Dance recitals have a bad reputation. Known as an obligatory tedium punctuated by the excitement of seeing your loved one hit the stage, end-of-year school shows ask for a lot, even for the most diligent audience, to endure. However, when internationally renowned dance artists are brought in to work with students, the idea of a “recital” is ruptured. Artemis Gordon, artistic director of the Arts Umbrella dance program, has made it her project for the last few decades to make this school’s season finale anything but a tedious recital.
I spoke to Gordon about BE MOVED, and our conversation wove through the show itself and the circumstances that shape it as a valuable event for students and audiences. “BE MOVED is really about experience,” she explains. “It’s about what is relevant to dance and dancers today.”
For the students, the performance is the culmination of a year of hard work. But it’s not just about showing how one’s technique and virtuosity have improved over another year of training. This show comes with a process that Gordon is quick to emphasize as deeper than showmanship. “There is a process involved in performance that requires research and understanding,” she says. “It’s not just about how high your leg can go, but how the students’ skills can meet with the choreographers’ ideas.”
In this way, performance becomes a tool of edification and experience; for Arts Umbrella students, the rehearsal and creation processes are just as vital as the performance itself for their ongoing training. To bring in dance artists and choreographers who are currently making and presenting work in many corners of the world pushes the students to focus on how they can cultivate their technique in a way that supports what the choreographer asks of them. As Gordon puts it, “It’s not always about how you, the dancer, feel. It’s about allowing the audience to feel. You must have rigour and virtuosity, and it must be in service of the event you’re creating.”
While Vancouver is lucky to have the venues, the resources and the institutions to present a variety of international dance works on a frequent basis, this infrastructure still functions in accordance with an audience-based risk — what if audiences don’t like it? On this Gordon made an excellent point. BE MOVED is not working within the same type of market that is indebted to cater to the entertainment of patrons or subscribers. As a dance performance put on by a training institution, it has the freedom to seek out and engage dance artists and choreographers based on their craft and relevancy in the field. Again, Gordon’s aim is to expand and push the students into moments of experiential growth; that Vancouver audiences get to see new works by local, national and international artists is an added bonus.
This season’s show, BE MOVED, included pieces by international powerhouses of contemporary dance: Crystal Pite, Emily Molnar, Johan Inger, Lesley Telford, James Kudelka, Mats Ek and Amos Ben-Tal. Gordon’s (successful) search for who and what is relevant in the international contemporary dance scene ultimately challenges the students to be open and ready to approach dance along a spectrum of techniques and concepts.
Further, the season finale of the Arts Umbrella Dance Company — a facet of the training program that focuses on repertoire, new creations and performance — represents a vital paradigm shift for the field of dance. Gordon has been the artistic director of the dance program since 1992. In her twenty-seven-year tenure in the position, she’s seen the ever-growing, ever-shifting faces of dance. “The world has changed,” Gordon says. “People have accepted that someone can want, and have, a professional career in dance.” While dance training can streamline students directly into companies at home and abroad, the training Arts Umbrella students go through trains them to be adaptable to the many faces and forms that a professional career in dance can take. “There are more ways, more voices, more diversity than ever before in dance. And I want the students to understand that there is no right way,” says Gordon.
Finally, as a practising contemporary dance artist in Vancouver, I was curious why a ballet-based program like Arts Umbrella was bringing in contemporary choreographers. The posters for BE MOVED include the image of a young woman on pointe, but the text surrounding the show mark it to be full of contemporary works and artists who do not all employ classical ballet in their choreography. Here again Gordon stressed the idea of relevancy. For Gordon, seeking out who is relevant in today’s dance scene is her strategy to ensure that her students are prepared for whatever may come in the next ten years of dancemaking. “I don’t know what choreographers will want in ten years,” Gordon admits. “But a dancer who can balance on their leg, who can use their spine with sophistication, who can approach their relationship to the floor in different ways, these are the dancers who will be ready for whatever comes next.”
All this being said, BE MOVED was a giant of a show that showcases the growing skills and personalities of the dancers alongside the choreographies of dance artists who speak to the diverse realm of concert dance today. It took place at the Vancouver Playhouse May 23-25.
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