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Miss live shows? Canadian Stage launches outdoor Dance in High Park weekend series with limited audiences

Miss live shows? Canadian Stage launches outdoor Dance in High Park weekend series with limited audiences
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After more than seven months of enforced absence from Toronto stages, some of the city’s most acclaimed dance artists are poised to return to live performance as Canadian Stage launches an ambitious, weather-permitting series at the outdoor High Park Amphitheatre.

Starting on Saturday and running for three consecutive weekends, Dance in High Park offers compact family-friendly programs that span the gamut of contemporary dance.

“The dance community has been hit so hard by the pandemic,” says Canadian Stage artistic director Brendan Healy. “We want to celebrate Toronto dance artists and highlight their diverse range of talents.”

With public health directives constantly shifting it was not until August that Healy and his team decided it would be possible to stage a live dance series where, pre-pandemic, for 38 summer seasons, the company had presented its popular Shakespeare in the Park. As many as 1,000 people attended one of those performances but given current capacity restrictions attendance for Dance in High Park events is limited to 100.

Putting together a series within such a short time frame proved quite a challenge, as Seika Boye and Timea Wharton-Suri, co-curators of the first event, Solo in High Park, explain.

“We were very aware of the dancers’ needs, like getting back in shape,” says Boye, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“As we thought about the program we realized people need something joyful, something that connects audiences and performers,” says Wharton-Suri. “We wanted technically accomplished artists, diverse in styles, forms and generations.”

Boye and Wharton-Suri say that once they had a concept for the show it was not difficult to identify suitable artists: tap master Travis Knights, flamenco dancer Carmen Romero, versatile urban dance exponent Raoul Wilke, and contemporary choreographer Alyssa Martin/Rock Bottom Movement (featuring dancer Sam Grist). All the performers in various ways encourage a call-and-response connection with their audiences.

Says Boye: “This was important for us as we welcome audiences back to live performance.”

Subsequent weekends feature a special edition of Toronto’s annual outdoor Dusk Dances — except this time in full daylight — and four shows by Dora Award-winning Red Sky Performance, a company with a strong association with Canadian Stage.

Like so many regular summer events Dusk Dances’ Toronto appearance in Withrow Park had to be cancelled.

“It’s so exciting what Canadian Stage is doing,” says Sylvie Bouchard, Dusk Dance’s director and curator. “It feels amazing to be doing a live event and for the first time on the west side of town.”

Unlike a traditional Dusk Dances, the performance will stick to the confines of the amphitheatre’s wooden stage — no walk in the park — and there will be just four items, including a duet, to keep the show to less than an hour. Bouchard says Dusk Dances fans can also look forward to the festival’s first virtual event on October 17.

Dance in High Park is a pay-what-you-can series but in order to conform with contact-tracing protocols it does require a reservation.

Meanwhile, the organizers of the 2020 edition of Toronto’s annual Fall For Dance North (FFDN), forced to abandon the festival’s popular multi-venue series of live indoor shows, are set to launch their first fully virtual celebration of dance with a richly layered online smorgasbord of performances, workshops, podcasts, augmented reality social dance and more. All events are free — donations are encouraged, of course — except for a livestreamed performance from Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre on October 3.

Ilter Ibrahimof, FFDN’s co-founder and artistic director, says his team grasped the seriousness of the pandemic early on and made the decision to pivot to a fully virtual festival by the first week of April.

“We had been thinking about adding digital programming for quite some time,” says Ibrahimof, “but with live performance as our primary focus it got left on the back burner. The pandemic put it quickly on the front burner.”

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Almost every performing arts organization has been trying to find ways to maintain a presence through online programming but often with a sense that it’s a consolation for the absence of live performance. Ibrahimof says FFDN’s goal, once the decision was made to offer a virtual festival, was to go all in and maximize the potential for audience engagement.

Even the website was redesigned to give it what Ibrahimof calls a “Netflix feel.”

Dance performances remain a central feature of FFDN but not as a compilation of archival recordings. The emphasis is on innovation and immediacy. So, for example, FFDN is partnering with Toronto’s Citadel + Compagnie to co-present Night Shift, a series of six performances, from street dance to Indian classical dance, livestreamed under the direction of Oscar-nominated Barbara Willis Sweete from the company’s Parliament Street theatre.

“We are so excited to be presenting this extraordinary lineup of dance and venturing into this new livestream format,” says C+C artistic director, Laurence Lemieux.

The live components include National Ballet artists Sonia Rodriguez, Piotr Stanczyk and Spencer Hack in Poema Ibérico, a new work by Vanesa Garcia-Ribala Montoya; South African-born Mafa Makhubalo in his own gumboot dance, Dialogue with DNA, referencing a style that emerged as a form of communication among oppressed South African gold mine workers who were forbidden to speak; and Red Sky Performance in a new, FFDN-commissioned work called Flow by Dora Award-winning choreographer Jera Wolfe.

Josh Beamish and Rena Narumi filmed the former’s Proximity in Amsterdam. The other two pre-recorded segments come from Alberta with Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in choreographer Kimberley Cooper’s Terra and tap artist Lisa La Touche in her own new work, Fool’s Gold which she performs with Danny Nielsen and Laura Donaldson.

For La Touche this opportunity has deep personal significance. After leaving Calgary in 2008 to pursue a Broadway career in New York she returned home with a couple of suitcases and her two-year-old son as Manhattan became a ghost town.

“I was scared out of my mind. It was chaotic,” says La Touche. “It’s saved my sanity to have this outlet to create.”

Dance in High Park, 26 Sep. – 11 Oct. www.canadianstage.com ; Fall For Dance North, 29 Sep. – 18 Oct. www.ffdnorth.com
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