Patrick Parson: soulful messiah of Ballet Creole

Patrick Parson brought Afro-Caribbean dance to Toronto two decades ago. He told Donna Yawching how he made history

Patrick Parson. Photograph by Peter StipcevichReconnaissance (1996). Photograph by David HouRitual (1995), danced by Natassia Parson, Patrick’s daughter. Photograph by David HouSpirit of Carnival (2000). Photograph by David Hou

Fusion. Diversity. High-energy. These are the words one encounters, over and over, in articles written about Patrick Parson and his history-making Ballet Creole. “History-making” because, before Parson threw his high-energy, indomitable self into the ring, the Canadian dance scene had nothing like the Ballet Creole. There was no outlet for black dancers to express themselves professionally in their own unique cultural vernacular.

“There were Caucasian dance companies,” Parson recalls, harking back to his arrival in Canada more than 20 years ago, when he came to Toronto to study contemporary dance. “But all the ethnic dance groups were more recreational. I was looking around for something to do, and that was all that was happening: just community dance. I wanted to dance professionally.”

So by 1990, Parson had formed his own fledgling company, the Canadian-Caribbean Contemporary Dance Theatre. Ballet Creole, the new name, “came to me in a dream,” says Parson – and if that doesn’t mark him as a true-true Trinidadian, nothing will!

Starting small, he gathered a few like-minded dancers into his orbit, and slowly gained recognition. There were no government grants or funding at that point; Parson paid all the group’s expenses with the money he earned as a dance teacher. “I was teaching everywhere, not just Toronto,” he says. “The money wasn’t a big thing for me. I was just doing stuff from the passion I had, and everybody started to know about me.”

In the summer of 1991, the fledgling company drew a rapturous response from enthusiastic audiences at the WOMAD outdoor festival at Harbourfront Centre. “It was a great experience,” Parson recalls fondly. “I saw people sitting in the trees.” Ballet Creole mounted its first dance season in a small alternative theatre in 1992. But by 1993 it was ensconced in Harbourfront’s extremely prestigious Premiere Dance Theatre, performing to sold-out audiences (“They even had to add an extra show”). They’ve danced at Harbourfront ever since – indoors, outdoors, “on every one of their stages,” says Parson, listing them off on his fingers.

As it celebrates its 20th year, Ballet Creole has established itself as a significant force in the local dance community, with funding from all three levels of government. It has toured in Canada and the US. Parson’s troupe of dancers and drummers are full-time professionals, doing more than 150 shows annually at schools, conventions, private functions – not to mention the company’s Christmas extravaganza (Soulful Messiah, which he hopes will become almost as traditional as The Nutcracker) and the spring dance showcase, where new pieces are introduced and old ones revived.

There is also the Ballet Creole dance school, which has two branches: a community programme for recreational dancers, and an auditioned, post-secondary course for students aiming at a professional career (“When they train here, they can go anywhere; it’s a pretty strong programme,” Parson says proudly). And if that’s not enough, there’s the Creole Dance Ensemble, a performance group drawn from the children and youth in the community programme, the pond that nurtures the professional performers of the future.

All these different enterprises are united under Parson’s philosophical umbrella: “Harmony in diversity creates a new positive energy.” This is his mantra, and it informs his dance style, his choreography and his modus operandi. “I’m from a mixed background from a cosmopolitan island where we have integration of different cultures. When you really look at creole in the Caribbean, it’s the philosophy of languages coming together: French, English, Spanish, native Indian. My work is a creolisation of forms: the different languages of dance that come together.”

It’s an apt enough description. Parson’s choreographies meld Afro-Caribbean rhythms and sensibilities with the visual vocabulary of contemporary dance and the rigorous discipline of classical ballet. The results are dramatic, often beautiful, and always supremely athletic. During a show, his multi-ethnic troupe of ten to 12 dancers is onstage almost constantly, exhibiting superhuman fitness as they leap and twirl. You get tired just watching them.

Observing Parson in teaching mode, it is easy to see how his dancers attain such perfection. Perched on the edge of a riser, he appears laid-back – but is as sharp as a hawk, and as relentless. “The jump is in your pelvis,” he urges one class, taking to the floor to demonstrate. “Up! Up! Up, up, up! I want you to get airborne!”

Anna Di Costanza, Ballet Creole’s vice-president and administrator, admits Parson is a demanding mentor. “He tends to push (the dancers) to heights they didn’t know themselves they could achieve. He never says, ‘That’s not possible.’ I think that’s what’s got him this far.”

Parson himself, apparently tireless and ageless, plans to go even farther. “I’m looking for this company to be a household name in Canada, like the Alvin Ailey Company,” he says. That’s his long-term goal. Meanwhile, in between his two teaching jobs (at York University and Humber College) and his daily hour-and-a-half practice regime, he is busy plotting a more immediate one: to tour Europe. And after that, who knows: Africa, India, maybe even Australia.

Sighs Di Costanza, “Patrick always has very high goals that he just sets there. You never know how you’re going to get there – but so far they’ve always materialised, like dreams and wishes.”

 

A dancer’s steps

Parson, 51, grew up in Success Village, Laventille, a working-class suburb of Port of Spain. His mixed ancestry – African, “panyol” (Spanish-creole), a touch of East Indian – is reflected now in his eclectic (he calls them “creolised”) choreographies, as well as in the cultural diversity of his dancers. But back in his childhood, his inspiration came from daily life: parang music and dance from his “panyol” grandmother, and African rhythms from his mother, a celebrated folk dancer who travelled widely and was considered a “limbo queen”.

“Mother started teaching dance in the village,” he recalls. “She took everyone down to the community centre, including her kids.” Viola Parson was preparing her community for the Best Village festival, an annual showcase of folkloric arts. “Best Village really changed the face of the cultural art form in Trinidad,” Parson says. “Steelbands, visual arts, calypsonians…it opened a lot of doors.”

One of those doors was in his own heart: young Patrick soon found himself training his classmates for a dance festival. Then he became the go-to guy for Best Village preparation. At 17, he joined the Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theatre, a renowned contemporary group that drew on local dance traditions. He stayed with the company until 1988, while simultaneously studying ballet and classical Indian dance.

After high school, Parson was studying mechanical engineering at a polytechnic college, when a serious motorcycle accident caused him to miss his final exams. He ended up in an administrative government job for several years – but sly old Fate had other plans. A spat with his boss led Parson to the conclusion that there was more to life than paperwork; he wanted to dance professionally. With his characteristic determination, he secured a scholarship to the Toronto Dance Theatre’s respected school of dance. That year, 1988, proved to be the beginning of the rest of his life.

“I’d fully intended to go back home,” Parsons said later, in a newspaper interview. “But when I looked at the local situation and saw how black dance was not represented, I decided to stay and do something about it.” The timing seemed right: Canadian multiculturalism was in its idealistic heyday, and audiences were hungry to experience something different.