The University of Alberta Orchesis Modern Dance Program has been in existence for over 40 years. Its history is written into the bodies, minds, and spirits of all its participants and continues to be written in the spaces of the rehearsal studios and Myer Horowitz Theatre.
In 1918, Margaret H'Doubler, a professor of physical education at the University of Wisconsin, established the first dance degree program at a U.S. university. To Professor H'Doubler, dance was a vital force in the total development of the individual. She called her group Orchesis, which implied the combined sciences of movement and gesture. Her idea of dance was to foster social improvement, physical well-being, and artistic enrichment, and to realize the Greek ideal of balance between the intellectual, the physical, and the spiritual. By the late 1960s, over 200 Orchesis groups had been established at universities across North America.
Dorothy Harris, a disciple of H'Doubler, graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and professor of dance in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, founded the U of A Orchesis group in 1964. She initiated a wave of creative dance in the mid–60s that has taken on a life of its own in the present vibrant dance community. For Harris, Orchesis encompassed all of the ideals of her mentor, and, most importantly, Orchesis provided students with "a chance to dance" in a performance context. Together with fellow dance professor Joyce Boorman, Harris aimed to stimulate an appreciation and understanding of creative dance in the larger community. It began with the Introductory Modern Dance class, a required third-year course for women and the only creative dance activity in Edmonton at the time.
The first Orchesis performance was a lecture demonstration in the West Gymnasium in 1965. It was a free event to introduce and explain this "strange" mode of dance to the curious audience. The audience reaction was favourable and Orchesis gained strength.
The University of Alberta Orchesis and the University of Calgary Dance Club presented joint programs in 1969 and 1970, entitled Dance Montage in Calgary, and Dance Motif in Edmonton. In 1973, Orchesis partnered with the Edmonton Youth Orchestra and the Centennial Singers to produce "Can We Get There by Candlelight", a Christmas program.
By 1977, Orchesis had returned to the magic of the theatre environment with Dance Motif, whose primary objectives are to enhance the learning experience and provide performance opportunities for students. The performance also strives to educate audiences about dance, and to make dance visible in the campus community.
The 1988 performance at the Calgary Olympics is a highlight in Orchesis's history. Orchesis performed in the Olympic Arts Festival Danscene, held at the University of Calgary. In conjunction with the Festival, the University of Calgary Dance Department hosted Canada's first national conference for post-secondary dance programs, Danscene: University and Colleges.
In recent years, Orchesis has taken its dances to Camrose, Red Deer, and Fort McMurray; participated in dance conferences; and held orientation performances on campus. Orchesis continues today with Dance Motif within the University of Alberta community. Orchesis has established itself as a collaborative effort between academic staff and students with the ongoing support of the Students' Union and the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. Orchesis draws its membership from students, staff, alumni, and other members of the community.
The University of Alberta Orchesis Modern Dance Club has thrived for over 40 years due to the belief and commitment to dance of its directors, Dorothy Harris, Joyce Boorman, Marsha Padfield, Ruth Bartman, Cathy Black, and Tamara Bliss.
This history is adapted from an article by Karrie Darichuk, who has been a part of Orchesis for over fifteen years. The original article appeared in the 35th anniversary Dance Motif program.