by Carol Anderson
The biennial Canada Dance Festival is an important venue for new Canadian dance. Curated by producer Cathy Levy, the Festival both commissions new work and presents current work by many Canadian dance artists. It is co-produced by the Canada Dance Festival Society and the National Arts Centre in association with the National Gallery of Canada.
Canada Dance Festival Mission Statement:
The Canada Dance Festival's artistic mission is to produce a week-long, biennial event that produces and promotes the newest artistic creations of the country's choreographers. It is programmed with sensitivity to regional considerations, cultural diversity and audience development. It provides a window for the international community on Canadian dance artists, and it plays a critical role in the overall growth and development of the art form, both nationally and internationally.
Challenged by Lawrence and Miriam Adams with writing about the state of the art of dance in Canada - as seen at the 1998 Festival - I said "sure".
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Dance in Canada has evolved to be truly an indigenous expression of time and circumstances - economic, regional, cultural; influenced by literature, theatre, architecture and design. Performances at the Festival would embody this scope.
A scope of dance, a scope of aspiration and achievement, mastery and first stirrings. The Canada Dance Festival. A dance scape? A dancescape? An escape? Or a way in, an inner scape? I was intrigued.
It is a good time for consideration. Here we teeter, on the verge of a new century, faced with transformation. Dance is constantly bubbling up new ways of moving and seeing, challenging the ways we can go physically. One of the last of the oral traditions. One last way of making a living by honest physical labour. One last real thing you can do to join body and spirit in a journey.
Dance is an art with a constantly receding vanishing point. Dancing is a real way to measure the passage of physical time. In many ways it is a last area of irreplaceable physicality - you cannot fax swift, sweaty imagery, e-mail the kinesthetic charge of muscular effort, or record brilliant musicality. Even on film "successful" dance becomes a hybrid, a new form - filmdance; no longer quite the thing itself. Dance performance is a last live human field of communication, yet it strikes me that dance is oddly "electronic" in the way it disperses into the very air. Forgetting a dance is akin to losing a computer file. It is as if somewhere, out there in the ether, it exists, floating in a netherland of disembodied information. Just out of reach, tantalizing, findable only in human memory. So it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Later, during the Festival, with each passing hour it seemed less and less possible to put a finger to the pulse of the art. I became swamped with imagery, blinded by the lights, overwhelmed by performers' angst. I was amazed by the expenditure of energy, aghast at the complexity of the infrastructure which bubbles around the art, and as ever blown away by the skill and beauty of dancers. It was a provocative experience. I was unsure, and at times upset about the value structure underlying the art. With each performance my task seemed less containable, sortable, less do-able. I couldn't see straight after a couple of days. I watched many, many performances from June 5 to June 13. Late at night the wall of my hotel room became a screen for bodies twisting and leaping, hurled out of short term memory like fish jumping out of a breeding pool.
After a time things began to settle out. And here I must make a series of disclaimers. This is not an undertaking of pure research and reporting. Nor is it an exhaustive look at the art of dance in Canada in 1998. Chasing the Tale of Contemporary Dance is essentially opinionated. It looks at the Festival as one image of a large, dynamic art, an art which is different in each artist's manifestation, and different in character across the country. The Festival has its mandate to present new work; but, many colours of the spectrum across the country lie outside the scope of the Festival.
This commentary is about what I saw at the Canada Dance Festival and what I was provoked to think. The experience of being there was a vantage point for seeing themes, development, moments of genius. I had not been at the Festival for some years, since 1990. This was the first time I could enjoy being purely a viewer, not a dancer with performances to prepare for, nor a choreographer with performances to worry myself sick about. No sweat.
My time at the Festival truly felt like a journey. Like the best journeys, it was provocative. This book is about the performances at the Festival. It is about the choreography and about the dancing. To some degree it is about the world of infrastructure which supports dance. The initial writing of Chasing the Tale of Contemporary Dance took place over the three months following the 1998 Canada Dance Festival. Thinking about the state of the art led me to muse about the art of dance itself. So, the writing grew to include issues which particular artists address with their work, or particular works started me thinking about. It includes some of what I did not see at the Festival. It profiles certain artists whose presences spoke significantly about cultural diversity. Over time, other perspectives emerged and it seemed appropriate to include "more". To present a snapshot of what dance people were thinking about on June 5, 1998, Chasing the Tale of Contemporary Dance contains notes from a meeting on Dance Production and Touring sponsored by the CanDance Network and Canada Council Strategic Initiatives Program. I include a brief history of national festivals in Canada, to provide a context for the Canada Dance Festival.
I could not be at every event at the Festival. I chose to see as many performances as possible. I spoke with some, though not all, of the artists who presented work at the Festival. They were eloquent and generous, and those I did not speak with speak through their art. Some artists whose work was not seen at the Festival are also mentioned in this writing. There were many other activities during the Festival week which I could not attend: outdoor performances and Dusk Dances, meetings of the Canadian Association of Professional Dance Organizations, daily classes, Dance Umbrella of Ontario cafés, a mentorship programme for emergent choreographers, dancefilm workshops and informal showings for presenters.
I try to make a distinction between the art of choreographers and that of dancers. I have a long-standing affection for the heroic art and athleticism of dancers, always the lowest members on the totem pole. They literally support a huge field of endeavour on their backs; labourers of the gods. How many administrators can dance on the head of an angel?
An ex-dancer, choreographer, director and teacher, and long-time observer of dance in Canada, I confess to many opinions and preferences. As this reflection on dance goes on I try to identify my opinions. Not at all objective, I grapple, as does anyone engaged with the art, with what it all means.
Thank you to all who shared their thoughts with me.
Choreographers and dancers are already preparing for the next Canada Dance Festival. I'll be there too. I look forward to it.
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