Andrew Tay on his inaugural season as artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre
Andrew Tay has a kaleidoscopic vision for what dance can do. As a choreographer, dance curator, performer, and DJ in Montreal for the past 20 years, he has bridged diverse audiences and artistic communities through his multidisciplinary dance events that sit somewhere between a conversation with a stranger, interactive art installation, and late-night party.
In August 2020, he officially stepped into his new role as artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) after the retirement of Christopher House. For his first season programming the company of 12 dancers, Andrew has been refashioning TDT—one of the oldest postmodern dance companies in Canada—into a broadly inclusive creative incubator with ample residencies, choreographic labs, and multidisciplinary collaborations.
Before coming to Toronto, Andrew was artistic curator of Montreal’s Centre de Création O Vertigo (2017-20) where he expanded the centre’s reach through his unconventional pairings and venues for dance. Born in the border town of Windsor, Ontario, his earliest influences in ‘90s fashion, DJ parties, and queer culture as a member of the House of Venus (modelled after New York’s club kids) have channelled into his joyfully transgressive choreographic works, which have been presented throughout North America, Europe, and the UK.
I first met Andrew at a park hangout for artists that he organized last summer in Toronto’s west end. What immediately struck me was his down-to-earth presence and creative kinship towards artists. More recently, I caught up with Andrew on Zoom where we spoke about his curatorial vision, sustainable dance communities, and what’s in store for his first season at Toronto Dance Theatre. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You cut your teeth in the Montreal contemporary dance scene. Can you describe what that time was like?
Montreal is a really special place for the arts and dance. Apart from Quebec, nowhere else in Canada relates contemporary dance experimental practice to their culture, so that creates a different kind of support for the arts.
There was a lot of exciting stuff happening in Montreal when I first arrived. There were young, upcoming artists that I related to working in club culture aesthetics and rock and roll aesthetics. There were a lot of [pieces] pushing ideas of time and form. At Concordia University, the first piece that I ever presented was a collaboration with the band Bell Orchestre, which is comprised of members who are now in Arcade Fire. I was also involved in the nightlife club scene and was working in fashion.
It sounds like you’ve always cast a wide net in terms of the arts.
I’m into a multiplicity of possibilities. To have that, you need to expose yourself to a lot of different perspectives and artistic aesthetics. I have my studio dance practice, but I am also heavily influenced by all of the other artistic disciplines.
You also took part in a few choreographic residencies abroad. What sort of explorations and research were you doing?
I participated in ImPuls Tanz Festival’s Dance WEB Scholarship. I wanted to expose myself to what I felt wasn’t being offered in Canada and what people back then would have perhaps described as alternative practices—I’m trying to move away from that word, I think they’re just practices.
At the time, I was also becoming more interested in supporting other folks to engage with exchange activities and residencies. I was already doing that to a certain extent back in Canada, but [the residency] reinforced the idea of making connections to other artists and creating opportunities for that to happen. Not just for myself, but for others.
Your programming at the Centre de Création O Vertigo (CCOV) in Montreal showed that affinity for creative exchange. Could you speak more about the projects you initiated there?
CCOV is similar to Toronto Dance Theatre in that it’s an organization that had the same choreographer there for 35 years and it was a traditional, internationally touring dance company. When I stepped in as the artistic curator, the idea was to rethink the possibilities for a dance company. How can a dance company support and serve artists in a different way, rather than being a single vision, choreographer-based model?
I had the support to imagine all kinds of different initiatives. One was called La cuisine labo or the Test Kitchen where we invited a local chef to create a three-course menu that was paired with three works, and the audience got to eat each dish as they watched the performances. Another event, Performance Clash, involved artists from outside of dance—this could be someone working in robotics or spoken word, for example—and I would pair them with a dance artist. They would meet for the first time in front of an audience and make work together for two hours, and the audience could ask questions. That event opened up new ways of seeing process because as a public, you can let go of some expectations of, “I want to see something amazing” and you become curious about what is the actual encounter between these two artists?
Your first season at Toronto Dance Theatre seems like a natural continuation from that. You don’t prescribe to a particular repertoire or insist on the predominant model of dance production. What do you think are some of the advantages of exploring different models of dance production?
I took over the artistic leadership of the organization right as the pandemic was hitting. During that time, it wasn’t possible to do production as normal, which I saw as a real opportunity for us to discuss these questions about production. As we know, a lot of ensemble-based companies are caught in a really intense machine of “produce a work, tour, repeat,” which I think, even before the pandemic, was something people were starting to question.
I was also looking at the fact that independent artists in Toronto were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic and don’t have the stability or access to resources that a company like TDT has. In response to that, I wanted to create programming that offered as many opportunities for independent artists to engage with the company as possible, which meant doing smaller-scale interactions with local choreographers. There was a program that I initiated called the Pilot Episodes project, where folks who have never worked on a company before get a week to just experiment and play outside of creating a work. We were able to include 12 artists this year of all different kinds of dance aesthetics.
You’ve also planned several different kinds of residencies this season. What was the thought process behind having concurrent residencies in different formats?
It’s true, there are all different kinds of formats happening this year with residency structures. Again, I’m interested in exchange: what can be a dialogue and how can folks meet each other?
The Expressive Residency was initiated before I came to TDT as Christopher was leaving, but I was responsible for how it would take shape, and it supports the development of BIPOC artists specifically. I was fortunate to come into conversation with Leelee Oluwatoyosi Eko Davis who has worked on de-colonialist practices and facilitating inclusion for folks from all different spectrums, such as the queer community, Deaf community, and neurodivergent community. We imagined a program together, in which they’re creating artistic work, hosting community activations, and organizing discussions as a way to build a real relationship with the company. Where some of the residencies this year are specifically designed to include more people in the short-term like the Pilot Episodes, which is great and serves its context, for the Expressive Residency we were asking what could be a more continued presence within the organization.
You plan to end the season with a Montreal-Toronto connection, which is your hit choreographic event Short&Sweet created with Sarah Kleinplatz from your collective Wants&Needs danse. Could you describe the initial concept behind this event?
I’m super excited to do Short&Sweet for the first time in Toronto. It’s an event that Sasha and myself have been doing for about 15 years now and we initially created it because we felt a divide between the Francophone and Anglophone communities in Montreal. We invite 25 artists of all different backgrounds and experience levels, and we give everyone three minutes to perform. If they go over the time limit, we cut the sound and lights off.
Some of the ethics behind the project are about creating a space where everyone performs under the same conditions. We often have some of the biggest names in dance—for example, Compagnie Marie Chouinard—perform next to someone who’s never presented work before in their life. So, there’s an irreverent kind of energy. We also have a dance party afterwards, which is a really important way for folks to be together outside of a formalized structure.
It seems that you’re making an opportunity for that Artistic Director title to contain a lot of other roles. Your approach breaks down many of the power structures that traditionally orbit a dance company.
That is what I think my job is—to create spaces that at least for a moment can exist outside of some of these power structures or power dynamics that you’re mentioning. I think it is both hilarious and beautiful that I have found myself in artistic leadership positions at these historic dance companies. After I graduated from Concordia, I was never allowed in these companies. I wasn’t considered a “good enough dancer” and the kind of work that I was doing didn’t fit within their structures. Now, in my artistic leadership position, I have the opportunity to reimagine these spaces.
What do you hope audiences take away from this first season?
I hope people feel an openness in the organization. When I first arrived here, I heard a recurring statement from artists in the community and stakeholders that the company has felt closed in the past. I’d also like folks to become curious. What I’m trying to create for audiences is a multiplicity of ways to engage and be part of the experience itself.
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