While dance was once perceived as an antiquated art form, it has recently seen a revitalization, thanks to the success of shows like So You Think You Can Dance and recent films like The White Crow, which depicts Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from Russia to the west. This is good news for Hamilton-based dancers and choreographers, who have been steadily increasing their internal efforts and audiences and are poised to continue their growth well beyond 2019; however, there are still a number of challenges that need to be addressed for the dance community to fulfill its potential. This article, the first of two-parts, provides a brief summary of the recent contemporary dance movement in Hamilton and the sector’s recent successes. The second article will look at the challenges that artists are facing, and the infrastructure needed for the contemporary dance sector to thrive.
Hamilton’s current-day contemporary dance community began through the incorporation of the Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts (HCA) Dance Theatre. Although much of their work supports the HCA’s dance classes for young people, the Dance Theatre was launched in 2001 with the purpose of making the art of dance visible and accessible by engaging with the community and acting as a resource and incubator for artists. More recently (since 2014), HCA Dance Theatre have become better known for presenting Dusk Dances; an evening-long, pay-what-you-can dance performance that takes place in Bayfront Park over a weekend. Although a local band will typically perform, and a local piece is typically featured, the majority of performers and choreography for Dusk Dances is usually imported into Hamilton from Toronto, Barrie or other Ontario centres. Hamilton has historically contributed one local piece to each performance, allowing local audiences to get a sense of the incredible dance talent in the city and how it fits into the greater ecology through Dusk Dances.
In early March of this year, McMaster’s Socrates Project presented dance legend Peggy Baker’s Who We Are in the Dark; an innovative performance that fused dance, indie rock (with live music performed by Arcade Fire members Jeremy Garcia and Sarah Neufield), visual art and dance. The event appeared to be a smash hit- a paying audience eagerly filled the main floor of the FirstOntario Concert Hall to attend the performance, demonstrating that audiences are eager (and willing to pay) for high quality contemporary dance. However, like Dusk Dances, Who We Are in the Dark was not created locally; rather, it was imported into the Hamilton and presented by a local organization, meaning very few (if any) local artists saw a direct impacted by the performance.
Recognizing the challenges that currently exist in the dance community, including the lack of performance opportunities, the HCA Dance Theatre initiated and incubated the #DanceHamOnt movement. In the last several months, #DanceHamOnt has become an independent entity, and is now focused on being a resource for movement artists, educators and audiences to communicate, as well as to address the barriers and lack of resources being faced by the dance community in creating quality work in Hamilton. The collective’s first collaborative effort, a choreographic workshop at the Art Gallery of Hamilton (written about in our very first post), was a two-hour long event featuring the work of five separate dance artists (and many more dancers), all of whom are Hamilton-based and a hosted discussion with each choreographer on their piece.
The event was an artistic success, and announced #DanceHamOnt as the collective voice for the contemporary dance sector. The group knows there is a lot of work to undertake to build infrastructure and audiences for the growing art form and further unite the sector. Starting in September, #DanceHamOnt will be issuing a call to dance and movement artists to participate in events from the Canada Council for the Arts, including workshops on grant writing.
“We have a responsibility to keep exploring contemporary dance and movement as a tool. . .and there is a community of dance professionals that are exploring complex themes and reconciling personal stories through dance,” commented David Hudson, member of #DanceHamOnt and Artistic Director of the David Hudson Dance Company. “Fees for dance teachers and educators are commonly standardized and even competitive when you research the different institutions, but what is the ‘going rate’ for a dancer in Hamilton; how much do we pay a trained dance artist who is employed as a performer?”
For Hudson and many other dancers in Hamilton, the ability to establish and enforce this value, along with creating a sustainable atmosphere and professional working conditions are key to building a legacy for the future of contemporary dance in the city. In the next installment of this series, Beyond James will examine the barriers being faced by the current dance community and the infrastructure needed for the art form to thrive.