In my late teens, the definitive sound of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip was an obvious companion to my rural angst. In my early twenties, investing in my new home of Toronto, I dug into the novels of local and lauded scribe Michael Ondaatje. I would never have imagined that in 2004, just a few years down the road, I would see Ondaatje bring his words to life in the same show where I would hear Downie sing. I would never have imagined this would happen in what was a so-called “dance show” — and I very much doubt you would have dreamed that one up either. As luck would have it, we didn’t have to. Andrea Nann did the imagining for us, and she called it The Whole Shebang.
Since debuting The Whole Shebang in 2004, Nann has dedicated much of her time and talents to envisioning such inspired arrangements. The last decade has been spent bringing the fertile worlds of dance, poetry, storytelling, rock music, songwriting, visual art, design and all the in-betweens into close contact, and importantly, sharing the discoveries of these encounters with an interested and growing audience. Through Dreamwalker Dance Company (the umbrella of her artistic activities), eight editions of this ever-evolving production have been produced in Toronto, with a ninth hitting the stage this week. And while Nann continues to work as a dancer, creator and teacher in a variety of contexts, The Whole Shebang has become her company’s signature event.
Ten years down the road, Nann retains vivid memories of that inaugural offering: “The first edition was a multi-arts gala featuring two interdisciplinary dance pieces, a songwriters’ circle and a writers’ circle. The dances integrated and merged ideas and concepts from multiple art forms conjuring a lush, layered, multi-dimensional world. In contrast, the songs and readings were very pure, singular, absolute.” This juxtaposition struck a chord with Nann. “There was something about experiencing this dichotomy within a single production that really interested me,” she says. “It fuelled questions I already had about diverse practices and shared experience.”
The framework of The Whole Shebang remained similar to this original model for the next few editions as Nann continued to explore how a range of curatorial choices “might elicit shared yet unique and deeply personal experiences.” “I started to view the curation of the program the way that I viewed the structure and development of a dance,” says Nann, “with heightened attention on the journey of experiences through the body — not just by the performers but also by the audience.” In 2011, she began to expand the confines of this curatorial process, commissioning interdisciplinary artist Helen Yung to create “Interstitials” — installations, interactions and interventions that respond to the theme of the show and knit the range of curated works into a seamless experience. In 2012 and 2013, at Yung’s suggestion, the Interstitials morphed into a dramaturgical and curatorial tool, working, as Nann describes, “to shape the energetic arc of the show into a blended, multi-sensory story.”
The Whole Shebang: Taken By Night will continue to utilize the Interstitials as a driving force of identity for the work. For this ninth installation of the production (and tenth anniversary edition), Nann is sharing the role of creator with Yung, and together they have imagined Taken by Night to be, in Nann’s words, “the most integrated, immersive, experiential and visceral experience yet.” For the occasion, Nann has brought together a host of their closest collaborators from the past decade, including Ondaatje, musicians Andy Maize and Oh Susanna, designer Elysha Poirier, dance icon Veronica Tennant and esteemed dance artists Sarah Chase, Kate Holden, Brendan Wyatt and Marie-Josée Chartier.
As Nann and Dreamwalker Dance Company have worked to build their vision in Toronto, they have also been working towards expanding the possibilities of The Whole Shebang beyond the city limits. A three-year Ontario Trillium Foundation grant has allowed Nann to introduce the methodology of “The Shebang Process” to the communities of Kingston, Guelph, Niagara (St. Catharines) and Burlington under the banner of The Ontario Shebang. For the past three years, Nann and The Whole Shebang team have been working with artists from each region, building both a collective identity and a creative direction via residencies, workshops and community forums. Over the 2015/16 season, The Ontario Shebang will culminate with full-scale theatrical and/or site-specific productions, sharing publicly the fruits of these community collaborations.
Guelph saw the completion of this process in September 2015 with three shows at the River Run Centre as part of Culture Days, and I spoke with local writer Claire Tacon about her involvement. She gave me insight into both her experience and into the process itself. “For me,” Tacon says, “the Shebang’s greatest benefit was the chance to learn from my fellow artists. We each had the chance to describe our own creative practice and to lead the group in an exercise from our own discipline. These glimpses into alternate routes to creation were a gift.” As a fiction writer situated alongside two dancers, two musicians and an interdisciplinary media artist, she was concerned off the top about how her form would fit into a performance-based collaboration, but she cites Nann’s passion for movement-based improvisation as being “infectious” and ultimately an effective means of developing an idea. “The skills at the core of her practice — listening, taking action — provided us with a platform for collaboration. Often we would break out into groups of two or three to explore a concept or to see how we could translate it to our own discipline.” Through this process, Tacon developed both a chapbook — an experiment in translating dance improvisation into writing — and an interactive installation piece involving a room full of typewriters, which played on a collectively developed theme of feedback in the form of advice.
In hearing Tacon’s feedback, it’s easy to see how participating artists can profit from this kind of project. She speaks too to the potential impact for both the greater arts community and Guelph citizens at large. “It’s hard to tell at this stage where the connections forged by the Shebang will lead, but I hope that it will result in more cross-pollination between different disciplines,” Tacon says. She is equally hopeful about how people will view the River Run Centre after the space was opened in new ways to the public for The Guelph Shebang. “When people visit a regional theatre, they are only allowed into a slice of the building, and their role is often passive. I hope that having had this permission to explore the whole theatre will give the public greater ownership over this civic space.” Whatever the result, it’s apparent that by weaving together the connecting threads of our disparate arts communities, Nann is allowing the artists involved and the audiences they engage with to explore and share in new ways of seeing and being. And in the arts — the original sharing economy — this embrace of openness and imagination is key to building communities that can develop and thrive.
The Whole Shebang: Taken by Night runs from November 26-28, 2015, at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education in Toronto. Learn more >> dreamwalkerdance.com