For many dancers in Canada, there’s a disconnect between training and the professional world. Any professional training program, college or university can only do so much to prepare dancers to enter the workforce; in many cases the real challenges lie after graduation. Emerging dance professionals in Canada must consequently invest in their training while job prospects, at least in the performance realm, are few and far between.
To consider the experiences of dancers trying to make the step from student to professional, The Dance Current spoke with Melanie Kloetzel, the artistic director of kloetzel&co. and associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Department of Dance, and Amber Funk Barton, independent dance artist and the artistic director of the response. in Vancouver.
Kloetzel comes from the United States where her beginnings in movement training were in gymnastics and non-competitive studio dance in jazz and modern. She attended a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and emerged as a dance professional in New York where she founded her company in 1997. After completing her MFA at UC Riverside, Kloetzel acted as director of a university dance program in Idaho before moving to Calgary in 2007.
Barton’s formative training was mostly in ballet, dancing at Goh Ballet Academy, Arts Umbrella and two programs which no longer exist, The Banff Centre Dance Training and Ballet BritishColumbia’s Mentor Program. As an interpreter in Vancouver, she has danced for a range of choreographers such as Joe Laughlin, Emily Molnar and Joshua Beamish and started her own company, the response., in 2008.
In the following conversation, both artists, who are in the middle stages of their careers, reflect on the inherent challenges of training dancers today, what they wish they knew when they were emerging and the importance of cross-disciplinary as well crossgenerational influences. While both live in the West, Kloetzel and Barton have never met.
Brittany Duggan To start, what do you wish your eighteeny-year-old self knew that you know now?
Melanie Kloetzel As an undergrad, I took dance class almost every day but I wasn’t a dance major, so I was taking all kinds of other coursework, which I really appreciate now. I was encouraged to make cross-disciplinary connections between dance and other forms as well as other academic areas. My papers often addressed dance in these other courses, which is curious because I don’t think that was really encouraged. At times, I wish that I’d gotten more intense physical training during that time period. That might have benefited me. I didn’t think of dance from any kind of kinesiological perspective – sports training ideas were not part of dance training at that point. I wish that I had had more release training and contact improvisation, even at a younger age. I actually find that stuff extremely beneficial to students.
Amber Funk Barton I was introduced to modern dance at the Banff Centre, while I was in high school. That experience had such a profound effect on me that I realized I wanted to be a choreographer. I was also exposed there to so many different kinds of dance – watching other people’s work and realizing there was this whole world outside of ballet. If I were to go back and do it all over again, I’d do way more hip hop and way more urban dance. I wasn’t as aware of other art forms; I would have appreciated more interdisciplinary encouragement. After high school I started doing contemporary dance while with Arts Umbrella and Ballet BC’s Mentor Program; I had to completely retrain. Another big moment for me was when I was twenty-six and at the ImPulsTanz dance program in Vienna (this was just before you could do a whole bunch of research online); I was seeing stuff for the first time. So I highly recommend travelling and seeing a range of dance. I wish I’d travelled even younger. What the generation of dancers is going through now is so different than what we have gone through; it’s just a different ball game. I mean, just the internet alone …
[We clarify that Kloetzel was in her early twenties in the early nineties, and Barton emerged on the scene about ten years later.]
MK Amber’s right on about interdisciplinary work. It took a long time to develop any real theoretical analyses of what was going on in other forms. But in later years, interdisciplinary knowledge has been hugely influential on me.
AFB It’s exciting to see dance programs in Vancouver encourage dancers to pursue interaction with other art forms. That just wasn’t on my radar, like the fact that you can collaborate with different artists; it was just so much about the body and the form.
BD Institutions act to educate, but when the contemporary dance world is so vast, varied and ever-evolving, what are the challenges, as well as any strengths, of what’s being done today?
AFB I feel like there’s something missing in that there’s a lot of training programs and not enough jobs for all of these emerging artists. There aren’t enough opportunities, so it becomes about encouraging them to think outside the bubble of what they know or expect. As teachers and educators, I think we need to really pay attention to the singularities of each student. If you see a student, for example, who is interested in choreography, encouraging them or leading them to opportunities where they can develop or have their work seen.
MK I think that’s critical for trainers of dance professionals, to help them think outside the box. I mean, I’ve been teaching inuniversity dance programs for fifteen years, and trying to create that well rounded dance professional is absolutely essential to what we do. In any kind of undergraduate program you have to do that, but I think there is more acknowledgment and awareness – at least currently at the University of Calgary – that dancers are not going to all come out and be performers; it’s not logical or practical, and yet, without question, dance is still a very viable and valuable academic study. There are people who are going to be performers or choreographers and then there’s people who are going to go into dance or theatre production, dance on film, various kinds of therapy, arts management, dance medicine and, in particular, dance education – I think that kind of diversity is awesome. It shows that dance can be applied in many different ways within society.
In university, the first year is often spent bridging the gap between the competitive studio dance experience and an awareness of dance as an art form. That is challenging because it sometimes feels that a whole year of our training gets put to that, as opposed to advancing the training or broadening the knowledge of dance as a cultural form. But I do think that by the time students finish their second year, they’re starting to think of how they can engage with specific areas of dance.
Another strength and challenge is the kinesiological focus. It can be positive in training, but then the focus might be too much about the body as an object to be exercised and less on the artistic aspect of the form. Also, now that the independent choreographer is more the model or the norm, we need to be training students to be resourceful and to find new inroads to where dance can take place in society.
BD How do you teach that?
MK It’s really interesting because I’m in a situation where five colleagues and I are trying to give dance majors everything we can before they move on from their degree, which is ludicrous obviously. But because my focus is on site-specific performance, I write and do a lot of creation in that area, and that makes me think a lot about other unusual ways of getting into the public sphere. I talk with my students about how dance can exist in a variety of spaces and how they can be resourceful about finding such spaces. Also, because I write a lot about my work, framing it in different ways, I am able to talk about dance to other people who have little experience, demonstrating how useful it can be with real research outcomes. I think instilling that in students so that they go on and talk about dance in this intelligent way – about the intelligence of the body and the intelligence of the artist – is extremely important in our society.
BD Training never stops as a dance artist. What are some examples of how you stay active and engaged?
MK Training should never stop, but often it does stop for long periods of time when you’re an adult trying to make a living. Because I’m teaching technique regularly, that helps, and I do yoga and Alexander Technique to maintain. I usually get to drop in for various kinds of workshops when they come to town. It never feels like it’s enough, but how could it?
AFB Yeah, I’m in that place now where it’s like doing the yoga or whatever on the side, or whatever cross-training, because you’re just swamped in admin or you have to get to rehearsal. I’m trying to figure out how to not go on autopilot; I want to keep learning. Out-of-town workshops are really important, and also getting out of any comfort zone, challenging yourself to think, ‘Who haven’t I taken class with or worked with?’
MK Amber’s mentioned the importance of travel before, and that is really true for training as well. Last year I was on sabbatical in Scotland and I got to do some Gaga workshops for the first time, as well as a variety of others such as a clowning workshop. Ongoing workshop training is essential to what we do.
BD How do you think Canada does in general at training and fostering dance artists – choreographers as well as interpreters?
AFB My experience is limited to the West, but from what I’ve seen in Vancouver, there are so many more emerging and young artists on the scene. People are really creating their own opportunities, not waiting for other people. There are also different organizations that are helping young creators to have their work seen. Within the past couple of years, I’ve seen young people just start their own stuff. I think it’s a reflection of what they are exposed to, the information they have, the technology. I love the whole tenaciousness of it; you need that in order to have a professional career.
MK I’ve been pretty impressed with some of the training that’s offered, but there are gaps as well. I think the post-university time period is kind of fragile; it can be a really challenging time. Emerging artists need to have access to a variety of training to continue their growth, and that is sometimes lacking. But Amber is absolutely right: in the past five or six years there’s been lots of encouragement of emerging artists. Honestly, I find that the difficulties become more evident once you get to be a mid-career artist. Often there’s much less available both in terms of training and funding the independent artist.
AFB I totally agree.
MK In Glasgow, Scotland, for example, they have this organization [The Work Room] that is purely for the independent choreographer. It exists to help them write grants, create a network, provide residency space – even with money to support the residency – and foster access to performance and presenting opportunities. Younger artists coming out of university need to be working with mid-career artists to further their training, and an organization like The Work Room, that truly supports the mid- as well as late-career artists, offers excellent opportunities for emerging artists. For example, artists-in-residence would offer free class for dance professionals during their residency. Mid-career artists, at least the ones I’ve been talking to in Edmonton and Calgary, they’re struggling; they’re wondering how to go on, much less how to pass on their knowledge. I’d like to encourage ongoing training via these mid-career artists. I see this generational gap as a failure in this country right now.
AFB It’s nice to hear this because I thought I was beginning to imagine it. I’m now entering mid-career and it feels different. There are more programs and funding directed at young people and to encourage young people, and that’s great; I’m not saying take those away, but there’s something that’s not being met with regards to the sustainability of mid-career artists.
MK I think that we’re doing a disservice to the younger generation if mid-career artists don’t get to have that wherewithal to pass the information they have on to others. I have peers in Alberta who are well-recognized, excellent artists, but they’re frustrated and considering different careers. They have so much to offer that younger generation; they have different ideas about training, choreographic practices and resourcefulness that are not being passed on. I’m very saddened by it to be totally honest.
BD Maybe the mid-career community needs some kind of organizing support?
MK Along with a few other choreographers in Alberta, I’ve just started trying to do that, to foster more communication and sense of community so that information can be passed on and shared. This is definitely a project that has just begun, but I think it should happen nationally.
BD Amber, your company has an apprentice program. What has been your thinking around that initiative?
AFB Yeah, there are many different reasons why I decided to do it. I recognized that we have all these dancers that are trained and ready to go, but, in order to be attractive to prospective employers, they need professional experience. I’m not interested in making a full-year program by any means; I call this program supplemental training. I work with the dancers over a four- to five-week period, and it’s always in conjunction with a creation project that I’m doing. It’s inspired by my experience in the mentorship program with Ballet BC. The program always ends in a performance of some kind; they get free class from me in the morning in exchange for their time. I find that after graduation they just need a little more, the understanding of what they do in the studio, how to transform that to the next stage of performance, what that looks like, what it could look like, what that experience is and to be surrounded by professional artists and watch how they work in the studio.
MK It’s a really interesting time. The Canada Council, for example, announced its new funding model, and there’s an increase to the federal arts budget, but it’s not clear to me yet how that’s going to go. But I do hope it can start to address that issue of encouraging the emerging generation while also supporting midcareer artists to stick around. I think we have a lot of work to do, but I’m hopeful, too; I’m more hopeful than the other side of me, i.e. the American side [laughs]. And I’m really glad that Amber is offering opportunities like the apprentice program, because when I was in my formative years, having access to different teachers and different kinds of classes from mid-career artists who were thoughtful about their work and what it was about was super useful for me. So I do hope we start to understand where those funding infusions need to happen for dancers so that we can pass on information and experience to the next generation.
AFB I agree. It’s a hopeful time, but I think there’s a lot of work to do still. What I’m realizing myself is, ‘Oh, so that means I need to do something.’ It’s not necessarily waiting for other people to make those changes.
AFB Whether it’s on a small scale or large scale, now more than ever, I’m asking, ‘What can I do to change the situation? Or, ‘How can I contribute?’ As long as that’s on the radar, then I think we have a lot to look forward to.