Back in March, dancers across Toronto and beyond were devastated to hear that Dovercourt House had been forced to close — the city’s latest cultural casualty amid a series of closures spurred on by the financial burdens of the pandemic.
Known as Toronto’s dance hub, the building welcomed social and professional dancers alike for more than 20 years. But a new leaseholder meant that dancers were left on unstable footing.
In early November, nostalgic dancers returned to the second floor of Dovercourt House once again, this time for a sold-out film premiere. Eager filmgoers gathered and took their seats, feeling the energy of the space that brought them all together. For four years, filmmaker Sarah Jones had been interviewing folks for Dovercourt House: A Home for Dance.
“I felt like I was called to do it,” Jones said. “It gave so much to me that I wanted to give back to it and to the communities that called it home for the last 21 years.”
The documentary film is the result of countless hours of interviews, with a mix of pre-COVID footage taped inside the building and recordings of Zoom calls from the last year and a half. As the organizer of the Sunday Contact Jam that took place in the building for 17 years, Jones wanted to document the specialness of the building and the communities that bloomed within it. She knew she was not the only one who had growth spurts within the walls.
“I’ve experienced so much growth here because of the communities and because of this building,” she said. “There is something about it. There is nothing like this.”
The 108-year-old building had been many things in its long history — a fraternal lodge, a synagogue, even a furniture store — until one summer day in 2000, when Allen Kaeja saw its 15-foot ceilings, spacious areas and beautiful wooden floors and immediately knew it would make an incredible space for dance. Within a month, dance groups leased the top two floors for five years.
Once Allen and Karen Kaeja, artistic directors of Kaeja d’Dance, were established in the building, they made the 1,800-square-foot space available to rent for only $11 an hour. With high ceilings, sprung floors and no interior columns or pillars, it was a dancer’s dream.
“Think about it. It did not exist,” Allen said. To the Kaejas, the dance hub was all about community: how to support, enrich and give back. And now, in a tumultuous year on unstable grounds, the loss is evident.
When performance artist Lilia Leon first heard Dovercourt was switching ownership and the dance companies it housed were moving out, she felt sad.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said at the film premiere, “to reconnect with the community and to pay respect to this amazing space that has been part of my story in dance and my story in Toronto.” She admits that Dovercourt House was something she took for granted, because it had always been there throughout her dance career — from training and early years of performance, rehearsals and auditions.
“It was a place where I would come very frequently for my own creative process. The availability was there and it was affordable. It was close by and it didn’t matter if you were established or emerging or professional; there was a space for everybody,” she said.
If you were to ask a dancer what they loved most about Dovercourt House, they would likely say the floors. Laid on horsehair, its ballroom floor is one of the original sprung floors in the city. In the documentary, dancers speak of the importance of the hardwood floors. Many felt held by them. And for many, standing in the entranceway of Dovercourt, with recently carpet-less floors and fresh paint lacquered on the walls, the loss felt brand new.
“It’s a hollow shell of what it was,” Allen said of the building. “It’s not only lost and gone, but it’s devastating. This was a holistic space. It was a space that embraced everyone who walked in.”
The foundational dance companies of Dovercourt House — CORPUS, princess productions and Kaeja d’Dance — that rented the second and third floors for 21 years are in conversation, trying to find a solution. After months of uncertainty and discussions with the new leaseholder, the third floor remains open for CORPUS and social dancers to rent (for double the original monthly price).
Karen said they’re talking to people politically, organizationally and dance-wise to see if they can find money or people who could help them.
“I hate to think of going anywhere else. And I’ve actually been hesitating to look for anything else. But I do need to keep the work going and creating,” she said. “My first choice would be to stay here. The impossible choice. The second would be to create a new space to invite the community into, in ways that it wouldn’t cost them so much to be a part of, much like they did 20 years ago.”
“Everyone’s diverting and trying to survive in a hard economic climate. There’s not a lot of spaces out there,” Karen said.
Kaeja d’Dance now rents from CORPUS on the third floor, but because they’re on a month-to-month lease, long-term planning is impossible. Though CORPUS is holding the space down, instability looms and those renting continue to search for alternative spaces. To Allen, the monthly lease signals a lack of commitment. “I don’t know what their holistic idea is for the building, but it’s definitely not to have dance here,” he said.
“In my mind, this was a home. It was a family, and it was a mother, and it wanted to take care of everyone. It wasn’t here to make a profit. There was no large corporate organization behind it,” Allen said. “It’s about money. They really didn’t care about the community. It was just cash.”
Leon said that there aren’t a lot of buildings in Toronto where you feel the age and imperfections of things. Where other spaces feel branded, new, state of the art or corporate, Dovercourt felt like a down-to-earth community space. “It’s sad that that’s no longer, because it was so grassroots, open to all different dance styles, and the rates were so low,” Leon said.
Though the building appears mostly the same, some things have changed. Now, when Karen walks up the stairs to rehearse on the third floor, she passes the floor that held her company for decades. That door is locked.
“The weirdest thing is going up past our studio to the third floor, which is not our studio anymore,” she said.
After watching the documentary, Leon realized that Dovercourt was so much bigger than herself. “In listening to all their stories, I got to reflect on the impact. I had no idea how much this meant to so many other people.”
With the future unwritten, guests enjoyed live music, dance performances and a Q & A after the screening. They gathered in the space that held and shaped them, and they remembered the ecosystem that worked together to create a unique bubble of life.
“I’m just so moved by the life forces that made this place happen,” Karen said. “And super sad. I feel very sad right now.”
The film closed with a question: If the walls at Dovercourt could talk, what would they say? Dancers took a moment to think before they replied.
“I see you”
“You are welcome”
“I love you”
“Come in and fill the space and leave the doors open.”
With files from Grace Wells-Smith.