3 min

Survival is not enough

The clock is ticking. Time is running out.

But dancer Pascal Desrosiers remains calm and refreshingly optimistic. At 35 and with 15 years of experience as a dancer, he has been around the block enough to know that the only way to keep your sanity in a world where conventional wisdom says that the maximum age for a male dancer is somewhere around 40, is to keep going forward.

“Right now I feel really comfortable with my body like I’ve never felt before as a dancer,” says the sexy Quebecois-born, Toronto-based dancer. “There’s a kind of new world; a certain ease that I never thought could be possible. The older I get, the more and more I accept. I know I have five years left and it’s okay with me.”

Desrosiers is a portrait of the artist as a mature man. It’s all a far cry from his early years when he lived the proverbial crazy life of modern dancers at the beginning of their career. “When you are a dancer and you’re starting, the only thing you want to do is just dance. You want to work, you don’t mind if you have a side job. It’s been like that for years and years, it’s part of a dancer’s life.”

But there’s only so much you can take. When he decided to leave Toronto Dance Theatre after six years and go independent in 1996, Desrosiers couldn’t have picked a worse time or place. Mike Harris’s government had started its first round of arts funding cuts, and dance was one of the art forms to suffer the most.

As a recent Toronto Star article claimed, a financially strained Desrosiers had to turn down a lucrative offer from a dance company in Sweden once he realized he had to pay high taxes in both countries. “I could be a starving artist here so why should I go over there to be a starving artist?”

Sweden’s loss is Dancers For Life’s gain, the annual AIDS fundraiser set for another star-studded evening on Nov 18 at the Elgin Theatre. Desrosiers is one of eight dancers volunteering their time and talent as part of the National Commission, a new initiative that pairs four choreographers nationwide to create four original dance pieces, and a collectively choreographed finale, in less than a week.

While the choreographers, Desrosiers reveals, are beginning to “freak out,” he remains his (newly) calm self. “As dancers we’re used to that. Somebody might get injured on the road and you have to replace them on the spot. You barely know the steps but you have to make it happen. It’s a skill that you learn with time.”

It’s of little use pointing out to Desrosiers the irony of cash-starved dancers volunteering their time and energy for weeks at a time. “Dancers are so used to working for pennies that when it’s time to work for a good cause it just makes sense,” he muses. “Besides, how many dancers and artists have been touched by AIDS?” he asks, recalling his “first real mentor,” dancer and teacher Juan Antonio who died of AIDS in 1990.

Desrosiers’s career, in fact, coincides with the worst phase of the disease in the late 1980s and early ’90s – a time when many dancers and choreographers were succumbing to AIDS with frightening regularity. There’s a parallel between the activism that has characterized AIDS work and a new battle Desrosiers sees as necessary – dancers have to fight to gain more funding and opportunities in Toronto. “The survival mode is not enough; we need to go further,” he suggests.

Although mainly known as a dancer, Desrosiers is also an adept choreographer whose original work has been shown in Canada, Mexico and Japan. His next project, pending grants, will be an original choreographic piece likely to be premiered early next fall.

The fact that it’s hard to pigeonhole Desrosiers’s style in any one neat category has always helped his eclectic career. “Some people say it’s a little bit more theatrical,” says Desrosiers. “I think it’s off the track a little bit.

“I like quiet moments and I like stuff that’s theatrical too,” he adds with a certain mischievous smile that suggests that these preferences operate on and off stage.