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Small-town Newfoundland may not be the first place you’d expect to find professional ballet performances. But Kittiwake Dance Theatre’s company of nine dancers, led by artistic director Martin Vallée, just finished a province-wide tour of their hour-long mixed program to outdoor theatre spaces in St. John’s, Corner Brook, Stephenville, Woody Point, Gander and Terra Nova National Park.
The free concerts are one of two dance projects supported by Newfoundland and Labrador’s Come Home Year initiative. This provincial program provides marketing and funding support to arts, heritage and cultural organizations throughout 2022. The goals are to encourage former residents to return home, tourists to visit, and current residents to get out and enjoy their communities as they rebuild the tourism industry and community spirit in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns. Neighbourhood Dance Works also receives support from the initiative.
The funding allowed Kittiwake to realize a project it has been imagining for five years. Many local audiences have noticed that there are limited opportunities to see dance on a regular basis. Vallée wants to fill that gap.
He said that the company wanted to stay true to their ballet roots but also took advantage of this opportunity to perform more contemporary dance forms, alongside ballet, that may appeal to a broader audience.
“The idea is to put some [dance] out there so that people want to see it more and then maybe have more of that in their communities,” said Vallée in an interview after their Corner Brook performance on July 17.
Luckily, while launching Ballet in the Park, Kittiwake avoided some of the challenges other arts organizations have experienced, including shortages of accommodation, travel cancellations and COVID-19-related chaos. Vallée said instead their biggest challenges were needing to quickly adapt their choreographies to outdoor venues and deal with the unpredictable Newfoundland weather.
This was certainly the case in Corner Brook. The performers set up in the small concrete bandshell. To the right of the stage, families were sunbathing and splashing in the river, and behind the audience, kids were squealing and playing in a splash pad and jungle gym. The sky also threatened rain, and the second performance of the day ended up delayed by the intermittent downpours.
However, this did not stop an all-ages audience of 60 people from gathering in the popular park to take in the show. A toddler ballerina-in-training in a tutu-style dress performed her own moves along with the dancers and a number of older audience members sat on benches, calmly watching through all the surrounding chaos.
One of these women, Betty Lou LeDrew, is a long-time supporter of dance in Corner Brook. She trained with Betty Oliphant in her youth and then taught classes in Corner Brook as a young mother in the 1960s. LeDrew said it’s now rare to see live dance performances in the area, but she enjoyed the program so much she thought she would come back for the second show.
“I like it all!” said LeDrew. “And I think the modern dance is different from what I studied, but it’s still very interesting to me because that’s where [dance] is going. But I still loved the absolutely graceful, traditional stuff.”
LeDrew is right about the infrequent presentation of dance performances. But programs like Ballet in the Park, which provide substantial work for dancers, are building a new enthusiasm and momentum for some young company members.
This is a sentiment that particularly excites company member Hannah Drover.
“We’ve been having a good laugh and lots of fun,” she said. “The response has been really positive so far.”
With opportunities like the ones that Kittiwake is providing, Drover hopes other dancers can come home, and stay home, like she did after completing the George Brown College Dance Performance Program in 2019. As Kittiwake was working to build its professional company at that time, Drover was hired as a soloist and then the company’s inaugural RBC Emerging Choreographer-in-Residence.
And since that time the company has grown even more to include four to five full-time soloists who are keen to keep living, dancing and making new opportunities for dance in Newfoundland and Labrador.
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