Len Gibson

Leonard (Len) Gibson

1926-2008

Dancer / Actor / Singer / Writer / Producer / Choreographer / Teacher / Theatre Owner, Len Gibson Dance Ensemble, Vancouver, BC. Born: Athabasca, AB.

In the world of dance, Len Gibson is a legend. With a career spanning over six decades, he was also one of the country’s longest working professional artists.

Len was born in Alberta in 1926; his grandparents had first settled there in 1911; his parents later moved to British Columbia. Originally self-taught by watching Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr.’s films, Len began to perform professionally at the age of five as a tap dance phenomenon in Vancouver. By the time he was ten, he was performing with groups, such as the touring companies of the Eddie Cantor Show, Blackstone the Magician. At thirteen, he won two talent contests receiving a Bulova watch and a silver cup. A year later, lying about his age, Len landed a job in the floor show of the Mandarin Gardens, with tough to please customers.

As a teenager, Len studied ballet with Vancouver teacher, Mara McBirney. In 1947, at the age of 19, he joined American choreographer and dancer, Katherine Dunham and her company on-stage as a last-minute replacement when the group performed in Vancouver. Afterwards, he was offered a scholarship to attend Katherine’s school in New York. There, he was introduced to the Afro-Cuban style and completed courses in ballet, tap, jazz, Spanish, oriental percussion, costume and visual design. When he returned to Vancouver, he formed his own group, the Negro Workshop Dance Group, and received standing ovations for his performances in 1949, at the provincial dance festivals in his own choreographic works, The Thief and Abstraction.

The British Columbia Ballet Company, which was created by McBirney and Heino Heiden, performed Len’s Gershwin Preludes (a.k.a. Les Prelude) at the last Canadian Ballet Festival in 1953. The following year, he choreographed and appeared in Bamboula, the first Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) musical variety television series that was produced in Vancouver; and one of the first programs to feature a multicultural cast of dancers. Also, in the 1950s, Len performed in several of Vancouver’s Theatre Under the Stars productions such as Kiss Me Kate and Finian’s Rainbow.

Len toured Europe in the 1960s, performing as an actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. He was also a principal dancer with Vancouver’s Theatre Under the Stars; billed mostly as a “song and dance man” when he toured throughout Canada and Europe. He was also one of the dancers in the ‘60s film classic, Cleopatra. During this time, he also worked internally with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and performed in nightclubs.

He returned to Canada in the 1970s and opened his own studio in Toronto. In the 1990s, Len travelled to Africa to study traditional African dance styles. His 1992 production, Juke Joint: 100 Years of Black Dance in the New World, which was performed by the Len Gibson Dance Ensemble, celebrated the dances of the African diaspora.

Len was instrumental in launching the careers of many of his former students; touching them personally with his sincerity, his professionalism, and his humanity.

Other: Len operated his own studio of dance and theatre arts in Toronto for 30 years. He also taught at Sheridan College, and at the Yorkville Performing Arts Studio.

Works: Performed, directed and choreographed various productions, such as: Fiddler on the Roof; West Side Story; Guys and Dolls; Hello Dolly; Finian’s Rainbow; Salome Bey’s, Dickie Valentine Show (BBC), Juke Joint: 100 Years of Black Dance in the New World, Tribute to Martin Luther King, East End Blues…and All That Jazz, Classical Cabaret, Kiss Me Kate, Chu Chin ChowShowboat, Damn Yankees, Annie Get Your Gun, Can Can, Bal Nagra, Blind Girl, The Thief, Somnabulist, The Atom, Gershwin Prelude, Brideship, Cleopatra, The Hasty Heart, A Taste of Honey, Kaiser Jane’s German, Man Betterman, Brownstone Kids, Da Vinci’s Inquest, Ninja Turtles, Cuba to Paris Revue, etc.

Honours: Include Sam Payne Lifetime Achievement Award, ACTRA/BC (2006); inclusion in Who’s Who in Black Canada 2 (2006); Harry Jerome Lifetime Achievement Award, BBPA (2000); Award of Distinction, Black Dancers in Canada.

Motto: You can’t keep a good person down.