As a critic and dance-lover, it was with a heavy heart that I read Dancemakers, one of Toronto’s oldest contemporary dance groups, will close mid-2021. For almost half a century, the company has been an integral part of Toronto’s dance landscape, fostering generations of contemporary performers and choreographers. More than just affordable studio space, Dancemakers operated as a true incubator of innovation.
Starting as a summer project in 1974, Dancemakers went on to curate award-winning Canadian and international performances and play host to a multiyear resident artist program, as well as many presentations and workshops. More than 4,000 audience members and artists passed through each year.
The closing was announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, as arts organizations are under historic pressure because of the pandemic. This and the rising cost of rent spelled the end. Although the Dancemakers Centre for Creation is housed in a property owned by Artscape, a not-for-profit organization, overhead costs for the Distillery District space became an issue.
“Combining losses [owing to the pandemic] with the burden of our ever-increasing studio rental costs, we have regretfully come to the decision to shut our doors at the end of this current fiscal year,” board chair Louis-Michel Taillefer wrote in a released statement.
He continued: “We spent 36 per cent of our 2019-20 operating revenue on occupancy costs, and have seen an annual increase as high as 9 per cent in the last four years.”
It is a tremendous challenge these days to create a “sustainable” dance commons, where creativity comes first, commerce second. But for 46 years, this is what Dancemakers provided. In its black-box theatres, you were more than likely to see something that pushed the boundaries – be it an emerging talent, such as choreographer Kylie Thompson, who vigorously mashes up genres, or celebrated artists such as Dana Michel, winner of the prestigious Venice Biennale Danza’s Silver Lion.
Dancemakers forged international connections, too. I was delighted to see my fellow Australians Antony Hamilton and Sarah Aiken join the fold. I like to think they found a receptive new audience for their work, but also welcoming colleagues and an artistic home away from home.
Carol Anderson, renowned Canadian dancer, choreographer and writer, was a founding member and former artistic director of Dancemakers. Returning to the centre in 2018, she wrote of the impact the company had on her career: “Dancemakers was my ‘dance house’ – a consistent place to be, to work, to take class, to study and perform – a LOT – to work with a group, to make dances, to dance a wide scope of wonderful work, original and remounted, that stretched us all artistically.”
Dancer and choreographer Natasha Powell will lead Dancemakers through its final season as artistic producer. Powell, founder of Toronto’s Holla Jazz dance company, hopes “to reflect, honour and celebrate the legacy with which the company leaves for Canada’s dance community,” she said in a statement.
Unfortunately, the closing of Dancemakers means there will be scant places catering to the needs of dance artists left. In a postpandemic Toronto, the cultural infrastructure of the city might be undermined to such an extent that the performing arts will struggle to come back.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.