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Creating a Culture for Tomorrow, Defining the Dance Landscape of Today

Dispatches from the Canadian Dance Assembly Conference and Dance Week in Toronto By Kallee Lins
  • Kevin Ormsby, Karen Kaeja and Emily Molnar at CDA's National Conference / Photo by Aria Evans
  • Kevin Ormsby, Karen Kaeja, Emily Molnar, Sara Palmieri, Santee Smith and Renata Soutter at CDA's National Conference / Photo by Aria Evans

On September 28 and 29, Canadian dance professionals – both those who populate the stages and those who linger behind the scenes – met at the Harbourfront Centre to attend the Canadian Dance Assembly (CDA)’s National Conference. The theme for this year’s event was “Creating a Culture of Success: Getting Good Ideas off the Ground.” Though this might seem like an impossibly broad theme, it generated highly pragmatic conversations throughout the two days, with discussions of cultural ideals in the Canadian dance milieu proceeding from infrastructural concerns such as funding structures and residency models.

The need to create new strategies for making, producing and advocating for dance was a refrain introduced during the opening keynote address delivered by Susan Chalmers-Gauvin, CEO and co-founder of Atlantic Ballet Canada. Chalmers-Gauvin used the company’s extensively toured Ghosts of Violence as a case study to highlight the potential of looking outside of the arts community for partners and donors. Ghosts is a visceral portrait of women who face great danger in their own homes, a ballet tribute to victims of domestic abuse. It was a topic that brought more than 300 organizations into the project, ranging from the RCMP to the Canadian Association of Social Work, including many partners who had never set foot in a theatre. According to Chalmers-Gauvin, some audience members who were victims of domestic abuse provided feedback and responded incredibly positively to the ballet’s emotionally nuanced treatment of the subject matter. The numbers presented spoke just as strongly about the success of the project from a financial perspective. Chalmers-Gauvin highlighted that while project funding from the Canada Council can range up to $30,000, projects appealing to other departments can bring in multi-year grants between $50,000 and $700,000 per year. By looking outside traditional funding models, Atlantic Ballet Canada was able to generate $400 million in combined funding from non-arts funders, including the Ministry of Justice and Status of Women Canada, along with a host of private donors and municipal councils. Atlantic Ballet’s willingness to advocate for the importance of such a project outside of the arts milieu encourages creators across the country to seek support in unexpected places.  

On her panel Financial Models for Success, Christina Loewen, executive director of Opera.ca and co-founder of The Arts Accelerator, an organization that supports arts entrepreneurs, continued the conversation about transferring business models onto artistic production. The basis of her thinking is simple: both technology start-ups and the performing arts strive for innovation while being chronically underfunded. The key to success under these conditions is to employ a system that values experimentation, allowing creators to fail quickly and learn in the process. Loewen’s model of choice is the LEAN method, a system that prioritizes customer and audience input at every step of the process and the small-scale testing of ideas before embarking on a large investment.

This need to give creators an opportunity to experiment outside of a set production schedule ran through a number of panels. Karen Kaeja, one half of the creative team behind Kaeja d’Dance, spoke about her open-ended residency at Memorial University in St. John’s and illustrated the productive chance encounters and collaborations that occur when artists are given the chance to truly dwell in their surroundings and build a process in situ rather than in advance of creative work.

Similarly, Laurence Lemieux of Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, on a panel devoted to “community hubs”, highlighted the responsibility she feels as a venue-owning artist to give back to the community by simply opening her doors. “Dancers just need space; they have to rehearse and rehearse so much,” she said. Immediately following Lemieux, Ofilio Sinbadinho of Gadly – who has benefited from donated studio space at The Citadel – addressed the mutual benefit of reaching out to other dancers and sharing resources. He emphasized, “Artists aren’t the clients of venues, they’re collaborators,” and it takes being proactive to reach beyond the studio walls to make these connections happen. He spoke warmly of the direct influence Lemieux has had on Gadfly by welcoming them into the space her company owns, The Citadel, and forming an artistic relationship between their respective companies that continues to grow.

A focus on increasing accessibility within the profession ran through the conference in both large and small ways. Luca “LazyLegz” Patuelli delivered the artistic keynote address Monday night and treated us to a high-energy demonstration of why he is a veritable celebrity in the breakdancing circuit despite his challenges with arthrogryposis and scoliosis. While this condition leaves his legs significantly weakened, his incredible upper-body strength allows him to access dazzling moves that many dancers cannot readily perform and gives him a style all his own. His story, dancing and presence throughout the conference leant credence to conversations emphasizing the value of diversity.

While maintaining a celebratory tone, delegates highlighted the vast amount of work still to be done around this issue. Renata Soutter, co-executive/artistic director of the fully integrated and inclusive professional dance company Propellor Dance of Ottawa, pointed out that even theatres that are accessible for the audience often have huge barriers to accessibility backstage – limiting opportunities for performers with disabilities.   

Tangible, good ideas for the dance community circulated not only in the conference rooms but also in corridors, during coffee breaks and in theatre audiences. The CDA conference was presented in partnership with five groups of dance presenters (most in attendance for the CanDance Network’s Annual Presenters’ Meeting and National Dance Presenters Conference), including Dance Toronto Showcase Group; a network of regional presenters (Made in BC: Dance on Tour, La Danse sur les routes de Québec, Ontario Dances and Atlantic Moves); Harbourfront Centre; the CanDance Network; and Fall for Dance North (FFDN). A total of 150 attendees during the conference’s joint programming provided ample opportunity for “networking on a large scale and building community,” says Kate Cornell, CDA’s executive director.

 

FFDN was a highlight for many participating in what was dubbed Toronto Dance Week. The inaugural Canadian edition of this New York–based festival was an uncontested success, selling out the Sony Centre on each of its three performance nights, September 29 through October 1. According to Executive Director Madeleine Skoggard, more than 8800 tickets were sold for the three-day run, thanks in part to the low cost of $10 for each seat. What stood out the most when I attended on the Wednesday night – aside from brilliant performances from Ballet BC, Dorrance Dance, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, DanceBrazil and Peggy Baker Dance Projects – was the massive eruption of shouts and applause after each piece. The enthusiasm was palpable. Skoggard recalls, “Even before the first show, people commented on the energy in the lobby. You could feel it. … Toronto was clearly ready and hungry for an event like this.”

When asked whether this massive audience will translate into new dance-goers, Artistic Producer and dance community member Michael Caldwell acknowledged that audience attrition is a complex problem that cannot be solved overnight: “It will take some time to truly see the ripple effects into the Toronto dance scene.” However, he hopes that FFDN “can bring more people to see dance, encourage more people to take a class, increase the amount of international dance professionals working in the city and enliven the presenter networks and touring opportunities for Toronto dance artists.” While the jury is still out on these long-term effects, FFDN succeeded in creating a large, energetic and diverse dance audience for at least one week between its popular shows and workshop series.

 

When asked to reflect on the events of Toronto Dance Week, Cornell summed up the tone of the discussions by quoting a tweet from Barry Hughson, executive director of The National Ballet of Canada: “Artists and arts leaders are not victims. We are visionaries of the creative economy. Let’s move beyond talk of crisis and broken models.” The CDA conference demonstrated that dance professionals have indeed moved forward into embracing new models of working, new collaborations and a commitment to continue doing what artists do best – innovating. The sold-out festival at the Sony Centre in the same week certainly demonstrated that these new models are far from broken.

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