There is no definitive formula for running a dance festival, but in the scheme of all things, the St. John’s Festival of New Dance is infused with the boldness of what might be described as a little big festival. The regional setting for the festival is, of course, one of its charms. Away from Canada’s mega-centres, St. John’s is such a rich city for the arts and one that is able to welcome guests with a relaxed but impressive embrace. The vistas and attractions – from a trek up Signal Hill to a visit by the Tall Ships – and the town dotted by many churches and many more bars all give it a special sense of place. But more pertinent to the composition of the festival, was the temporary closure this year of the historical LSPU Hall (Longshoremen’s Protective Union Hall), which is under renovation; thus the performances were located in different venues across the downtown core – from a church meeting room, to a school auditorium and a dance studio – and the range was a real draw for this first-time attendee. It’s a whole other discussion, and a highly charged one too, but if you want to talk about a distinct society, Newfoundland fits the bill very nicely, thank you very much. It was about a year ago that the programming committee of Neighbourhood Dance Works – the producer of the festival – wrote to invite me to the event, to provide a kind of through line of critical discourse for the festival, lead post show chats and generally encourage everyone to engage in discussion about dance and the performances. Then-Managing Director Robbie Thomas said, “We have felt for a while that we would like to include more opportunities for discussion and critique in the festival.” For my part, I was thrilled to visit and play a role in making that happen.
When Gordon Laurin replaced Thomas upon her retirement, he asked if I would also address a very informal breakfast get-together with guests of the festival and a few local community dancers, talking either on some perspective of the festival or dance discourse in general. It was a chance to bring participants and attendees together to meet and connect. Mission accomplished. The festival also set up a “State of Dance” discussion forum where visiting choreographers and local dancers could consider some of the challenges the national dance community faces due to the global economic downturn. Both Executive Director of the Canadian Dance Assembly Shannon Litzenberger and I gave short, informal ten-minute presentations, after which questions and comments were solicited from the assembled guests. It was an opportune moment to offer an historical perspective on the larger Canadian scene, while also connecting these trends and ideas with the regional/local artists present. The event turned out to be a stimulating session for visitors and locals, who shared their experiences creating and performing in difficult social, political and economic climates. Other talks and meetings occurred throughout the festival. The performances were well attended, but it was the outdoor event called “Spatial Pull”, by Edmonton-based dancer-choreographer Gerry Morita, that sparked the most curiosity. Her assembled group of dancers (from her own company Mile Zero Dance, as well as a collection of local performers) performing on the steps of the hillside walkway next to the city courthouse elicited the most comments and got heads turning. For natives of St. John’s, the possibility of seeing folks from “away” discovering corners of their city must have been a surprise. The first day, a woman on Water Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, was on her cellphone, imploring whoever was on the other end, “You’ve got to see this. There are dancers on the stairs, and they’re going down ‘em really slowly. You’ve got to come!” You can’t buy this kind of publicity. The following day, a warm and sunny afternoon, an even denser crowd was in attendance. Kids were parked in strollers as moms looked on, and the police were out in numbers to control the flow of the crowd and traffic, but also to gawk. While the performance ensued, a sheriff’s van backed up to the prisoner dock, its sirens blaring and flashing. One of the dancers doing a headstand caught peoples’ eyes, as did the assortment of bodies – large and small, men and women, all dressed in black formal wear, of one style or another, some with shoes, some not.
As the crowds gathered, the cars started to slow. Among the mass of on-lookers, some walking by became stuck in a knot of people. “How can I get out of this?” muttered one guy into his cellphone. “I got crazy nailed.” One fellow commented to another, “I’ve seen strange, but nothing like this.” A trio of jocks stopped their jog, and started egging the others on. “Why aren’t you up there?” “Cause I can’t touch my feet or get my ankles over my head,” joked one of the guys standing next to me. As the dancers slowly and assuredly crossed the median after rolling down the steps, they made their way to the port to stare out at the harbour, another block down. Others in the crowd seemed pleased to remark that the area had become a “zombie crossing”. By happenstance, one of the Tall Ships, a Russian boat, had set anchor that morning. One by one, the dancers descended, finally standing before the ship in a row. It was a sight to see, and added poignancy and irony to the performance. Community building develops in different ways, but the Morita performance certainly provided the visibility a festival like this one needs. Baffled, curious, fearful, people reacted. Some, I suspect, might even try and take in a more formal stage show. What emerges from this festival is a community of artists who seem charged with a mission to make the event strong and relevant.
Maybe it was a convincing facade, but the organizers (Laurin and Programs and Publicity Administrator Calla Lachance) seemed cool and unfazed by any number of the burdens they must have been feeling. Now in its nineteenth season, the festival has a long history, but it’s not standing still or resting on laurels from some past glory. Formulaic and banal are far from the minds of those in charge. What seems particularly important for the festival is that it maintains its mandate to support independent artists and small to mid-range companies. A review of the choices in this year’s pan-Canadian program (along with an array of workshop possibilities) – at least the ones seen during my stay – seemed risky and so fundamentally original. Montreal’s Andrew Tay and Isabel Mohn offered more experimental pieces; Tay’s “The Space Between”, performed by Tay and dancer Annabelle Savard, about missed connections and isolation, is full of agitated, hesitant gestures, and Mohn’s “Perfect Stranger”, danced by the choreographer and Dean Makarenko, was a concentrated and moving study of a relationship bound by discord and containment. The proximity and engagement of the players to the crowd (sometimes literally brushing up against them or jostling them) heightens the experience. The Choreographers (Thea Patterson and Katie Ward) presented their playful “Man & Mouse”, performed by Audrée Juteau and Peter Trosztmer, which has developed in rich and wonderful ways since I reviewed the piece for “The Dance Current” last year.
A cabaret-lounge styled event, “The Rolling Parlour Cabaret”, by Toronto dancer/choreographer Susie Burpee and performed in the A1C Gallery included the melancholic music of songwriter/composer Christine Fellows. Burpee, in a black coiffed wig, a dark-coloured retro dress, and evening gloves, suitcase in hand, has a knack for nervous, twitchy characterization and a sly, witty stage presence; the crowd cheered her every glance. Fellows, with her back to the crowd, had the unfortunate task of singing to the back wall, and so the lyrics to her songs were practically inaudible. The screening, in a bar, of Aimée Dawn Robinson’s innovative travelling dance film “From Here To There and back again: A traveling dance”, originally scheduled for a parking lot, documented her cinema-verité road-trip from Toronto to St. John’s. With her camera set up to capture her movements, Robinson reacts to, and engages with, the environments in which she finds herself – inside her car, a motel room, a field, a road – and seems to improvise in each site. The days filter together, one upon the other. Some of the gestures multiply as she covers this expanse of the country. Without words, and with limited editing, the experience of watching her journey is quietly reflective and unhurried.
The festival also included a mixed-bill of work by Jennifer Dick (dancing Claudia Moore’s “Between Us”, a duet performed with Tom Brouillette, and Dick’s own modernist-tinged sweeping solo,“Victory”) and Kathleen McDonagh (“fall/gift”, a dramatic autobiographical piece about grief, loss and memory). Deborah Dunn’s four sublime solos based on T.S. Eliot’s modern classic “Four Quartets” filled a single program. The meaning of the lines is complex in his spiritual work, but Dunn’s intelligent work with the poet’s meditation on the cyclical nature of life and experience offered shifts and nuance that make for an inspired outing. (The first two poems are read by Sir Alec Guinness, while the latter two are read by Dunn herself). There’s no exposition of the work, and Dunn seamlessly shifts between attachment and detachment. As she moves, she veers between fluidity and a beautifully crisp and meticulous dancing. With articulate elegance, Dunn is able to capture many aspects in her performance: fragments of beauty, comic moments and a languorous sense of contemplation. Her rich use of costume (she designs her own) adds another later of delight. Here, she shifts from a simple brown suit with red lining to a scarlet Elizabethan-styled full skirt. The city’s creative energy is pulsing, and due to my visit at the festival, I’m now revisiting and rethinking my perspectives on what defines our country’s hot spots in dance. The adrenaline and the commitment of the organizers is to be commended, and even though the St. John’s dance community is in many ways still growing, there appears to be solidarity in the ranks. Also, the dialogue is deeper than I would have ever imagined, and the festival is one of the few that has embraced analysis, not in a brooding, tenuous, exclusionary sense, but rather in a more raw, accessible manner. None of this is easy at the margins, but the festival exists in a constructive environment (the newfound health of the provincial economy can’t hurt either, especially in enabling a wave of artistry to develop in the region). In this very physical place, an environment that feeds the overall tenor of what’s going on in the arts, I feel the ascent of this city as an able and particular part of the Canadian dance family.