3 min

Dance ’til you die

Celebrating Peter Boneham's youthful enthusiasm for Le Groupe Dance Lab

IT'S ABOUT DANCE. Peter Boneham thinks gay - but it doesn't overly influence his work. Credit: Capital Xtra files

For more than 55 years, Peter Boneham has been a pioneer in the world of modern dance and creative expression, a constant innovator whose ideas have brought him international renown.

Boneham, who founded Le Groupe Dance Lab in Ottawa in 1988, will be honoured next month at the Canada Dance Festival for his contributions to Canadian dance.

The festival, which will take place at various locations throughout Ottawa from Jun 3 to 12, will celebrate its 10th anniversary with nine newly commissioned works – including a shared program featuring Le Groupe choreographers Rob Abubo and Karen Guttman as the highlight of the festival’s celebration of Le Groupe and Boneham.

According to Boneham, the dance lab serves as a research center for progressive and emerging dancers and choreographers, who are looking for a safe and nurturing place to bring forth fresh concepts in new dance.

“We’re the research and development in dance,” he says of the internationally renowned Ottawa dance center.

In addition to encouraging his choreographers to take risks, Boneham says the lab also provides an “outside eye” or “monitor” who works closely with the artist, providing feedback early on in the dancer’s creative process.

Then, once a choreographer has reached a certain stage in their work, the piece has a “showing” before a live audience. And, after the showing is completed, the tables are turned and the choreographer sits back and listens to the comments about his or her work from the audience.

“I wanted to do something where I would give a choreographer a research period and they would have an outside eye, but also that they would involve the audience in this embryonic stage of the work for feedback, to see if this work was reaching what they were trying to accomplish,” Boneham says as he explains the thinking behind his creation of the dance lab concept. “Because no matter if it’s experimental or if it’s new, it’s still about communication – otherwise it’s just masturbation and we’re doing it for ourselves.”

Although the dance lab concept has now become popular in modern dance circles, Boneham says when he originally began developing the center in the mid-1980s it was the first of its kind in contemporary dance

“At that time, a lot of people just thought that I was out of my mind,” he says. “But now, since I’ve done the lab, 15 years later the word ‘mentor’ or ‘monitor’ – even the word ‘lab’ – have become buzzwords [in dance].”

Boneham, a New York State native, began his dancing career with the Mercury Ballet Company in 1948 in Rochester. After spending the next several years dancing up and down the American east coast with various ballet and theater companies, Boneham moved to Canada in 1964 to join Jeanne Renaud and Françoise Riopel at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal.


In 1966, Jeanne Renaud founded Le Groupe De La Place Royale, with Boneham serving as the company’s assistant artistic director. When Renaud retired in 1972, Boneham became artistic director along with Jean-Pierre Perreault. Le Groupe De La Place Royale relocated to Ottawa in 1977, and after Perreault’s departure, Boneham became sole artistic director.

Although a gay man – he has been with his long-time partner Normand Vandal, the visual director for the lab, for more than 25 years – Boneham says his sexuality has never played a key role or influenced his work as a dancer, choreographer or instructor.

“I can never stop being a gay man because I am a gay man, but in my work I don’t think gay – I am gay, so, of course, I’m thinking gay – but I don’t go for gay themes. Some people do and that’s great,” he says. “But I’m not a crusader for anything, other than [finding] funding for the dance lab. And the lab is gay, straight, whatever – I help any kind of artist who’s worthy of help.”

Boneham, 69, says that he intends to continue on as Le Groupe’s artistic director for the next few years. He says the youthful enthusiasm of the lab’s young dancers and choreographers, as well as the centre’s overall concept of clearing new ground in dance, continues to stimulate and encourage his love of dance.

“I don’t think that I’ll ever want to retire,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll be in dance until I die.”


10th Anniversary Edition.

Thu, Jun 3 – Sat, Jun 12.

Various locations.