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After a four-year hiatus, a works-in-progress initiative called First Look returned in St. John’s last month. Established by the presenting organization Neighbourhood Dance Works more than 15 years ago, the program ran annually until 2018 when other substantial programming, followed by the pandemic, caused it to pause – but this doesn’t seem to have diminished enthusiasm.
The call for proposals generated more than double the number expected by the presenter and that they were initially able to program. Neighbourhood Dance Works decided, therefore, to program a second edition later in the summer to accommodate and get to know as many dancers as possible.
Santiago Guzmán, general manager at Neighbourhood Dance Works, is overseeing this year’s delivery of First Look. “When we received double the number [of proposals] that we were looking for,… that was really exciting to see that artists were actually brewing these projects and to see First Look as an opportunity to voice them, to physicalize them, visualize them, materialize them,” he said.
Resuming First Look brought with it a few firsts, beginning with the venue. Traditionally hosted in a studio, it was moved to the downtown, historic LSPU Hall theatre this year.
“[The theatre space] brings interesting questions around how artists present their work, how audiences going with the expectation of seeing a piece of work-in-progress, how that perspective shifts when we see a different setup in [a] black box theatre. It was really great to encounter that in the moment,” Guzmán noted.
A number of first-time participants emerged through the proposal call. Rukshana Sundar, a part-time bharatanatyam dancer and full-time technology product manager, performed in this type of program for her first time. Sundar has been a practitioner of the South Asian dance form since her early childhood in Sri Lanka. Before her mother even had a “first look” at her daughter and chose a name, she knew that she would enrol her in classes, to fulfill a childhood dream she did not herself achieve.
While Sundar has performed for the Sri Lankan community in Newfoundland and Labrador and teaches bharatanatyam classes on her weekends, First Look was her first foray into performing for the broader local audience. Her work-in-progress combines her life story with bharatanatyam, a first for her choreography.
“What I really enjoyed about that was the component to interact with the audience because that was really eye-opening to me. I am so desensitized to what’s normal for me. I could do an emotion, which makes sense for me, but for a different audience, especially in St. John’s, they wouldn’t know what that means. Whereas if I did that in Sri Lanka, they would know because they are exposed to those emotions and bharatanatyam in general,” said Sundar.
Hilary Knee, a Corner Brook-based contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher, shared one of her new solo works, of the earth, propelling forward, a collaboration with the musician Geraldine Hollett. Like Sundar, this was also Knee’s first time participating.
“I saw First Look as a great opportunity to share what I’ve been working on, connect with the members of the St. John’s dance community and engage with Neighbourhood Dance Works. I learned a great deal about the piece and its integrity during the showing,” she wrote in an email and added, “I was so thrilled to have this opportunity to show this to an audience and to have the post-show talkback.”
Guzmán was pleased with the first edition of this year’s First Look and excited to see what the summer episode reveals. “Overall, it was a very joyful night. I left the theatre feeling that we had accomplished what we had envisioned.”
Calla Lachance, artistic director of Neighbourhood Dance Works, attributed a number of factors to the renewed enthusiasm for First Look and the diversity in dance styles.
“There are more dancers making work, engaging in artistic research in the province right now,” she explained in an email. “And we are in contact with more artists, i.e., having more conversations across the board.”
“We have a wider view of the current landscape – that is, opening us up to more artists we may not have been in contact with before. The conversation we are having around Equity, Diversity and Inclusion is having an impact – more engagement, more dialogue, more representation. Things are growing and shifting!”
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