Pause. Reflect. Rebuild. How the dance world can rise from the ashes of 2020
Our stages are not reflective of our population — but this moment is an opportunity to elicit change
With stages closed and studios shuttered, the dance world has been hit hard by the pandemic. This time has also created space for a conversation about the way tradition and narrow standards have obscured practices of racism. This story is part of a CBC Arts: Exhibitionists episode focused on the dance world during the pandemic and looking forward, streaming now on CBC Gem.
Are you already at the last day of the year, banging on the doors of 2021 to be opened? Like many in the dance industry, I am crafting this article with the thought, "2021 cannot get here soon enough — I am over 2020."
2021 will be a pivotal year for me. It will mark 35 years in dance and 42 years in the arts. I have worked in Canada, the United States and the Caribbean, yet I have never experienced this much uncertainty in such a condensed period of time in my entire career. This year is giving the dance sector an existential crisis with no foreseeable end. Uncertainty, however, offers many opportunities.
While the future of an artform heavily reliant on the close interaction of creatives and audiences is in question, there is an opportunity to sift through the major events that are shifting global citizens to think, acknowledge and act on the atrocities of the past that continue to impact so many. Canadian dance is under microscopic scrutiny. This moment requires that we be honest, realistic and lead with accountability. What can we learn from a pandemic and the increased focus on race and racism in dance in Canada?
I believe we need to reassess our creative legacy built on Eurocentrism and instead honour the varied creative and cultural pluralities in the ways dance is being created, presented and appreciated across Canada. We need to create a new norm, focusing on the equitable representation of BIPOC artists and organizations. Our stages are not reflective of our population — but this moment is an opportunity to elicit change.
Most Canadians are probably not aware of the Eurocentric history on which dance in Canada was built. The Massey Commission is part of that legacy. Executed in 1949 and released in 1951, the commission was an investigation into Canadian culture and the arts as a response to the growing influence of American culture on Canadian society. The report gave birth to the funding models — and also the Eurocentric valuing of artistic practices — that we recognize today. At the time of its appointment, Indigenous customs and culture were still outlawed (the 1951 amendment to the Indian Act arrived in the same month as the report). I question whether Indigenous dance or the dancing happening in Nova Scotia's Black communities were considered by the commission. As we rechoreograph Canada's dance legacy, we need to interrogate this Eurocentric history and harness the potential opportunities that exist in this moment. It's time for a new commission with a vision of what dance is and means for Canadians now.
In aiming to be culturally different from our neighbours to the south, we may have forgotten the interconnectivity required for a dance industry to survive. Canadian dance seems to manifest inherent structures and attitudes that further marginalizes many in the sector, and we are losing many great talents because of these structures and marginalizations. I am an example of the creative migration to the south, dancing for six years with Garth Fagan Dance in Rochester, NY. In my time there, I was inspired by the many ways in which the sector supported itself — the criticality around writing about dance in the press, academia and in online platforms. Dance festivals and diverse technical training were not race-based, and American dance history was embedded in the ways dance manifested itself.
Dance in a contemporary Canadian society should not be relegated to the studio and performance venues with superficial audience and community engagement. We need to stop alienating community arts from concert and commercial dance practitioners. A desirable vision for 2021 would be to depart more often from the traditional spaces (theatres, venues, studios etc.) and meet people where they are. Then, in those places, we can create and shape together, the enhanced iterations of dance in a post-COVID reality. No matter where the dance activity is occurring, one simple yet effective suggestion by choreographer Liz Lerman should not be forgotten: "Everyone should leave with a meaningful experience."
Art is political, and dance is a political movement into the futurisms that artists are so good channelling for creation. Every dancer must start advocating a new vision, being present in the social assertions being made in spaces like the Black Lives Matter movement. The new cultural reality for Canadian dance demands it. We must passionately nurture active engagement across communities, artistic disciplines and genres. We should create moments away from passive observances of identity. We are a creative culture shaped by the immigration of bodies to Turtle Island, including White bodies. There is a need for all in the dance sector to fully understand immigration and its impact on Indigenous bodies and the forms of dance-making that was here since time immemorial. We all have work to do in knowing the treaties of the land on which we create and on which our studios were built.
The new reality for dance in Canada demands that all artists must understand this impact and embody it with our creative practices, without claiming ignorance. Allow your creative reconciliation to align with Indigenous reconciliation. Arriving at this plurality will be the creative blossoming for which artistic ingenuity will strive coming out of 2020.