This year, Fall for Dance North not only showcased a diverse range of dance forms with real emotional depth, but delivered an ample dose of humour and levity in the midst of a pandemic. The relaunched interview series set in a bathtub, “Bathtub Bran” was a brilliant way to keep people entertained and, in true FFDN style, highlighted the fact that dance is not an exclusive art form or language, but an everyday one: if you can get bath ducks and miniature unicorns, you can get dance.
Titled “The Flip Side,” this year’s Fall for Dance North adapted to a multi-platform virtual experience, with a mix of livestream, A/R, audio, and filmed offerings. Despite going online, the festival succeeded in achieving a feeling of openness and sincerity throughout its presentations, rising to the challenge of fostering meaningful connections to its audiences in a time of social distancing. Undeniably, it’s not an easy task to make dance feel relevant in the face of a global crisis, but the down-to-earth festival made it feel as necessary as ever. Involving over 100 artists, Artistic Director Ilter Ibrahimof and the festival team brought together a wide dance community and notably, provided an important opportunity for dancemakers during a challenging time for the arts.
The Flip Side’s main event was the 2020 Signature Program featuring six world premieres live-streamed from the Fleck Dance Theatre in Toronto. Three of the pieces were performed live for camera with the others pre-recorded and screened. The 85-minute program opened with “Flow” choreographed by Jera Wolfe of Red Sky Performance. Under speckled light, five dancers gave expression to the energy and lifecycle of water through a series of seamlessly evolving group formations and undulating lifts. While the piece would have benefited from tighter unison, it was the dancers’ imperfections and raw energy that produced a tangible sensation of ‘flow.’ The piece was propelled by the sounds of Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion in rhythms as bright and comforting as the patter of rainfall.
“Proximity” by Vancouver-based Joshua Beamish, was a contemporary duet with strong cosmic vibes to a track by Hans Zimmer. Dancers Beamish and Rena Narumi seemed to exist as planetary bodies in individual orbits, influencing each other’s movements without ever touching. Presented as a film rather than live performance, the cinematography allowed an up-close view that captured the push and pull of space between the dancers. Viewers only gained a brief satisfaction when the duo’s steps came into momentary alignment.
Also on the theme of connection but in a more optimistic tone, Mafa Makhubalo’s “Dialogue with DNA” celebrated a spiritual relationship to one’s ancestors through a solo gumboot dance. In a succession of clicks, taps, whistles, and calls, Makhubalo gave us a tactile form of communication as he playfully ‘conversed’ with onstage drummer Walter MacLean. It worked not only as performance, but as a positive reimagining of gumboot’s social history, from a dance that had emerged out of violence and oppression in the mines of South Africa to a dance of pure joy.
The next two pieces by Lisa La Touche and Kimberley Cooper had similar ties to a largely unacknowledged social history, highlighting the Black American roots of tap and jazz, respectively, as dance forms that have been co-opted by a White mainstream. Filmed in Calgary, “Fool’s Gold” opens with Lady Madame, a character La Touche draws upon to confront the thorny history of jazz music in the underbelly of the American South. Her monologue led into a virtuosic performance by Tap Phonics, which was in need of some film direction to truly capture the intricate footwork and emotional build-up of the piece. Kimberley Cooper’s “Terra” made a strong impression in the program—a light-footed and gliding jazz number against a twinkling backdrop of Calgary city lights. The four dancers floated off percussive notes, bringing to life a palpable groove and Afro-American dance vocabulary at the heart of jazz.
The final piece of the afternoon showcased the National Ballet of Canada’s Sonia Rodriguez in a Spanish-inspired piece “Poema Ibérico” by Vanesa Garcia-Ribala Montoya from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. It was a lively trio in black and red, with Piotr Stanczyk and Spencer Hack appearing as stern as matadors in brief solos and partnering Rodriguez. While I enjoyed the dancers’ flawless technique, the choreography didn’t go much deeper than Spanish clichés.
Encouraging viewers to reach out and share dance with others, the 2020 Signature Program had the option to organize your own Watch Party for up to ten people, with a dedicated virtual host for a pre- and post-show Zoom chat plus the festival goods: printed programme, microwave popcorn, and FFDN swag delivered via snail mail. What first-timer to dance wouldn’t love this? But I appreciated it too. I got to (figuratively) hang out in the lobby with my virtual host Natasha Bahkt, an Ottawa-based contemporary dancer and choreographer who performed in FFDN 2016 whose impressive career spans Bharatanatyam, Indian-fusion dance, and law. After five minutes of program notes, we chatted: how we were faring during the pandemic, our dance journeys, and about my secret love of Bharatanatyam. In the spirit of sharing dance with others—even strangers—having a virtual host was a nice way for FFDN to fold in participants from past editions and enliven a virtual event with a new acquaintance.
The festival also dropped into peoples’ homes with a host of audio experiences. The Mambo podcast made its premiere during the festival with intimate storytelling aimed at dance newbies and seasoned dance lovers alike. It nestled into listeners’ ears by taking us to familiar places—a professional sports game, a cottage on the shores of Lake Temagami in Ontario, and a wedding reception—to reveal some surprising crossovers with dance. Continuing to challenge its dance specificity, FFDN also produced “in(verse),” a compelling album of poetry and classical music with readings by eleven dance choreographers in multiple languages. Co-curated by Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko, this beautiful recording contributed a new dimension to each dancemaker, giving shape to their unique artistic sensibilities in cadence and sound, rather than movement.
Yet, my favourite program in the festival was the late one. “Night Shift,” presented by Citadel + Compagnie and directed by Barbara Willis Sweete, stole the spotlight for its high production quality and experiential live filming from the Citadel Ross Centre in Toronto. Featuring six solos over six evenings, “Night Shift” was a sheer pleasure to watch for both its education and entertainment. It featured many cultural dances and fusion styles I had never seen before, including Sinhalese folk and Kolam mask traditions from Sri Lanka danced by Swadhi Ranganee and Luso-African dance with Chuabo words in Newton Moraes’s “Ashe,” performed by Canadian-Mozambique dancer Pulga Muchochoma. Natasha Poon gave an explosive performance in “Concrete Skin” choreographed by Roderick George, exhibiting incredible athleticism as her body reclaimed the now popularized dances of Black and marginalized communities. I was equally captivated by “NudoDESnudo” performed by Irma Villafuerte with dramaturgy by Alejandro Ronceria, a gripping piece that sunk deeply into personal history, excavating the loss and intergenerational trauma of her El Salvadorean ancestry. As an outsider and non-expert in these dance traditions, I was not equipped to comment on form or technique, but as a regular audience member, I knew that these choreographies had transcended mere aesthetics, as they had given shape to complex social issues and human narratives. The program proved to be as rich in storytelling as it was in movement, with a welcome shift away from European-based dance forms. Much warmth was brought into the evening with Artistic Director Laurence Lemieux as emcee, a gentle presence on camera that exuded care and admiration for each performer as she led the post-show Q&A.
By the second week, I was reminded of the endurance needed to keep up with a festival (even one where travel wasn’t required). There were online exhibitions, workshops, and artist talks—too much content to parcel out over lunches and dinners. In the last days, I found a quiet moment in “A Gathering,” a 12-minute screendance directed by former Batsheva dancers Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, created from cellphone footage submitted by 46 students in Ryerson University’s School of Performance. In black and white, the film ruminated on what it meant to perform without an audience, offering a stunning composition of light and landscape as dancers moved outdoors to connect to their art form while in isolation. It was on a more subdued note than how I had begun. From start to finish, the festival had taken me from hilarity to introspection. A more serious question then, to close, might come from CPAMO Executive Director Charles C. Smith speaking on the festival podcast, who eloquently asked: “How do we begin to support that there are other amazing dance forms that are equally excellent, but don’t get the same recognition?”
Still young, in its sixth edition, FFDN seemed to offer a two-fold answer. Continuing to advance the belief that dance is for everyone, this year’s online festival worked hard to find creative, down-to earth ways to expand access and welcome first-timers to dance. Secondly, it was clear that there was a social project afoot, as the festival engaged a widening circle of culturally diverse voices and stories. The Flip Side was like a compilation of B-sides from the best albums—a reflection of many lesser known, but equally enriching, dance forms and traditions across Canada’s multicultural dance landscape. Track one breaks down the barriers of dance elitism with bathtubs. In track five, you simply invite someone you know to sit down and listen with you.