Danse. “And who was in there? Mostly women and sensitive men. Well, those are the ones who are going to save the planet, folks.”

Patricia Beatty was born in Toronto on May 13, 1936. She died on Nov. 20, 2020, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto at the age of 84.

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