This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
Founded in 1997, The CanAsian Dance Festival celebrates its 25th annual production with works dissecting multiple layers of Asian identity.
This year’s festival is a virtual multi-week event featuring established and emerging Asian dance artists. The performances are rooted in themes requiring artists to think politically, personally, socially or any way that they’re inclined to about their identity, said Denise Fujiwara, the festival’s artistic director.
This year, Fujiwara chose to highlight current work from festival alumni and use its Short Digital Dance Works program to transform the live experience into paid online work that helps support the professional development of emerging Asian dance artists.
Each choreographer was given an opportunity to collaborate with a dramaturge – an expert in the artistic field who helps refine the director’s vision – who also served as a mentor throughout the development process.
Having not always been comfortable with teaching choreography, Mary-Lee Brunet, a freestyle hip-hop dancer from Montreal who is part of the Short Digital Dance Works program, said the process of making her first visual dance piece, Answer, was an “enlightening and enriching experience.”
“I really tried to the best of my abilities to take everyone’s strengths and be like, ‘OK, how do you feel about this? What can you pitch in? What do you want to give to this project?’ ” she said. “So it was really about exchange.”
Answer tells an intimate story of three young women questioning their identities and the unexplainable emotions that arise from being interracial Asian adoptees. Brunet said the piece is partially influenced by her own lived experience as an adoptee to a white family and serves as a first step in opening the door to this aspect of identity that is often not discussed within public discourse.
“It’s not just a short film; it’s a big thing for me and I hope it resonates with people in that way also,” said Brunet. “And with that subject, it can be heavy, depending on how you respond to it. But I would like in some way to make people feel a little bit uncomfortable with that.”
In her first venture into the contemporary space, dance artist Ashvini Sundaram’s bharatanatyam piece Vasantham takes the audience into her personal journey with varnam – a specialized repertory item in bharatanatyam – spirituality, and physical and emotional depletion.
“With CanAsian, I saw it as an opportunity to develop something that is going to be an honest and authentic reflection of everything that I am as an Asian Canadian person,” said the Vancouver-based artist. “That’s really what intrigued me about this opportunity.”
She said Vasantham was inspired by her ritual of going into the studio and delving into her process of getting ready to practise by adorning herself in traditional attire.
Familiar with wearing multiple hats on set, Ian Simon, a videographer, filmmaker and dancer in the Short Digital Dance Works program, embodied his most recent role as choreographer in his project Bahala Na, a short narrative dancefilm diving into the experience of a first-generation Filipino immigrant interrogating their sense of self within an environment of different customs.
“When [CanAsian] was posting on social media sites, I just took a chance, to be honest,” said Simon. “I think it was more so it would be nice to also have a project being commissioned, because the dance community I am in, most of us have either made videos from our own pocket, and I know some people don’t have the means for it.”
He added that the film experience continues to motivate him to work on smaller project ideas that have been floating around in the back of his head but that he has never really had the space, prior to CanAsian, to fully execute.
He also said that he mainly wants his dancefilm to be relatable. “Whether you’re born and raised in your home country or you’re born and raised in the West, there’s still bits and pieces of us that we need to start accepting, like our culture identity, no matter where you are.”
The first program of the festival kicks off on March 23, followed by the second program on March 30 and the closing performances on April 6.