The artistic director of one of Toronto’s most reputable contemporary dance companies says he’s been unceremoniously let go as the company scrambles to avoid a federal funding cut. But the company’s board says he’s misunderstood their attempt to retain him.
“I’m in shock,” says Michael Trent, now outgoing artistic director of Dancemakers. “It’s disrespectful and short-sighted.”
The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) put Dancemakers on “fair notice” last July, meaning that it can decrease funding by more than twenty-five per cent in the next year if the group does not do well.
The council issues fair notice when its evaluators deem a company to be not sufficiently meeting artistic standards, which includes meeting a large enough audience. Trent says Dancemakers fills a local need for experimental works, which can lead to smaller audiences.
On April 3, Dancemakers unveiled its new “Incubator Production House” model to coincide with the company’s fortieth anniversary. In an effort to rebalance funding, Trent developed a model that would see the role of artistic director gradually replaced with a curator who chooses three resident artists to develop productions over staggering three-year periods.
“Two days later I was ostensibly called in for a performance review and told they would not renew my term as artistic director but I could be one of the first artists in the program,” he claims.
The April 5 release states: “During the implementation phase, Michael Trent will continue as artistic director and serve as the first RA [resident artist]; in the ’14-15 season, Michael will be responsible for selecting the second RA and the first curator.”
But in a May 27 release, Dancemakers announced “changes in the company’s artistic leadership,” with Trent’s term coming to an end on July 31. The company decided to switch to a curator immediately, instead of over three years. Trent believes the board did this to lower the chance of a large CCA cut, and feels the change should have at least one transitional year.
After emailing all seven board members, The Dance Current spoke with Nancy Brown Andison and Moze Mossanen, who were available on short notice.
As for the April release, Andison says “maybe this is some poor wording” and that the program’s structure was still evolving. “By no means was Michael fired or asked to leave,” she says.
“The thing was keeping the artistic freedom of the new curator; we didn’t want to hamstring them to the new model,” Mossanen says. “Just as Michael had artistic freedom, we didn’t want any conflict for any curator coming in.”
Andison added that Dancemakers hopes Trent will continue his “remarkable” eight years of work with the company, “It’s unfortunate if there have been some disappointments or misunderstanding through it, and we regret any of that and the stress that’s putting on individuals in the organization or in the broader community. Because this is not the intention of anyone on the board.”
Trent contacted a lawyer, who determined the company had fulfilled its legal obligations. He’s now focused on completing his ongoing projects before pondering work elsewhere.
Andison and Mossanen said the board wanted to be sure Trent had a say in choosing his successor and that he’s still welcome to be the first resident artist, despite declining the invitation. Meanwhile, Trent finds the situation bizarre.
“I’m on the committee selecting the curator, which is both great and very odd,” he laughs.