RACHEL BROWNE (1934 – 2012)
Canadian dance icon and acclaimed choreographer Rachel Browne was born Ray Minkoff to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her life’s journey as a dance artist began with ballet lessons as a child. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York City to study ballet and expand her horizons. She trained with eminent teachers including Robert Joffrey, Edward Caton and Benjamin Harkarvy, who became her mentor and dear friend.
When Harkarvy accepted the position of Artistic Director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) in 1957, Rachel accompanied him to Winnipeg. She was a soloist with the RWB until 1961, when she left to start her family. Her final years with the RWB were under the artistic direction of the late Arnold Spohr, who was a lifelong supporter of Rachel’s contributions to dance in Canada.
Driven by her passion to dance and choreograph, in 1964, Rachel founded Contemporary Dancers, later renamed Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Canada’s first professional modern dance company. Rachel served as the company’s Artistic Director, resident choreographer, and teacher for over 20 years. Her work was instrumental in the development of modern dance in Canada and by 1970 she had brought Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers to national recognition.
During her tenure as Artistic Director, Rachel commissioned and performed works by well-known American choreographers including Cliff Keuter, Sophie Maslow, Lynn Taylor Corbett, Dan Wagoner and James Waring. Under Rachel’s direction, the company also became an important commissioner of new Canadian choreographers including Stephanie Ballard, Anna Blewchamp, David Earle, Karen Jamieson, Judith Marcuse, Jennifer Mascall, Linda Rabin, Paula Ravitz, Tedd Robinson, and Norbert Vesak.
In 1972, she founded the School of Contemporary Dancers, renowned as one of Canada’s foremost professional modern dance training programs. Throughout its development, Rachel remained active as a valued guide and wise mentor for the School’s Co-Directors, Faye Thomson and Odette Heyn. Rachel resigned from Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers as Artistic Director in 1983, but remained closely tied to the company and the School for the remainder of her life, while setting works on other companies and dance artists throughout Canada.
Focusing primarily on her choreographic development from the early 1980s onward, Rachel created a long series of challenging, episodic works including Mouvement, Edgelit, Toward Light, Sunstorm, Flowering, and many others. Rachel’s final piece, Momentum, a trio for the School of Contemporary Dancers’ graduating students, premiered in May 2012.
Rachel is renowned as a quintessential artist and generous mentor. She worked with some of Canada’s greatest women contemporary dance artists – among them Patricia Fraser, Susan Macpherson, Judith Marcuse, Davida Monk, Sharon Moore, Andrea Nann and Julia Sasso. Through her teaching and choreography, she influenced and mentored multiple generations of artists including Susie Burpee, Constance Cooke, Karen Kuzak, Brent Lott, Deborah Lundmark, and Gaile Petursson-Hiley, among many others.
Throughout her impressive career, Rachel continued to create dances of quality and relevance for independent projects, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, the Professional Program of the School of Contemporary Dancers, the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre, and the dance departments at York University and the University of Calgary. These works have been showcased across Canada, including the Canada Dance Festival (Ottawa), Dancing on the Edge Festival (Vancouver), the Older and Reckless series (Toronto), Danceworks (Toronto), the Women and the Arts Festival, and Dancers Studio West (Calgary), among many others.
Rachel was inspiring as an artist and remained active as a choreographer, teacher and performer until her passing in 2012, dedicating her life to her art. She appeared onstage as recently as 2010 in Stephanie Ballard’s Homeagain, and continued to create new works and remount many of her signature pieces. Rachel made a profound contribution to dance in Canada and has left a prolific artistic legacy.
Rachel’s outstanding achievements have been honored through numerous accolades and awards. Rachel became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1997 in recognition of the significance of her leadership in establishing and developing modern dance across Canada. She was awarded the 1995 Jean A. Chalmers National Dance Award for Creativity in Dance, the 2000 Canada Council Jacqueline Lemieux Prize, and the 2001 Manitoba Arts Council Great-West Life Lifetime Achievement Award. In her honor, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers renamed its performing venue The Rachel Browne Theatre in 2008. Rachel’s biography, Dancing Toward the Light, by acclaimed dance artist and writer Carol Anderson, was published in 1999. The documentary, A Good Madness: The Dance of Rachel Browne, by filmmaker Danielle Sturk was released in 2014.
Despite her tremendous success and achievements, Rachel remained approachable, humble and down-to-earth. Her concern for humanity and social justice was reflected through her life and art. Rachel will be remembered with love and tributes for her remarkable spirit, cherished mentorship, stunning choreography, indomitable will, and devotion to dance.