Vivine Scarlett, founder and executive director of dance Immersion, was awarded the 2021 Muriel Sherrin award at the virtual Mayor’s Arts Lunch on May 11. Since founding the organization more than 25 years ago, Scarlett has provided dancers of the African diaspora with a variety of platforms and support, both in Canada and abroad.
Presented by the Toronto Arts Foundation, the Muriel Sherrin award honours “an artist or creator who has made a contribution to the cultural life of Toronto through outstanding achievement in music or dance.” The award is a $10,000 cash prize, with each finalist receiving $1,000. A multidisciplinary panel of individuals from the Toronto arts community shortlisted Scarlett, Emily Cheung and Mi Young Kim based on their artistic strength and achievement, international work, artistic goals, development of Toronto arts and culture, and overall public impact.
“Vivine is a pioneer and has opened up the door for so many artists to realize their creative ambitions,” said Claire Hopkinson, director and CEO of the Toronto Arts Foundation. “She did what nobody else did 26 years ago, creating this presenting organization that was also helping and nurturing other artists.”
Scarlett said dance Immersion was borne from a lack of space and opportunity for dancers of the African diaspora, with events like outdoor festivals being some of the only spaces available for their work. Scarlett went to Dance Ontario with her vision to create more platforms for Black dancers before going on to collaborate with other organizations like the Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action.
“Within my community, it’s very challenging… especially, to get into an institution where your dance form is taught that also helps in the evolution of what we do,” Scarlett said, reiterating that one-off workshops can’t be representative of all forms of dance. She said Black dancers would come to her looking for support after being pigeonholed into “a European take” on their work, wondering if they should compromise.
“I [was] like hell no, there’s a whole world of people out there who relate to you and what you do,” Scarlett said. “In order to evolve and develop and grow, you need to connect to those people, to stay true to what you want to do.”
“How do we broaden those institutions so that we can build on our pedagogy, our syllabus, and be truly included in the art of Canada?”
Today, dance Immersion helps Black dancers navigate these institutions by offering education opportunities for artists and communities, incubation of choreography and presentation of dance works to the public.
From writing grants to providing a listening ear to connecting with someone overseas or in Toronto, Scarlett said she’s proud to give Black artists an established platform of support, and humbled by the appreciation. “It’s a great honour to be recognized by the arts community in Toronto.”
Hopkinson said Scarlett’s advocacy and promotion of the creative talents of the artists within the African diaspora both set the example and leave a meaningful impression on the arts in Toronto. “She has been selfless. Somebody [on the jury] said the amount of work she’s done, you’d think there were five people doing it, not one person.”
“She’s really created a lasting legacy.”
Having been involved in activism within the arts for so long, Scarlett wants to see tangible action towards deconstructing racism in dance. “Yes, we have to get together and talk about stuff, but my god, 25 years I’ve been talking, I think we should continue the conversation from where we left off,” she said. “We know there’s racism and it’s systemic. So what is the change? And I think that’s where everybody gets stuck.”
“It has to go deeper… all of us have some work to do in really making that change, because change is not easy. It’s not comfortable.”
Scarlett hopes to continue her work in moving the community forward through arts programs. She said an upcoming program will work with youth in detention centres, using art and dance as a healing tool. She’ll also be hosting the 2023 edition of the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival, which will focus on “what communities of artists need today and how we can rebuild together in a condensed live and digital format.”