Dancing in Solidarity, Alliance in Practice: Objectives Within Reach 

By Kevin A. Ormsby
  • Peter Chin / Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann 
  • Members of Menaka Thakkar Dance Company in “Riaz” by Natasha Bakht / Photo courtesy of Canada Dance Festival 
  • Members of Ballet Creole in “Breakin Out” by Patrick Parsons / Photo courtesy of Canada Dance 
  • Red Power Squad of Edmonton, AB / Photo courtesy of Canada Dance Festival 
  • Gaétan Gingras in his own work “Blood Memory” / Photo courtesy of Canada Dance Festival 

Canada Dance Festival 2009

Canada Dance Festival

Ottawa  June 25-28, 2009 

The Canada Dance Festival (CDF) and the National Arts Centre were bustling once again between June 25th and 28th as the CDF hosted its annual festivities, focussing this year on “Dancing In, Through and Between Cultures towards a Space of Mutuality”. It was indeed a unique opportunity as artists, administrators, artistic directors and presenters were under one roof questioning and debating toward a hoped-for reshaping and eventual redefining of the landscape of Canadian dance. It was evident that the CDF is playing an integral role in this transformation.

My participation in the conference involved three distinct perspectives as participant, presenter and performer and gave me an interesting look at understanding the implications of the conference for dance in Canada. I had the opportunity to present one of three papers commissioned by the festival and I also performed with Ballet Creole, one of the three companies featured on the Canadian Multicultural Day Gala, along with Tribal Crackling Wind led by Peter Chin, and the Menaka Thakkar Dance Company (MTDC), directed by influential Canadian dancer and choreographer Menaka Thakkar. The evening prior to the Multicultural Night platform featured the Aboriginal Contemporary Dance Presentations, highlighting performances by Byron Chief Moon (“Blood Alley”), Gaetan Gingras (“Mémoire de sang”) and Red Power Squad. Because I was in technical rehearsal that evening, I was only able to see Red Power Squad via monitor. A hip hop, b-boy dance group, they offer an example of the influence of other cultures on aboriginal Canadian culture. Their work challenges ways in which aboriginal Canadians have been perceived, as insular, static and lacking many outside cultural influences. The first section of their piece starts in the native dance tradition, affirming their ethnic identity, and progresses to showcase their passion for hip hop music and b-boy culture.

The following evening’s program included Ballet Creole’s work, in which I performed; therefore, I was only able to see Chin’s and Thakkar’s works from the wings. Tribal Crackling Wind’s work “Transmission of the Invisible” (2008) incorporates theatrical fusions of contemporary multimedia, movement and imagery with traditional Cambodian dance vocabulary. The piece offers an insightful and engaging look into how cultural information (attitudes, behaviours, language, etc.) can be transferred through personal interactions. For the most part, the performers dance separately. Moments of contact between dancers suggest the transference of a metaphysical energy that hints at the possibilities of how powerful non-verbal interaction can be. Indeed dance allows for unique interpersonal communication. I find it intriguing that Chin is a Jamaican of East Asian descent, working in South Asian and contemporary artistic traditions and through dance he has found an outlet outside of his cultural background that he is able to explore artistically. Such is the ability of dance to transcend cultures and speak to human realities. 

Menaka Thakkar’s “Agni Ratha”, for her own company, mixes classical Indian movement with modern dance vocabularies and aesthetics. The piece incorporates aerial effects – at one point a dancer performs in a ring hoisted over the stage – and this adds an interesting layer to the visual presentation of the dance. Following my performance, I was able to quickly change and slip into the audience for former Thakkar student and solo artist Natasha Bakht’s work “Riaz”, also performed by Menaka Thakkar Dance Company. Costumed minimally, “Riaz” embraces more contemporary dimensions of Indian dance. It is clear that Bakht understands the importance of a synthesis between concept, movement, staging and music.

Ballet Creole Artistic Director Patrick Parson’s piece “Breakin Out” (in which I danced), aims to challenge not only the notion of physicality but male virtuosic grace. The choreography requires the dancers to be grounded and weighted and then to suddenly defy gravity with balletic grace and precision. The sheer intensity required of African dance’s poly-rhythmic structure is accentuated with formal leaps and turns. Several sections highlight masculine co-dependency through partnering and gestures in which male dancers caress each other’s faces and chests Contextually, the work is neither affirmed as ritual or as social commentary, allowing viewers to bring their own socio-cultural understanding to bear. It was a pleasure being a part of Ballet Creole’s presentation not just because my work with the company is multifaceted as Marketing and Outreach Co-ordinator and dancer, but also because no other professional company in the country has four black male dancers working within the idiom of contemporary dance.

While culturally diverse companies and artists have been invited to participate in the Canada Dance Festival in years past, culturally diverse dance has never been the sole focus on the festival main stage. Though long a part of the Canadian dance landscape, it was indeed time for this work to be a focus at CDF’s national festival event. I do challenge the festival to be inclusive of all forms of dance presentation every year, and to aspire to be reflective of the artistic dance landscape of the country. 

This seems to be the hope of the festival as it expands to promote the various dance forms and practices across the country. One does get the feeling that the Canada Dance Festival is moving towards bringing all dance practice “under one roof”, and I commend the festival Artistic Director Brian Webb in moving towards this goal. I think dance in the world today should move away from labels but, as the conference addressed, it is hard for viewers, presenters, critics and even dancers themselves to give up the desire or need to identify with a particular genre. In my view, the more styles of dance you experience and study, the more versatile and marketable you become as an artist in a contemporary world.

Such versatility was evident at the conference with participating presenters, artistic directors, dancers and educators with multiple viewpoints. It was enriching to see attendance by professional organizations like the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists, the CanDance Network of Presenters, Dance Immersion and the Canadian Dance Assembly, along with government funders such as the Canada Council for the Arts and Canadian Heritage. With the solidarity of artistic and administrative representation, it may well be possible to advocate for the needs of artists and to influence change in cultural policy.

Each conference day, paper presentations were followed by group discussions of the various issues raised. Each paper dealt with different issues related to how culturally diverse dance arts are presented and represented. Delivered on Friday, Natasha Bakht’s paper “Mere Song and Dance: Complicating the Multicultural Imperative in the Arts” focusses on racism in the arts, bringing forward issues of specific artistic knowledge and the responsibilities of critiquing from an informed understanding of culturally diverse dance. Informed critique can facilitate educational and artistic enlightenment for audiences. This, Bakht advocates, can push the culturally diverse dance form forward and away from the reductionist mentality of “mere song and dance”, a perception often taken by many who do not have the skills necessary to view or critique culturally diverse dance. Such uninformed critique tends to oversimplify the representation of the art form. 

Michael Greyeyes and I both presented on Saturday. Greyeyes’ paper, “Notions of Indian-ness” deals with the ambiguities in how we perceive, understand and view aboriginal dance. He links our perceptions of Native Canadians and native Canadian dance to colonial and post-colonial realities and stresses the importance of the impetus of artistic creation over artist identity. He suggests that there are many experimental approaches being taken in the presentation of aboriginal dance and insists in his paper that, “there is NO First Nations Dance. The category does not exist. The only category is dance BY First Nations artists, whereby we move in and out of traditional forms and staging, searching for new audiences and dance languages.” I do agree with as Greyeyes’ and Bakht’s stances that culturally diverse dance tends to be judged and critiqued through a biased, Western historical perception. A re-education via awareness, workshops, lectures, fora and town hall meetings is needed to influence change not just at the level of presentation but also in organizational and educational infrastructure. My paper, “Between Generations: Towards Understanding the Difference in Realities and Aspirations of the First and Second Generation of Culturally Diverse Artists” addresses similarities and differences between generations and focusses on the position of emerging and mid-career culturally diverse artists and their challenges in becoming an integral part of culturally diverse dance culture and also Canadian dance culture. I argue that mentorship and inter-generational support is important in this process and, like the previous papers, I suggest that a progression of dance in Canada can only be achieved by a collective understanding based not on cultural specifics but on artistic credibility, and clear criteria that are not derived solely from a Western understanding of dance presentation.

Nothing is secure in the contemporary world of art creation and production. Many in attendance at the conference emphasized the importance of finding ways to keep the dance community communicating and working towards the advancement of dance. On the final day of the conference, we were divided into four groups, each with a directive to come up with working solutions for the advancement of the dance community to be implemented on organizational, company and artistic levels. The four groups focussed on:

1: What is Canadian dance and how do we define identity as a country? While there were concerns that over-categorization creates barriers, it was clear that it also enables shared reference points leading to further connections for dance artists.

2: What are the issues of institutional marginalization faced by culturally diverse artists? How can funding bodies and administrative institutions that work with culturally diverse artists and organizations be aware of and relevant to the current realities of artists while remaining fluid.

3: How can we support the ongoing education of curators and presenters around culturally diverse dance practices? It was felt by many in attendance that presenters and curators need to be more culturally, artistically and intellectually proficient at discussing the aesthetics of culturally specific dance.

4: How do we foster on-going conversations within the dance community? How do artists increase communication among themselves, and within and through their companies? How do we influence change across the country through membership in professional organizations and artistic networking initiatives? 

Ongoing conversations are important because I feel that we need to relate to each other as artists in the dance community and avoid the persuasiveness of working in insular pockets defined by genre. Artist alliances beyond disciplines are needed for the survival of dance. Creating new frameworks for understanding what and how we present dance then becomes an important step toward enhancing our relationships as dancers, companies and a community. Dance has always been a battlefield, in the sense that the art form continues to struggle to establish validity, and to build appreciation and understanding. How do we use the battles and challenges faced to progress? We have to clarify and break down perceptions and forge new understandings about the art we practice. It’s about transforming our presence as artists and in turn transforming the way Canadian society values and appreciates our work. We have responsibilities as artists to be transformative in how we present and represent change to society.

Evidenced by this festival and conference event, and recent dedicated presentations of hip hop and urban dance within its festival context, the CDF seems to be on a path of transformative presentation and representation of dance in Canada. An all inclusive festival may be on the horizon. In presenting a variety of dance forms and practices, the festival is forging new connections while solidifying old ones, revealing a dance landscape that is as rich as the geography of the country in which we practice. From a personal perspective, the Canada Dance Festival offers numerous benefits for artists, including excellent networking and presenting opportunities, and, more importantly, it aims to situate the arts that we practice in a Canadian context. 

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