Not Your Average Dance Conference

CDA National Conference Sept. 23-25, 2010 By Kate Cornell

It was no coincidence that the Canadian Dance Assembly’s (CDA) conference happened at the National Ballet School in Toronto during Culture Days. The dance community’s contribution to Canadian culture was very much one of the topics of discussion. The conference began with the much-anticipated introduction of the CDA’s new executive director, Nathalie Fave. A visual artist, writer and social advocate, Fave was eager to learn from the distinguished audience, which included representatives from the major dance service organizations, companies and funders. She presented an ambitious proposed plan, including a national review of policies and procedures, to make the CDA a positive force in the dance field. Her bilingual speech focussed on improving the social safety net for dancers.

Fave’s address was followed by three reports on current research into the state of emerging, mid-career and established artists. Garry Neil, the Dancer Transition Resource Centre’s board president, presented preliminary findings of the DTRC’s Senior Artist Research Project. Consultant Mary Elizabeth Luka presented her initial research (co-conducted with Barbara Richman) into a National Training Subsidy program particularly aimed at emerging artists. Then Shannon Litzenberger, a Metcalf Arts Policy Fellow and former executive director of CDA, offered her research on the Alliance of Independent Mid-Career Dance Creators (AIMCDC), entitled “Stuck in the Middle”. All three painted a picture of a sector in economic distress and with not enough opportunities. Although the standard complaints about the lack of public funding arose, these researchers are looking for new models in order to break this unsustainable cycle.

The tenor of the conference became more hopeful on Friday morning when Simon Brault, vice-chair of the Canada Council and director general of the National Theatre School, gave the keynote address to a large crowd, including National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Karen Kain. Brault, the author of the handbook No Culture, No Future, spoke passionately about the significance of Culture Days, now a national initiative that he helped start in Quebec in 1997. Brault wants to stimulate a public conversation about the value of culture equivalent to the dialogue about healthy living prevalent in the media today. He cited the economic meltdown, changes in technology and a resulting crisis in ethics as signs of a major shift in our society. He argued that our consumer-focussed society will be replaced by something new that does not rely on the constant increase in supply. Brault insisted that the arts community must move beyond economic justifications for funding, to arguments based on engagement and participation in the arts. Brault concluded by stressing that dance has powerful assets - such as passionate donors, internationally recognized stars, and mainstream popularity - for the new economy and that our community needs to recognize and utilize those assets.

Brault’s message of hope inspired creative thinking throughout the conference. When the panel on Provincial Funding Cuts presented a bleak outlook, especially in BC, Amy Bowring, Director of Research at Dance Collection Danse, proclaimed, “If you attack one of us, you attack us all, and we won’t stand for it any more.” Bowring urged each Canadian company performing in a particular month to donate one dollar of every
ticket sold to a proposed fund to support an advocacy mission with the goal of returning the BC Gaming Funds to BC arts organizations; gaming funds represent a higher proportion of funding for BC dance companies than arts council grants.

Later, the National and International Touring panel proudly asserted that touring is alive and well in Canada. The panelists proposed that Made in BC and La danse sur les routes du québec are touring models for the rest of the country to consider. During the Diversity of Practice panel, Kevin Ormsby, artistic director of KasheDance, stated that we need to see and acknowledge the pluralities in Canadian dance in order to move forward. Then at the Planning for Preservation panel, legacy was proffered as an asset. Miriam Adams, co-founder of Dance Collection Danse, asserted that the Canadian dance repertoire informs who we are as Canadians and who we will become. The panels will hopefully act as calls to action.

Unfortunately, artist panel discussions often shifted away from assets and problem solving, to bitterness and complaints. For example, during the panel on Shifting Realities of Mid-career Independent Artists, a sense of an exhausted frustration with the existing funding system was expressed, but there was also camaraderie in finding ways to move forward. Notably, moderator Peggy Baker suggested that the term “independent artist” should be changed to interdependent artist. Then finally at the ominously titled Burn-out Factor panel, complaints surfaced about the demanding culture in dance and the lack of life skill and time management training for dancers. Sadly, not enough artists attended the conference. Throughout the event, a disconnect between what artists expect and what administrators (and presenters) can deliver was perceptible, but the desire for collaboration and mutual support was also evident.

The major topic of discussion at the conference was the Mapping project put forward by the Canada Council’s Dance Section. The project to map the Canadian dance field will be modeled after the British research conducted in 2008/09 by development consultants Susanne Burns and Sue Harrison. Burns explained that the UK Mapping project was not about needs analysis, but about understanding the network of relationships in the subsidized and commercial dance community. The resulting document is a window on the dance field and is a tool for dance advocates to make the case for investment to both private and public funders. Caroline Miller, the executive director of Dance UK, demonstrated that the Mapping research was a very valuable tool; she showed the DanceVote 2010 video from the latest British election, which was full of well-presented statistics and persuasive arguments. After the two UK presentations, Lorraine Hébert, executive director of the Regroupement québécois de la danse (RQD), presented the preliminary findings of its mapping-based examination of dance in Québec. Following these presentations, representatives of each of the seven CDA standing councils made statements and directed questions to Anne Valois, head of the Dance Section at the Canada Council. Valois asserted that this Mapping project would help the dance field to see and work with our assets. In general, the proposed Canadian Mapping project was well received, with modest skepticism based on the typical Canadian complications of language, geography and politics.

In the end, this was not just your typical dance gathering (where everyone just complains about federal funding limitations, although that did happen). It was clear from Brault’s persuasive keynote address to the anticipation around the Mapping project that the way forward is through collaboration and the search for new ways of working.

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