Susan Fenner: The Art of Dance Outreach
Contemporary dance now there's a horsey swan of a different colour. When we hear the words 'ballet', 'jazz dance', or 'tap dance', we tend to evoke corresponding visions of sylphan grace, loose limbed syncopation, or percussively frenetic footwork.
But when it comes to contemporary dance the mainstream response can often be dismissive. Jennifer Mascall, artistic director and choreographer of Vancouver's "Mascall Dance", spoke to a Vernon audience before their performance of Traces of Emily Carr. She addressed this fear of the unknown creature contemporary dance and put the audience at ease by alluding to a trip to the zoo. She said when we see an animal we've never seen before, we don't say, "I just don't get it. Weird!" She suggested that the audience treat contemporary dance in a similar manner: to observe this new thing and absorb, to contemplate and question, to look for connections.
Contemporary dance is a mutating practice, both physically and intellectually, which develops in response to some aspect of our world. It takes into account established stylistic influences on the dance creator, yet it's inseparable from ballet because it frequently defines itself against that particular art form. Contemporary dance offers an artistic perspective on the human condition, and our imaginations are urged to participate as it speaks to the creative process in all of us.
It is this lack of familiarity with contemporary dance which is the impulse behind a dance outreach program in Vernon under the auspices of Made in BC Dance on Tour. With funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage, and the BC Arts Council, Made in BC engaged eight part time dance outreach workers in regions outside of Greater Vancouver and Victoria. Their mandate is to increase the visibility of dance in their communities, and implement dance awareness activities which build an audience for contemporary dance.
"The program connects exceptional BC contemporary dance work with regional audiences, work that very often gets across Canada and overseas, but has had little opportunity to tour in its home province," says Joyce Rosario, Executive Director of Made in BC. "Local dance outreach coordinators tailor activities to what makes the most sense for each community, and to the strengths of each individual carrying out the work. They have been the keystones to our success so far, as they deepen community engagement in dance activities."
Now, two years into the three-year pilot project, Artistic and Managing Director Michael Cade of the Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre notes, "The Dance Outreach program has made an enormous difference. It's not about increasing ticket sales [although their dance series had a 20% increase in audience attendance]. It's about increasing the value of the dance experience."
This enrichment aspect of the dance experience is all about
making connections to get people to the performance, and then
actively connecting to that audience through value-added activities.
In Vernon this has taken several shapes.
They have offered six master classes for local dance students taught by the touring dance professionals, and they charge a mere $15 for the hour and a half class. Significantly, it includes a free ticket to the performance. In several cases the dance outreach worker arranged for the students to learn a few sequences from the current choreography they would see on stage in performance later. It keeps them coming back for more and, ultimately, creates habits of participation that will carry over to other aspects of community life.
After each dance performance there is a question and answer discussion with the company's artistic director and some dancers. It's a chance to de-mystify and rub shoulders. "I think the talk-backs are a great way to learn as we go," says Lisa Talesnick, a regular Vernon attendee. "Particularly with modern dance it's great to have the opportunity to talk about the interpretation with the creators."
The popularity of these artist chats has risen dramatically as audiences have come to understand them as a regular feature of the dance series. In the first season there were 25 people who attended the first show's talk-back compared to 150 participants at the last performance.
A column entitled Dance Beat appears in the Vernon Morning Star newspaper to coincide with each dance series performance. It's a first person essay by the dance outreach worker about some aspect of the dance genre as it relates to the upcoming performance, and entices readers to remain after the show for the discussion with the company.
The dance series line-up at the Vernon & District Performing Arts Centre in the 2006-07 season prior to the implementation of Made in BC's mandate consisted of one provincial dance company, Ballet Kelowna, and four out-of-province or international touring companies. Michael Cade says, "In a complete reversal, our 2008-09 dance season will headline four BC companies with the fifth from San Francisco."
Of particular interest to Okanagan residents is one of the companies chosen by the Made in BC presenters for the coming season. Artistic director Josh Beamish of "MOVE: the company" grew up in Kelowna and did his dance training at Pacific Interior Dance School.
"This is a very exciting and bold step for us," he says, "and it's a great encouragement to be chosen in the first year we applied. It will be both artistically and financially very beneficial. The eight city tour will take us to some of the same communities we've been to previously with our workshops, so it's like coming full circle, especially when we come to the Okanagan."
Equally encouraging is the shift from a program formerly dominated by mainstream ballet, jazz and world dance to Vernon's 2008-09 season of contemporary works two contemporary ballet offerings and three deep-rooted contemporary dance companies.
So what is contemporary dance? There probably is no airtight
definition. However, the infamous Isadora Duncan, recognized as the
grandmother of contemporary dance from the early 20th century, had this to say when
asked a similar question: "If I could tell
you that, I wouldn't have to dance it."
MOVE: the company, in rehearsal. MOVE brings "Trap Door Party" to eight
BC regions through Made in BC Dance on Tour. Photo: Lydia Nagai, courtesy of Josh Beamish.