Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Contemporary Dance in Hamilton: Where do we go next?

Contemporary Dance at Nazareth College Arts Centre, Rochester
Contemporary Dance at Nazareth College Arts Centre, Rochester

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 second of two-parts, examines some of the challenges faced by local contemporary dance artists, and the infrastructure needed for the contemporary dance sector to thrive.

Most local artists don’t have the resources to rent the FirstOntario Concert Hall like McMaster’s Socrates Project did for Peggy Baker’s Who We Are in the Dark in March 2019. Instead, local artists have limited options when presenting their works. Smaller local venues, such as the Pearl Company and Artword Artbar have historically been supportive venues for dancers; however, the Pearl Company announced in October 2018 that it would be closing at a yet-to-be-named date. Artword Artbar; however, is still a regular host of dance performances, and the Cotton Factory, Citadel Theatre, Staircase Theatre, Red Church Café and others have started to provide space for training and performances. However, none of these venues are purpose built, which means it lacks critical features for the success of dance performance, such as proper flooring, rehearsal facilities and lighting. As a result, local dancers have turned to site-specific pieces, which encourage creativity and innovation in their performing (to accommodate the barriers of the space), but rarely provide a safe environment for a physically demanding activity or allow dancers to explore the maximum potential of a formal venue. Additionally, site specific and alternate performing sites (such as cafes or small theatres) are limited in their stage size, leaving dancers with minimal space to fully express their movement, as well as restricting their audience size and income potential.

This lack of rehearsal and performance space, as well as the lack of a central meeting place for artists to come together, improve their skills and explore ideas for collaboration has led many Hamilton dance artists to maintain a Toronto presence. Lisa Emmons of Aeris Korper Dance Theatre is quick to point out that the Toronto infrastructure also took a long time to build, and could be difficult to replicate in a market like Hamilton. “Toronto has so many training facilities,” they said. “From university programs like York and Ryerson, to quality professional companies like TDT (Toronto Dance Theatre), these places allow dancers to be somewhere longterm, and allow dancers to take drop-in classes. Hamilton doesn’t currently have the opportunity to train on a professional level and make the connections that you might make in a professional setting (like a drop-in class).”

Currently, although Emmons considers themself to be a Hamilton-based artist, they do a lot of networking and training in Toronto and performing in Burlington, which not only has better facilities for dance, but also provides the spaces at a more affordable rate than Hamilton. Still, Emmons is very clear that they would rather perform in their hometown for local audiences. “Hamilton audiences have been incredibly warm and encouraging,” Emmons notes. “The response to my work has been overwhelmingly positive. I want to dance here more.”  

However, more local opportunities need to exist in order for this to occur. Emmons notes the importance of collaboration. For artists, collaboration can occur at training facilities and dancer resource centres which provide an opportunity to cross paths with other dancers, rehearse for long periods of time to create a work and perform it for an audience. However, as no such facility or centre exists in Hamilton, it is difficult to create collaborations. Collaboration with businesses or other art facilities could also take place; for example, a collaboration between an upcoming art exhibit and a dance performance that share similar themes could enhance the audience experience. Emmons noted a recent commission during the Hamilton Fringe Festival‘s Frostbites Festival to create and perform a site-specific work.

But there is a long way to go before contemporary dance is recognized on the same level as theatre and music professionals in the city. Although opportunities like the Hamilton Fringe Festival- during Frostbites or the July Festival- can provide a platform for dancers, the Festival currently does not separate its dance opportunities from its other performance slots like some other Fringe Festivals do. While new performing spaces are being built or old spaces converted for performances throughout Hamilton, there has been no public discussion of accommodating the dance community. Emmons was the only individual artist to receive a City of Hamilton Enrichment grant as a dancer in the most recent funding period; the Hamilton Conservatory of the Arts (HCA) Dance Theatre was the only successful dance organization to receive funding. Hamilton audiences are eager to buy tickets to attend both non-traditional and traditional venues where dance performances are held, but without the infrastructure in place to support the community, contemporary dance will eventually be unable to continue its upward trajectory.    

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