In just five short years, the now fifteen-year-old NAfro Dance Productions has made another leap in its own evolution as Western Canada’s African contemporary dance company. Its second international Moving Inspirations Dance Festival (MIDF), originally conceived by founding artistic director Casimiro Nhussi, follows its inaugural event presented in November 2012. MIDF once again brought the world to Winnipeg, while also proudly celebrating local dance artists who call the Prairie province home.
The three-day extravaganza held November 2-4, 2017, at the Gas Station Arts Centre featured an impressive range of choreographers, dancers and musicians hailing from Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto, Montréal, Halifax, New York City, Wisconsin, as well as France/South Africa and Mozambique. Nightly shows included eight eclectic troupes as well as live drum bands — including The Mothering Project, Manito Ikwe Kagiikwe Drum Circle, Fubuki Daiko and the troupe’s own high-octane NAfro Band — capped by a loud ‘n’ proud audience mass dance where all could shimmy and shake with Nhussi and company.
A series of master classes, “move and chat” sessions for professional dance artists, and public dance classes were also offered daily, as well as nightly after-parties where viewers were invited to rub shoulders with the artists, further underscoring the MIDF’s overall intimate feel and accessibility as a celebratory melting pot of synergistic forces.
But even more pointedly, this year’s festival also appeared as an ever more timely, welcomed response to the seismic growth, awareness and appreciation for cultural pluralism, fuelled by an ongoing dialogue regarding the decolonization of dance — now hot-button topics in today’s artistic circles.
As the host organization, NAfro presented four offerings, including the opening night’s Image that provided a first taste of Nhussi’s ability to meld traditional West African movement with contemporary street dance, along with the nine dancers dressed in pedestrian shirts and trousers. We were also treated to excerpts from his full-length production Mapiko and The Apes. The festival’s most unusual work became his evocatively titled Don’t bring the coffin yet… I’m not dead including a relatively rare stage appearance by Nhussi, who begins in silence and shrouded in fabric. The highly introspective solo helped balance many of the other adrenalin-pumping works presented during the three days — a wise programming move that showed two sides (at least) of the same coin.
Many renowned national and international guest artists from the 2012 festival were back. Those included Ballet Creole (Patrick Parson, artistic director), Calgary’s Michèle Moss, Collective Of Black Artists (artistic co-founders BaKari I. Lindsay and Charmaine Headley, artistic co-founders with Junia Mason), Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata (Zab Maboungou, artistic director), KasheDance (Kevin A. Ormsby, artistic director), Sinha Dance (Roger Sinha, artistic director) with his Shuffle performed by graduates and current students of The Professional Program of The School of Contemporary Dancers), as well as former Winnipegger — now Montréal-based –flamenco artist Claire Marchand.
Returning Manitoban artists included Winnipeg-based contemporary dancer Johanna Riley, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Aspirants, Odette Heyn Dance Projects (Odette Heyn, artistic director), Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (Brent Lott, former artistic director), Gearshifting Performance Works (Jolene Bailie, artistic director), Mouvement/Winnipeg Dance Projects (Gaile Petursson-Hiley and Stephanie Ballard, co-artistic directors), Stephanie Ballard and Q Dance (Peter Quanz, artistic director).
However, MIDF also broadened its reach and allowed audiences to experience more unfamiliar artists. Festival newcomers included Makeda Thomas, Liliona Quarmyne, Little Pear Garden Dance Company (Emily Cheung, artistic director), Chris Walker, Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe and Winnipeg’s Rozmai Ukrainian Dance Company (Gabriela Rehak, artistic director), which high-kicked and spun its way through its own colourful festival debut.
Ballet had a noticeably stronger presence this year with Peter Quanz’s Blushing, performed by Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) company members Saeka Shirai and Yue Shi, and Philippe-Alexandre Jacques’s Jamais Vous N’Etiez, featuring seven members of the RWB Aspirants Program: Jenna Burns, Letizia Dotto, Katie Simpson, Joshua Phillips, Liam Reid and Bryce Taylor, providing a fascinating opportunity to experience the classical art form up-close-and-personal. This stylistic eclecticism, and often whipsaw diversity, only enriched the entire festival, with the whole becoming much greater than the sum of its parts.
Another critical subtext is the fact that MIDF has also quietly (a somewhat ironic statement, given the omnipresent, thundering drums heard each night) championed the fact that dance should be celebrated in the very province that has birthed Canada’s oldest ballet company, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and its oldest contemporary dance company, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD). With every passing year, it becomes increasingly likely that some might not recall WCD’s former artistic director Tedd Robinson’s bold venture in creating the first Festival of Canadian Modern Dance in 1985 that ran for seven years.
Nhussi’s ambitious festival has thus become an invaluable reminder of those glory days, while positing the idea that an international dance festival has never been more needed than today; it’s become even more urgent now when our country’s venerable grande dame of festivals, Ottawa’s biennial Canada Dance Festival, has been put on life support — critically ill and recently cancelled for 2018, with many not holding their breath for resuscitation.
Therefore, the MIDF’s message might be this: Just as Nhussi set out fifteen years ago to arguably fuse African dance from his homeland of Mozambique with contemporary movement, he has now enlarged that vision, asserting with every pounding drum and racing heartbeat that the power of dance transcends time, space and genre, regardless of whatever kind of studio an artist rehearses in — or from whichever company, city, province, country or even hemisphere — she or he hails from.
While it remains to be seen what comes next for Nhussi — and I personally wish him continued courage and fortitude for the journey ahead, hopefully bearing fruit with a third incarnation in 2022 — and despite a few rough edges inherent with producing a large-scale festival, his latest noble adventure has succeeded.
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