Newton throws a bang-up birthday party

Ask Newton Moraes — celebrating 25 years of the company that bears his name — how he got into dance in Brazil and the first word that comes out of his mouth is “Bob”. By that he means the late Bob Shirley, an anthropologist from the University of Toronto whose studies were concentrated in Brazil.

“I met Bob in 1985. I was studying physical education at Unisinos University in Porto Alegre.” They became friends and later, partners. Moraes, who had done some samba dancing, admired a company called Ballet Phoenix. “He said, ‘Why don’t you start taking class with them? So I did and I took some jazz and some ballet classes.”

He recalls with fondness the 86-year-old dancer, Tony Petzholds, who taught the ballet classes. “She was a fabulous dancer. She was doing a penché and I couldn’t believe this woman had her leg up here (he demonstrates). ‘This is how it is supposed to be done,’ she said. Even the dancers in the company would look at her and say, ‘holy fuck’.”

While still living in Porto Alegre Moraes also took lessons from a jazz dancer, Annette Lubisco. Three years after meeting Newton, Bob had to return to his job at U of T. But the two kept in touch. By 1991, Moraes was dancing in Porto Alegre and even teaching. On a visit, Bob said, “Newton, you are very talented. I should take you to Canada. Believe me, you are going to love it.”

So in 1991, with minimal dance experience, no English and few prospects for work, Newton — thanks to a letter Bob wrote to immigration authorities – was granted a visa and moved in with the anthropology professor in Toronto. Right away he enrolled in English classes during the day and dance classes at Toronto Dance Theatre at night. He auditioned for the School of Toronto Dance Theatre and in 1992 was accepted. Then, like a hot wind in winter, Newton Moraes burst upon the dance scene.

“Six months later, I was on stage.” Toronto Dance Theatre was performing Court of Miracles at the Premiere Dance Theatre (now the Fleck) and they brought in students, including the first-year men, to fill out the cast. “There I was performing with Patricia Beatty, David Earle and Peter Randazzo.”

Students at the TDT School were encouraged to create. “I started to make my little choreographies for the student shows at the Coffee House. And Trish Beatty said, ‘You have something to share: carry on.’ ”

By 1994, with Bob Shirley’s assistance, Newton and the students mounted a show at the George Ignatieff Theatre on the UofT campus. It was all free and the theatre was packed. Soon, he was dancing at the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists and even got a gig at the Music Gallery. The first time I saw Newton dance, it was a solo based on his batuque religion. Scantily clad, moving slowly and deliberately on the FfIDA stage, he was spellbinding, doing something I had never seen before.

More lessons, in jazz, invitations to perform at German festivals, a stint at York University and more networking led to the formation of Newton Moraes Dance Theatre presenting its first show May 22 and 23, 1997. The company continued into the new millennium, funded through a combination of Bob’s generosity, government grants, teaching classes in Afro-Brazilian dance and Newton’s willingness to take on day jobs, usually as a cleaner.

Over the years, Newton Moraes Dance Theatre has employed dozens of dancers and given work to outstanding dance professionals, including Sharon DiGenova, lighting designer for the anniversary show Life Under My Skin. His Brazilian influences and dance foundation have always been detectable in his choreography, especially in works such as Brazil: The Land of Tears and Soul, from 2013. Nevertheless, Moraes credits major mentors such as Denise Fujiwara, Danny Grossman and choreographer/dancer Jean Sasportes, the long-time Pina Bausch associate, for his growth as a choreographer.

Life Under My Skin has been in development for months. Collaborating with composer Edgardo Moreno and the troupe of eight dancers, Newton built a dance that asks the universal questions about why artists are forced to create and how they survive when money is scarce. Questions Newton himself knows the answers to. Funding from the Toronto Arts council, Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts has also enabled the creation of a documentary film about the company. It’s going to be a bang-up birthday for Newton Moraes Dance Theatre.

Life Under My Skin

By Newton Moraes Dance Theatre

Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre, Toronto, 8 pm, November 24-26, 2022

Photo of dancers Maggie Armstrong, Daniela Carmona, Emilio Colalillo, Rumi Jeraj, Aryana Malekzadeh, Jianna Neufeld, Andrea Rojas, Brendan De Santis by David Hou.

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