Look way up: Toronto stilt performers stand tall

Standing at 10-feet-tall, Cheronne Thurab towers over everyone as she gracefully walks back and forth at a recent benefit gala. With her face elaborately painted with bright colours, people can’t help but stop and stare in wonder.

“When I’m up there I feel regal and majestic,” she said. “The makeup and costumes are usually very grand and I’m usually supposed to embody a goddess or an African princess.”

Thurab, who is actually 4”11, is a stilt-dancer for The SwizzleStick Theatre.

The theatre, which specializes exclusively in the art of stilt-dancing, is the brain-child of artistic director Christopher Pinheiro. In 1985, he came to Toronto from Trinidad as part of an exchange program called “Island to Island” as a visiting artist. The program was a cultural exchange between Toronto Island’s artist community and Trinidadian Carnival artists.

“Part of what I brought to Toronto’s stilt dancing arena was the African presence, which wasn’t there at all,” Pinheiro said. “There were circuses, there were clowns, but not the deities and supernatural sprits.”

In 1989, he was invited by Shadowland Theatre to work on their Caribana presentation and Pinheiro added his own twist to the carnival. That year he incorporated “moko jumbie,” a loosely based term describing stilt-dancers who embody supernatural spirits, which he interprets as the spirits of the forests.

“For the first time moko jumbie was incorporated in Caribana. I had three adult males stilt-dancers who were very well received,” Pinheiro said. “People were like, ‘Wow! What is this?’”

SwizzleStick Theatre has performed in television studios, raves, corporate events, parades, parks, malls and churches. Thurab, who’s been with the theatre for more than a decade, prefers outdoor events because it allows more freedom to walk around.

“Pride and Caribana are always tons of fun. The people are very enthusiastic and unafraid to approach me to dance,” Thurab said. “The music is blaring and everyone is just looking to have a good time.”

Pinheiro credits the mass appeal of stilt-dancing to the way the dancers move their bodies and how each of them put their heart into their characters.

“They’re spectacular and larger than life,” he said. “Stilt-dancing returns a sense of magic and wonder to our society.”

Thurab agrees. And, she added, because stilt-dancing is such a unique art form, people are always blown away by the beauty.

“I think limiting our appearances makes us a little more magical to people,” she said. “They know that they can only find us in certain places and that may add to our mystique.”