The Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival (GCDF) celebrated its tenth birthday in style with a May 30th gala in the Ontario city’s River Run Centre. Following performances by members of Sinha Danse and Deborah Dunn’s Trial and Eros — both MontrÈal companies — and by Guelph-based Dancetheatre David Earle, audience members engaged in an animated talk-back session with the artists and raised champagne glasses, considerately brought right to their seats, to toast the festival’s achievements.
Janet Johnson and Catrina von Radecki, the festival’s founders, admit that in 1998 they had only hazy long-term plans. “It was very much an ‘in the moment’ kind of thing,” says Johnson; understandably so. They were trailblazers for contemporary dance in a city with small-town charm, of fewer than 140,000 people and within the strong magnetic field of the Toronto megalopolis ninety kilometres away.
“I did dream,” says von Radecki, “about how wonderful it would be to come to a city like Guelph and live and work as a dance artist.” While both look forward to further growth for the festival — the ability to commission works is a pressing goal — Johnson and von Radecki can feel proud of what they’ve already accomplished.
The four-day festival in late spring is the conspicuous epicenter of a range of events and activities under GCDF auspices that help foster appreciation of and participation in contemporary dance throughout the Guelph area. Education, outreach and community engagement remain “a huge part of what we do,” Johnson explains. It is community rootedness that has earned the GCDF a firm foothold and loyal following in a city already replete with arts festivals of one sort or another.
When the two women launched the festival about 600 people attended. This year, including both the festival proper and ancillary activities, workshops and performances throughout the year, the organization can boast the participation of 5000 people. Some years, when the GCDF has curated work for Guelph’s Linamar for the Performing Arts series at the River Run, the total audience has been even larger.
Guelph is a culturally aware, arts-loving university town. “It had a huge cultural life already,” says von Radecki. “This audience loves the arts. There’s an openness and willingness to be surprised.” Even so, it took the separate arrivals of Johnson and von Radecki and their subsequent professional collaboration to get the local dance scene hopping to a more insistent beat.
Johnson, from Hamilton, Ontario, graduated from York University’s respected dance program and was soon immersed in Toronto’s independent dance scene. Then she decided to make “a whack of cash” by spending a summer tree-planting in Northern Ontario. There, Johnson met the man with whom she was to raise a family of four. A wilderness sojourn got Johnson thinking about moving from the big city. The couple settled in Guelph in 1994 and Johnson soon became part of the city’s then “miniscule” dance community, teaching and choreographing.
Von Radecki, also a mother and with an extensive background working in MontrÈal’s creatively vibrant dance scene, arrived in Guelph three years later. Having opened a teaching studio in Guelph, von Radecki struck up a friendship with Johnson and the two joined forces to present their own dance shows for initially tiny audiences. “But it was enough to show us there was an interest,” says Johnson.
So they did what only idealists or innocents can do and launched a festival with a 150-seat university theatre as the primary venue. Says Johnson: “It was quite a success and encouraged us to seek funding for another event.” Parenthetically, 1998 must have been an auspicious year. Dancetheatre David Earle, then based in Elora, Ontario, was officially established the same year, as was this publication!
Diversity, accessibility, inclusiveness and a keen appreciation of community needs and expectations remain festival hallmarks. “We work hand in hand with the community. We listen to its needs,” says von Radecki, co-artistic director with Johnson and also the GCDF’s general manager.
This year, festival audiences were able to experience everything from Roger Sinha’s “Apricot Trees Exist” (2004) a melding of full-bodied modernism with his personal refraction of South Asian dance to the remounting of a Canadian modern-dance classic — Earle’s 1974 “Ray Charles Suite”, with Earle himself reprising his memorable Yesterday solo. Meanwhile, in “Nocturnes” (2007) Deborah Dunn channeled Cathy and Heathcliff from Emily Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights” into a sometimes fantastical, often surreal dance-theatre exploration of conflicted romance. And that was just one River Run Centre mainstage program.
A month before the festival proper, the GCDF had already taken over the intimate Macdonald Stewart Arts Centre for a two-day offsite series featuring work by Toronto’s Karen Rose and Peter Chin and by Calgary’s Helen Husak.
The festival spilled into the open air in Exhibition Park and St. George’s Square. Despite volatile weather, pay-what-you-can audiences were able to sample a huge variety of emerging and professional artists from various parts of Canada. During its first decade, every province has been represented. A remounting of Karen Kaeja’s “Bird’s Eye View” dance installation from Toronto’s 2007 Nuit Blanche not only involved local members of the dance community but encouraged audience participation. A Saturday matinee Youth Moves program featured eight regional troupes of under-nineteen-year-olds. And, of course, there was Toronto’s cheerful Company Blonde Dance Projects, a popular festival mainstay throughout its history.
Earned and contributed revenue represents only forty percent of what in 2009 will be a $180,000 GCDF budget. The popular festival-run March Break Camp is one of a number of dance-focussed year-round activities that contribute to the bottom line. The remainder comes from public funding at all government levels. Local media and businesses have rallied behind the organization. With a skeletal and modestly paid staff, GCDF is heavily dependent on volunteer labor. “It’s exciting and passion-driven,” says Johnson.
Denise Fujiwara, a former GCDF performer and artistic director of Toronto’s CanAsian Dance Festival, applauds Johnson and von Radecki’s achievements. “It’s extraordinary what they’ve accomplished. Janet and Catrina have done a fabulous job animating the community to support the festival and expanding it into a variety of venues in different parts of the city.”