Dancemakers: Between Promise and Peril

Part I: Context By Michael Trent
  • Michael Trent / Photo by David Coleman

I began writing this article, commissioned by Kathleen Smith in April 2014, soon after Dancemakers announced its new creation/production model. I had been working on this exciting proposal, in collaboration with the staff and board of directors, for almost two years. Writing the article was an iterative process, and Kathleen and I went back and forth as circumstances shifted for the company, including its future commitment to me as artistic director. Now, four months later and a few weeks following my departure from Dancemakers, the complex story has come full circle and I am now able to complete the writing commission.

The original title of the article was “What could a dance company do?” and it was proposed as an open invitation to talk about the new model. So I began by providing context: during the seventies – the burgeoning days of organized dance in Toronto – Dancemakers’ experiment in togetherness also nurtured the company members’ individual voices with such artists as Peggy Baker, Carol Anderson and Anna Blewchamp. Under my leadership, this spirit of collaborative invention informed how we worked with others to create meaningful experiences. This process reflected our belief that making and viewing live performance grounds us in our humanity by reminding us of our kinetic selves. Through experimentation and criticality, our dances created a space for us and our audiences to reconsider what dance can be, and, by extension, who we might become.

Over the last few years in Canada and internationally, there has been an enormous amount of research and conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of current performing arts company structures – ones that support art making and its connection to publics. Most funders remind us that the pie is not getting any bigger but the demand for a piece of it is. Many of them are pursuing ways to redistribute fixed (and possibly decreasing) pools of investment among a greater number, or different kinds, of artists. The criteria for doing so vary, but mostly revolve around an organization’s success or failure to deliver quantifiable impacts – what is euphemistically referred to as reach.

In July 2013, Dancemakers was subjected to this re-calibration exercise by the Canada Council for the Arts, resulting in a substantial decrease in support and being placed on “fair notice,” a mechanism that removes the twenty-percent reduction cap during the next evaluation process. The company’s granting results from the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council were maintained at the same levels with positive feedback. It bears acknowledging that the jury at the Canada Council noted that the overall artistic assessment of the work we presented on the stage, which is determined in part through written peer assessments, had been rated higher than in our previous adjudication process.

Although this surprising news about the significant grant reduction called for an immediate and profound examination of our very soul, we had begun, almost a year earlier, a self-assessment process regarding the ongoing sustainability of the relationship between the company, the Centre for Creation and our ten-year Artscape residency in Toronto’s Distillery Historic District. I concluded that the organizational equation was out of balance and that we needed to find new ways to offset our occupancy costs beyond securing rental income. This led to the idea of developing partnerships with other organizations that could share the occupancy with Dancemakers and the responsibility for contributing to the offset, thus freeing us to focus more specifically on our mandate, especially the part about increasing reach. The cut from the Canada Council threw that inquiry into a tailspin, but the underlying self-assessment process became the jumping-off point for a reimagined Dancemakers.


Part II: The Incubation/Production House Model
Part III: What Happened to Me

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