Action At a Distance: Wells Hill – Experimental Dance Theatre Inspired by Marshall McLuhan & Glenn Gould


Action At a Distance: Wells Hill

Nov. 24 & 25 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 26, 2017, at 2 p.m. | Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, SFU Gold Corp Centre for the Arts, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia

According to Vanessa Goodman, a “weird Canadiana moment” inspired her latest work.

The Vancouver-based choreographer grew up in a Toronto house once inhabited by Marshall McLuhan and his family. At a 2011 commemorative plaque ceremony for the house, the McLuhans informed the Goodmans that Glenn Gould, among others, would visit to speak to the esteemed Canadian media critic.

“This struck me,” said Goodman. “Coincidentally, my parents lived in the same apartment building that Gould lived in before they moved into the house.”

This week, Goodman and her company Action at a Distance present the world premiere of Wells Hill. It’s a contemporary dance piece informed by the ideas and philosophies of the two Canadian cultural icons.

Part of the choreographer’s approach has been to look at how technology has influenced not just our thoughts and actions but also our physical movements.

“McLuhan predicted that technology was going to be an extension of our nervous system,” she said.

“And today we have these Pavlovian responses to our devices. Something lights up, like a notification, and we are automatically drawn to it. Our movements are so predetermined by our interactions with technology. For me, there’s a logic to finding those connections through dance.”

Gould’s ideas about performance, as well as excerpts from his recordings, are also incorporated.

In coming up with the piece, Goodman collaborated with seven dancers. They are Lara Barclay, Karissa Barry, Dario Dinuzzi, Bynh Ho, Arash Khakpour, Alexa Mardon and Bevin Poole.

“I gave them an excerpt of text by McLuhan, and I asked them to transpose it into emojis on their cellphone,” she said. “From there, I tasked them with developing those emojis into gestural phrases. And from there we developed them into larger movement phrases.”

Goodman has structured Wells Hill in two parts — pre- and post-internet.

“In the second half, the language of the piece is strongly linked to these emoji phrases, these new ways that we’re figuring out how to communicate. McLuhan was generating a lot of inspiration for his theories from Renaissance pamphlets. In a sense, we’re going back in time to use pictorial images to describe how we’re feeling emotionally. So there is that through-line in there.”

Goodman is also working with lighting designer James Proudfoot, projection artists Ben Didier and Milton Lim, and composers Scott Morgan (who records under the name Loscil) and Gabriel Saloman.

SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs commissioned the piece, which is co-presented by DanceHouse and SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. The recipient of the 2013 Iris Garland Emerging Choreographer Award, Goodman has created works for the Dancing on the Edge Festival, The Gwaii Trust, and Vancouver Biennale. The Canada Dance Festival, The Magnetic North Festival, The Dance Centre, and The Chutzpah! Festival have all presented her work.

Although its original inspiration is in ideas, Wells Hill also works on a more visceral level.

“At its core, it’s really about the medium, which is the movement, and the message, which is that at the end of the day we have our bodies,” Goodman said.

“Anytime I start to feel overwhelmed by the vast amounts of information that’s out there on these two individuals (McLuhan and Gould), I come back to what my entry-point is, which is the physical, emotional conversation with the bodies, and the stagecraft. That is the base layer for the whole work.” Source:

Marshall McLuhan’s Last House at 3 Wychwood Park, Toronto

Upon his return [in 1968 from his academic year at Fordham University in New York], the McLuhan family—with most of their six children grown and moved out—relocated from their quiet Tudor-style house at 29 Wells Hill Avenue, near Casa Loma, to 3 Wychwood Park.                                                             The McLuhans’ home was an Edwardian mansion designed by Eden Smith (who had built his own home on the same street) in a wooded area that had been conceived as an artists’ retreat at the turn of the 20th century by landscape painter Marmaduke Matthews. It was described as “baronial” by one visitor impressed by its oak paneling and high ceilings. As Marchand says, McLuhan loved the house dearly and “enjoyed showing it off to visitors with a simple-hearted pride.” Intellectuals and politicians and others were frequent guests, discussing ideas at the dinner table or outside on the elegant stone terrace. “Anybody who came to visit had a tour of the park,” McLuhan’s daughter Elizabeth told the Globe and Mail in 2008. “Nobody left without a walk around.”
It was McLuhan’s ritual that he and wife Corrine walked around the park daily. McLuhan was particularly fond of the park’s pond—created by Taddle Creek surfacing briefly on its southeasterly course through the city. He described the neighbourhood lovingly in a 1969 letter to a friend: “Our house is No. 3 and is the only house on a lovely pond in the heart of Toronto….The pond ripples outward into a heavily treed neighbourhood of twenty-two acres and fifty-four houses. The Park has no ‘roads’ or sidewalks, but simply these ‘Viconean’ circles of homes and people in a most unusual, dramatic relationship.”
Wychwood Park deeply affected McLuhan’s view of urban community. In Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding (Stoddart, 1997), W. Terrence Gordon quotes McLuhan as writing:

Previously, I have only lived on streets, which sometimes have the quality of neighbourhood, but lineality is not compatible with community. The community character of Wychwood Park is a direct result of the circular compositioning of the houses, resulting from Wychwood pond. When houses interface by their circular or oval compositioning, a kind of social resonance develops that does not depend upon a high degree of social life or visiting among the occupants. Rather, there occurs a sense of theatre, as if all the occupants were, in varying degrees, on a stage. Something of the sort happens in any small village, and builders and planners could easily achieve rich community effects (even without a pond) simply by locating dwellings in non-lineal patterns.”

So McLuhan and neighbours, like architect Colin Vaughan, reacted strongly when they learned that proposed concrete apartment high-rises to be built on Davenport Road, immediately south of the park, threatened their neighbourhood. After seeking guidance from Jane Jacobs, who lived nearby in the Annex, they took their fight to City Hall. Ultimately, however, McLuhan and company were unsuccessful in convincing city council to halt the plans. (Source:

One Response to “Action At a Distance: Wells Hill – Experimental Dance Theatre Inspired by Marshall McLuhan & Glenn Gould”

  1. 1 Michael

    Hi Alex, I am still working through my email backlog and will respond to your informative email soon. But first to this! Teri fabricated this idea of Gould visiting the house. Never happened according to the other sibs. However, it is amazing to see this woman put this together!


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