Decolonizing Dance Stages

Presenters talk about breaking barriers By Rhodnie Désir
  • Sarah Elola in her own work La Pileuse / Photo by Stacyann Lee
  • Andrew Tay in his and Stephen Thompson's Make Banana Cry / Photo by Claudia Chan Tak
  • Jenny Brizard, Natalia Sirdey, Joe "Dingo" Danny and Greg "Krypto" Selinger in Désir's MWON’D / Photo by Kevin Calixte
  • Rhodnie Désir / Photo by Kevin Calixte
  • Karla Étienne / Photo by Marc DesRosiers

While some presenters and jurors are having these necessary conversations (often from positions where their decisions directly impact artists), each day there are a number of projects and artistic propositions from Indigenous people, people of Colour and artists who are presenting a so-called “non-western contemporary aesthetic technique” who are being refused because of systemic criteria of exclusion. These artists and dance companies face resistance in order to make their art, and many of them must transform their art into a weapon just to be heard. They are often being told to be quiet and wait their turn. Even worse, artists are often invited to present their work or sit on boards and juries as living tokens, given the task of representing many communities at once. 

For this conversation, I invited five people to the table: Michael Toppings, artistic director of the Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI); Vivine Scarlett, founder and curator of dance Immersion; Andrew Tay, co-founder and artistic director of Wants&Needs Danse and curator at the Centre de Création O Vertigo (CCOV); Karla Étienne, dancer of Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, executive member of the board and evaluation committee president of the Conseil des Arts de Montréal; and Keith Barker, artistic director of the Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA). All have the same thing in common: they are already engaged in the conversation and are willing to share their thoughts so that the dance milieu continues to grow and evolve. Overall, I wanted to explore what would happen if we converted band-aid solutions into real engagement.

Rhodnie Désir As presenters, how do you perceive your role?

Vivine Scarlett I want to support and build self-esteem and worldliness – the sense that all our expressions belong.

Michael Toppings At the MAI, the artists make up the vision and we, as a presenting organization, become a connector of sorts because, in essence, it’s the artist that finds us. We simply do puzzle work for each programming season. It’s artist-driven!

Keith Barker I would add that it’s a curatorial process and about finding a balance – challenging the audience without turning them off, sparking their interest. I do not believe it’s our role to educate people. I think it’s to engage, excite and push people with our programming. For Native Earth, we have a responsibility to serve the community – artist and public.

Andrew Tay I consider myself a curator more than ‘presenter.’ I am interested in creating spaces where artists can come into contact with and dialogue with those from outside of their usual networks. I think about ways to support an artist and realize specific challenges or goals. In contrast, I see the role of a lot of dance presenters is to sell tickets to their season and keep their paying customers ‘happy.’

RD Most of you have experience on juries. How do you perceive of an inclusive jury mandate?

Karla Étienne You’re asking a big question, because the problem is not only the mandate of the jury; it’s the mandate of the organization or arts council. First, the institution needs very strong directives and willingness to change and be willing to give some money to diverse forms that are not from a European background. If so, then the committee can sometimes change. A good example is the Arts Council of Montréal because the jurors stay in their position for three years. In that time, they have to see shows and a calendar is provided to them. As the president and with the support of Julien Valmary, I have the responsibility to assure that the criteria are really respected. We also reflect on what diversity is. Does diversity lie in the origin of the person or the form? In dance, we’ve realized that the form is more problematic than the origin.

MT In cases where these protocols don’t exist, I think that marginalized artists should ask questions as to who is analyzing their dossier and insist that juries are fully representative of all cultural communities – and particularly by artists that are sensitive to the type of work they do. I see it as correcting the unbalance.

RD Based on your experience as presenters, jurors and curators, how would you describe the status of the dance milieu?

KB I find there is a bigger push for inclusion. We see it from the funders. More organizations are starting to program Indigenous work. The whole ecology is changing and there are more opportunities for Indigenous artists to engage with other companies, particularly with the recent Canada 150 initiatives and the Canada Council for the Arts’ new funding model. It will be important to see the evolution of these initiatives in the long term. With time, we’ll see if it was just about the money or if it was genuine engagement. We are still underfunded compared to the other presenters, and this lack of parity has an impact on what we are able to present.

VS In referencing the African diaspora, dance Immersion was founded in 1994 to provide a space for dancers and dances of the African diaspora to practise, present and perform work and especially to evolve dance from within our own expressions, utilizing whatever feeds us as human beings. A lot of presenters are looking for an aesthetic that excludes a broader sensibility of the world. It’s okay if the work looks contemporary within a European feel, but this does not necessarily include an alternative view of the world. The community we serve needs connections on a global scale that feeds people from around the world who are also growing in different ways – evolving and processing broader ideas.

RD What are the challenges involved in breaking down the systemic barriers in the dance milieu?

AT There are barriers that can make an artist feel that a program, institution or funding opportunity is not for them. This might be reflected in the type of language used in a call to artists, for example. When I sit on a jury, I’m always asking myself: who isn’t getting an opportunity? How can we create space for artists that have an urgent need to participate in the conversation? When programming work from diverse ethnocultural backgrounds we must not reinforce colonialist power dynamics. We are not solving the problem by simply giving an opportunity to an artist of a visible minority!

MT The challenge is for the artist more than it is for the presenter. The artist faces most of the pressure in having their work first funded and then presented without having to compromise their vision. An artist should never have to compromise in order to fit in.

KE The problem also is that on top of being an artist and having to fight for equity, you have to also understand the politics. When you realize nothing is changing, it’s hard, it’s frustrating.

VS As a visible minority, I feel very invisible. It’s hard to say the same things again and again. But I know it must be said so that the community we serve remains visible. This is why we exist.

RD Often pieces from a non-Eurocentric contemporary form are subject to systemic exclusion because the codes for applying are ‘not understood.’ Do you have a protocol of action to fight this?

KE There is a policy at the Montréal Arts Council. But it’s also about education and the willingness to have the right people around the table. Protocols and politics are needed but they are not sufficient. And here I’ll quote Zab Maboungou who says, ‘We don’t do the diversity, we recognize it.’ We need to recognize the work and give financing to make sure the artist can do it and evolve.

MT I think the priority should be artistic excellency, but this is often separated from a vision of inclusion. For example, the MAI is never asked to speak about artistic excellence but rather about diversity. Why is it always assumed that the two things are separate?

KE At Nyata Nyata, our resistance solution is our creations. Our Artistic and Professional Training Program in Dance (PEFAPDA), is a two-year program that has become an international reference. The shared knowledge in this program is really a clever overlook on what is happening in the world. Zab insists on the necessity of knowledge transmission. It helps people inside and outside to open their view on history, technique, creation and the dance art in itself.

RD Is there a danger in having special programming? For example, Indigenous or African nights?

KB It’s complicated. It comes down to how genuine the engagement is with the community. If it’s a one-time thing, say for a weekend, and that is the only time they hire a person of Colour or an Indigenous person, that is not real engagement. If the project was created so the organization can write about it in a grant, it’s not genuine.

AT This anthropological style of curation can be problematic as it carries with it preconceived notions about the type of work the audience is assuming they will see. Rather than creating labels, I’m interested in open forms that generate curiosity in an artist’s work and can include a multiplicity of cultural and aesthetic approaches in the same programming. This way, audiences aren’t excited that an artist is Caribbean or Asian, which easily leads to tokenism or fetishization. Instead they are interested to see individual artists’ response to the curator’s proposition.

KE In relation to tokenism, I need to mention that living it was a huge challenge for me. I did not understand it before, but in the past, people chose me only to quote me and to say that I was there validating the information. It’s a lot of responsibility and you have to have to possess cleverness to make sure people don’t pass things over your back or validate the work while the change is not really happening. It’s poison and psychologically difficult. That’s why we need to work collectively.

RD Is it the same with ghettoization?

KE Who is the ghetto? The people that keep the power between them or the others? For example, would working with the MAI be considered as ghettoisation? No. We try to have an ethic to see what is good for the artistic project. Nyata Nyata is holding a symposium at the MAI, Not Just Dance, will happen in May 2018 and we’ll talk about creation, transmission and knowledge with other forms around the world.

VS Ghettoization are words that people put into your head to, make you think that’s what it is. Are you going to listen to people who will tell you who you are and what you should be doing? Can you use this experience as a catalyst for learning your craft and what that brings?

RD Should there be a responsibility that comes with the number of years a presenter stays in the same institution and the use of public funds?

KB Until recent history Indigenous culture was deemed illegal. Public funds allow artists to engage with the public and foster dialogue. We give a stage to Indigenous artists who have been historically silenced.

AT What I like about the CCOV is that my mandate is limited to three years, which allows fresh and new ideas. We invite artists from different generations and cultural backgrounds to sit on our selection committees and challenge our perspective. To break systems of colonialism, institutions need to encourage dialogue, even if the conversations are painful and difficult. If you make programming decisions to gain access to grant money or because of societal pressure (white guilt), then you’ve failed to address the systemic issues that created the problems in the first place.

MT A director who is not questioning themselves on how they could do better is not doing their job. Rather than be open, there is a resistance to presenting works that they see as a risk, which is completely old school. That’s where the board should act and begin looking for individuals that have a vision that is greater than the vision that’s been in place for the past ten to twenty years. At the MAI, ninety per cent of the board is made up of individuals from non-Eurocentric backgrounds. That is paramount.

VS Wow! The position of curator may be perceived as a position of power, but it does not mean that the artist does not have power or a voice. I think presenters can always be challenged by artists in order to change the situation. As a curator my responsibility is to the art form of dance and the many things that help my job to exist.

RD Do we need a revolution for change to happen?

VS Our revolution has always been to equip ourselves with not only strategies and knowledge, but the self esteem and backbone to stand up. We have been beaten up so much. We have been told things that are not true about ourselves and that makes it hard to stand up. We need to make sure we are mentoring others to get back in there and continue the journey.

KE We absolutely need it. The best way to revolutionize is to strongly continue doing what we are already doing. I know that when we are dancing, we are acting for change. I’m confident in that.

KB I don’t know … We definitely have to reframe the value of art with the public.

AT We should rethink the power dynamic that exists between artists and presenters.

MT My first introduction to the need for change was in 1989 when the artist-run system in Canada was cited for a blatant lack of representation by Indigenous artists and artists of racial diversity in terms of representation in programming, boards of directors and those in powerful positions within the organization. Often the artists that are being affirmative are called militant and that told that they talk too much (when it’s precisely what an artist should be doing). Intimidation is another form of dismissal. Society would be 100 years behind if not for the militancy of activists.

RD In 2030, how do you imagine the dance milieu?

VS To be representative, inclusive of everybody, of all dance practices, styles and people who have always been here. The way some people talk makes it seem like we just arrived, when we’ve been here a very long time. Actually, I want it to be truly about dance.

KE A good jury is a jury that has a strong education and has the foresight to recognize that it doesn’t know everything but is open to learning. I too hope we will go beyond the ‘just arrived’ perspective.

KB I would like to see the Indigenous community better represented on stage and working hand in hand with other communities.

AT I imagine a future where we are no longer working so hard on countering ideas of systemic racism and colonialism because they are automatically considered. There is more to life than this! It’s not all of what we are. We have more nuance and I’m curious to see what’s next.

MT I hope we will acknowledge the importance of difference, while never negating the history that accompanies it. At the forefront of change right now, we talk of decolonizing the body but we need to decolonize the entire system, as it is rampant with colonial ideology.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2017 issue.


Cette année, les discussions autour de la diversité, de l’inclusion et de la représentation ont été omniprésentes dans le milieu de danse au Canada. Mais de quoi parle-ton, précisément ? En posant la question « qu’est-ce que la diversité ? », on arrive souvent à des réponses incomplètes, qui font preuve d’une compréhension inadéquate des véritables enjeux. Si certains diffuseurs s’y penchent sincèrement, il reste que tous les jours, nombre d’artistes qui mettent de l’avant des projets « d’esthétique contemporaine non occidentale » se voient refuser des occasions de travail et de diffusion en raison de l’exclusion systémique. Ils se heurtent à une résistance et doivent transformer leur art en arme pour être moindrement entendus, ou injustement, devenir représentants pour toute une communauté. Rhodnie Désir a invité cinq acteurs autour d’une table pour en parler : Michael Toppings, Vivine Scarlett, Andrew Tay, Karla Étienne et Keith Baker. Tous sont déjà bien engagés dans la conversation sur la diversité et sont heureux de partager leurs perspectives afin que le milieu de la danse puisse grandir et continuer son évolution.

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