Music & Dance Bring The Art of Lawren Harris To Life

The Idea of North

Lawren Harris is the textbook definition of “Canadian art icon.” His landscape paintings are instantly recognizable—the abstracted forms of the northern mountains looming in all their icy-blue-hued glory—and he is credited by many as the impetus behind the famous Group of Seven. This summer, the National Gallery of Canada is celebrating the Canadian artist’s oeuvre by hosting an exhibition titled The Idea of North, co-produced by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and Steve Martin—yes, that Steve Martin—who is an avid Harris fan and collector. In addition to the range of Harris artworks that will be on display, an ultra-modern immersive ballet, The Dreamers Ever Leave You, will be performed in the galleries. In true art-exhibit fashion, the National Ballet of Canada’s troupe will perform on slightly elevated floors, allowing viewers to interact with, move around, and witness the fluid movements of the three-hour contemporary dance at eye level.

Choreographer Robert Binet says that he’s always seen a powerful connection between Harris’ paintings and human movement. In the same way that Harris abstracts the landscape “to show a sort of primal energy and powerful life force,” ballet abstracts the body from the way it normally communicates to show “the emotional and spiritual energy of a human,” he explains between rehearsals. Binet’s hope for visitors is that they’ll walk through the exhibition and feel moved by Harris’ artwork, and then walk into his immersive ballet, and experience the same energy from a completely different medium. Andrew Hunter, curator of Canadian Art for the AGO, explains that one of the main criticisms of Harris has been that people disappear in his work, and he has thus ignored the great indigenous history of the country. In Hunter’s opinion, this absence in Harris’ work wasn’t so much about ignoring people, but rather looking beyond, at another more spiritual, plane of existence. “I think it’s really fascinating that a major work that is being generated reintroduces the body into this Harris space, but also that it thinks about the body, movement, andhuman presence in a [similarly] abstracted way.”

Hunter, who has worked extensively on the artist’s work, believes that the Canadian modernist would have been quite struck and moved by this experimental, responsive ballet work. Not only was the painter big on new music—there were “all these stories about him in his house in Vancouver and people could hear the music from blocks away,” says Hunter, laughing—but he always supported younger artists who pushed the boundaries. “You always have to push forward and try new things and move into new spaces, and so Robert’s initiative very much embraces that spirit of Harris.”

The Idea of North opens at the AGO in Toronto on July 1, and runs unil September 18. The Dreamers Ever Leave You will be performed August 31 to September 10.