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Stepping Up

Ilter Ibrahimof is the cofounder and artistic director of Toronto’s Fall for Dance North festival. Held annually since 2014, FFDN is a Canadian offshoot of the beloved New York City Center series. A producer and booking agent for more than fifteen years, Ibrahimof grew up in Istanbul and studied dance, theatre, and arts management at Emerson College in Boston before moving to New York. There he founded, in 2004, and ran, until 2020, his own dance booking agency. Sunny Artist Management represented the American tours of European artists and entities such as Nacho Duato, Compañía Nacional de Danza, Compagnie Käfig, and classical Indian dancer Shantala Shivalingappa. Ibrahimof has created original evenings with ballet principals Wendy Whelan, James Whiteside, and Daniil Simkin in New York, and has been a guest curator for Atlanta’s Off the Edge contemporary dance festival. Moving from New York to Montreal and then to Toronto in 2015, Ibrahimof has turned FFDN into one of Canada’s largest dance festivals. Fjord Review spoke to him by telephone. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jera Wolfe. Photograph by Bruce Zinger

What are you currently working on?

Since our last festival, our team has been having a lot of conversations. We connect with our permanent and seasonal staff. We send a survey to the artists to get feedback on how we did. We do an audience survey. That probably took around a month or so. Programmatically speaking, we’re jumping into 2023 and 2024 right away. 

For 2023, we’re doing an international choreographic exchange with Gibney Dance from New York and Malpaso Dance Company from Cuba. A dancer from each company is creating a work on the students from the dance department at Toronto Metropolitan University [formerly Ryerson University], which we will remount next fall as a mixed program. We’ve already started the process of creating with the students. We’re keeping ourselves busy.

How has the festival evolved since its launch?

The festival started with the New York model. Three nights, three mixed programs, like New York does. Ten dollars a seat. It was completely sold out. In the second year, we said, Okay, but Toronto’s a different city from New York. In Toronto, we have other opportunities to grow. That’s when we started to present on a second stage. We also started to present site-specific work, free programs at Union Station [Toronto’s central train station], and we expanded our partnerships, which meant more co-commissioning and additional venues.

This past year, our eighth year, the festival ran for three weeks. We presented in eleven different venues ranging from a space like The Citadel, with 70 seats to Meridian Hall, with 3200 seats. So we moved from a strictly New York Fall for Dance model to something like a Holland Dance Festival model.

Ilter Ibrahimof, artistic director of Fall for Dance North. Photograph by Darlene Huynh

What is the festival’s relationship to dance education?

Our arts education activities have been growing steadily from year one, and our collaboration with TMU [Toronto Metropolitan University, a public technical university] is one stream in that kind of programming. We’ve worked together to celebrate some special moments like the hundredth anniversary of Merce Cunningham, which was presented to the public with a free performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

We often work with emerging choreographers that don’t have access to a large number of bodies, so by partnering with the dance department we can give emerging choreographers the opportunity to work on ideas, both in-person and digitally.

How has the festival embraced digital?

We’re a local festival and people love coming to in-person, live performances. But I think digital opens unexpected doors for mutually beneficial relationships and unexpected distribution channels. We look at social media as an extension of our digital programming. For example, last year we did a new series called Insta-Commissions, where we produced three Instagram reels for each season of the year—winter, spring, summer, and fall. We commissioned Rock Bottom Movement from Toronto to create these short, filmed dances. A modern Four Seasons.

We’ve invested in high-quality livestream filmmaking, podcast-making, and a music and poetry album, which is going to be released with a record label in New York this coming spring. And five of our films from last year will be in the Marquee TV library starting in a few weeks. It’s not just about livestreams. Finding original and meaningful ways to use digital tools to work with dance artists is important.

Artists of Ka Leo O Laka | Ka Hikina O Ka Lā. Photograph by Bruce Zinger

In the past two years, what is something you’ve seen either in-person or online that’s stayed with you?

I really enjoyed Works & Process from the Guggenheim in New York. I’ve done a few projects with them in the past when I was a producer and agent. During the pandemic they made a documentary series called Isolation to Creation. It was a model we borrowed for one of our associate artists, Natasha Powell, who went on an isolated creation process in Orillia, just north of Toronto, for three weeks with eleven dancers from TMU. The Guggenheim series mostly focused on urban and street dance, like voguing, waacking, ballroom dance. We created a beautiful documentary where we saw the dancers dig deep into the jazz form.

In a Fall for Dance North evening, it’s typical to see bharatanatyam followed by West African, maybe followed by street or tap. You’re working with very different dance forms, each with their own dance histories and traditions. Where do you start?

We love doing that. It’s an opportunity to introduce our audience to dance forms that they often don’t get to see, as well as some of the most interesting names from around the globe.

Where do we start? We start with the artists. We’ve been investing in a few particular forms from the very beginning. Since our first year, we’ve presented classical Indian dance like odissi, bharatanatyam, kuchipudi, and kathak. We commissioned Indigenous dance works in the first year and did an Indigenous international mixed bill in 2019.

Canada's National Ballet School students. Photograph by Bruce Zinger

Several forms of Indigenous dance were featured in last year’s Signature program, “Arise.” There was a 145-person ensemble piece by Métis choreographer Jera Wolfe, a screendance by theater-maker Michael Greyeyes, from the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, and traditional Hawaiian hula by Kaleo Trinidad, of Honolulu. What was important to you in putting this program together?

The artists. The unique stories they tell. Kaleo’s company has been on our radar for ten years. I saw them perform in 2012 at Fall for Dance in New York. We tried a couple of times to bring the company but it didn’t work. Bringing twenty people from Hawaii can be very expensive. It took until now to make it possible.  

The piece “Arise” [by Jera Wolfe] was a conversation that we’ve been having with Canada’s National Ballet School. The work was first created two-and-a-half years ago. During the pandemic, we proposed to create a film of it with our filmmaker-in-residence, Vikram [Dasgupta]. Then, with everyone slowly coming back to the theatre, they said, What about doing this in person? It was absolutely epic.

Certain artists, like Michael Greyeyes, I check in with regularly. I knew that Michael and Jera really respect one another—they have a kind of mentor-mentee relationship as established choreographer and emerging choreographer. I thought it would be lovely to have a work by Michael because of that relationship with Jera. I also like that Michael’s piece was both film and live orchestra, because nowadays we are thinking about how to design events and festivals with a hybrid component.

Artists of Indigenous Enterprise. Photographs by Bruce Zinger

You once said in an interview that before moving to Toronto, you struggled to bring dance projects to this city because “it was difficult to find dance presenters who would be willing to take significant risks.” What were those risks?

That’s true. There was a project I wanted to bring from France. I had a date in Montreal. I had a date in Ottawa with the National Arts Centre. I needed another date and was hoping Toronto would be it. But some of these big projects struggled to come to Toronto because of a lack of large-scale dance presenting organizations and festivals. And in a way, it was out of frustration that I proposed a Fall for Dance kind of project for Toronto. I said to Mark Hammond [a Toronto presenter], “Let’s build something new for Toronto. Maybe we can change things a bit.” In a way, my frustration over not getting a booking in Toronto opened up the conversation for Fall for Dance North.

What was the project?

Ballet Preljocaj’s “Snow White.” An expensive production with costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier. I toured that two or three times to twelve different North American cities, but never Toronto. That was the kind of level of dance that I was trying to bring that was rarely happening in Toronto.

As a dance producer and leader, what are three words that best describe your approach?

Curiosity, passion, persistence.

In an episode of the festival podcast Mambo, one of your guests is the executive director of Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO), Charles Smith, with whom FFDN partnered on equity, diversity, and inclusion [EDI, known in the United States as DEI]. 

Can you talk a bit about EDI and where the organization is today?

We have a mandate to create a festival that is very affordable. In the first year, it was ten dollars a seat. Then we continued with fifteen dollars. We still work very hard to keep our festival as affordable as possible. That’s very important in breaking economic barriers to attend this level of live performance.

We also need certain tools to expand our relationships, to make sure that we were going to places and to communities that maybe we were not thinking about, where some of our next board members will come from in the future.

Working with Charles and CPAMO helped us to ask the right questions. They did a comprehensive audit of our EDI approach. They interviewed the staff and board members and did a field survey in the community. We basically ended up with six action items that have helped us to expand our partnerships and talk to organizations that we haven’t talked to yet. We are now reaching out to artists in the community so that we can bring more voices into our programming and decision-making. The work is never perfect. Never complete. We want to design a work culture and approach that is future-looking and allows different perspectives and voices to help guide where the festival should go.

Fall for Dance North's annual festival returns Sep 26 - Oct 7, 2023 with a diverse lineup of local and international artists in venues across Toronto. More information and tickets on sale now

Dianne Montgomery, tap dancer and choreographer. Photograph by Bruce Zinger

Josephine Minhinnett

Josephine is an artsworker and writer from Toronto. She graduated with an M.A. in Photographic Preservation from Ryerson University and has worked in museums and archives across Canada and the US. In the field of dance, she is interested in creative practices that challenge traditional ideas of performance. Josephine trained at Canada’s National Ballet School and the École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower.



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