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In Arise, same sex pairs lift each other, some of the smaller students assist in supporting the leads, offering young dancers a chance to move their bodies and connect in ways they might otherwise not have.BRUCE ZINGER

Dancer and choreographer Jera Wolfe stands facing 146 National Ballet School students on the stage before him.

“One, two, three …”

On cue, the mass moves into a tight square centre stage and each dancer finds their starting positions: the smallest seated in the front to the tallest standing in the rear, all with their backs to the audience. Then 146 pairs of shoulders rise, descend and rise again, creating an elegant wave rippling out and back. They run through it a few times,

The Toronto-based Wolfe grins, exclaiming, “They look like a honeycomb!” As they move further into the choreography, small ensembles and soloists break out of the hive while still supported by the whole cast.

Wolfe and his dancers, aged 12 to 20, are rehearsing Arise, the headline spot in Fall For Dance North’s illustrious Signature Programme of the same name, on this month at Toronto’s Meridian Hall.

“The concept is about what it takes in life to get somewhere and how many people help push you and help support you.” Wolfe explains. “Each night, the leads will reach for the light. And they’ll fail a few times along the way,” he says, explaining that the dancers are literally reaching for a light above them on stage. But, he adds, ”There will always be people there for them – even when they’re at their worst.”

Similar to the leads in Arise, Wolfe’s journey to ballet and choreography involved some ups and downs, receiving support from many along the way. He was first introduced to dance in Kelowna, where he grew up, thanks to a fifth grade gym class featuring breakdancing, and from that moment on, he was hooked. His mom enrolled him in hip hop and jazz classes, with ballet not far behind. By the time he was in his mid teens, Wolfe had acquired the skills and confidence to audition for the NBS.

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“I didn’t get in. I wasn’t at a level where I could train here. And I think that was the best thing for me,” he says. Rather than giving up, Wolfe felt inspired to become the best dancer possible. He went on to study with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, along with intensive programs at Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. He has since worked with RWB, NBS and Red Sky Performance (to name a few), taking home a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 2019 for his choreography of Trace.

“To go through years of training afterwards with all my triumphs and failures, I was finally be able to come back and have something to offer.”

It’s this less conventional path that gives Wolfe his distinct style and voice in dance. He often encourages his dancers to explore connection and movement from a place of chemistry and curiosity rather than adhering strictly to pedagogical dogma.

In Arise same sex pairs lift each other, some of the smaller students assist in supporting the leads, offering young dancers a chance to move their bodies and connect in ways they might otherwise not have. Wolfe’s recurring themes surrounding the importance of community and trust are heightened as the dancers face these new challenges together. The end result is well-connected dancers, precise in their movements without rigidity. It’s a dreamy kind of fluidity that is absolutely captivating to watch.

The youngest students are new to the production. However, many of the older ones were involved with the original staging in 2020, which was supposed to open just as the world stopped. “Some of the smallest dancers from the first production are now the leads” Wolfe says, beaming with pride. Getting to see the dancers grow and evolve has been an unexpected gift in the bleakness of the past two years.

“I think that speaks to the work that the students do and how diligent and motivated they are. These dancers from day one have been such an incredible group to work with. It’s been such a blessing, I feel like I’m the luckiest choreographer.”

The students will perform Arise as part of the first full live Fall For Dance North since COVID-19 shuttered theatres in 2020. After two years of virtual and/or under capacity performances, FFDN is finally back live and to full audiences for its eighth year. It’s also the first time NBS will be participating in the prestigious Toronto festival. A stage filled with nearly 150 ballet students feels appropriately defiant and celebratory in the face of these past years.

“There is an out to the pandemic; or at least there is light at the end of this tunnel,” says Wolfe. “And I think a lot of people are going to have that reaction. I’m just preparing myself for how overwhelmingly emotional that’s going to be!”

The Arise Signature Programme runs from Oct. 6-7, 7:30 p.m.; Oct 8. 2PM at Meridian Hall, 1 Front St.

Here are more Indigenous-led performances to see at Fall For Dance North

Ka Leo O Laka | Ka Hikina O Ka La, an Indigenous Hawaiian ensemble perform Kau Hea A Hiiaka by choreographer Kaleo Trinidad. This Canadian premiere features live music and powerful storytelling through dance and song. A must for anyone who wants to experience the richness of Indigenous Hawaiian dance freed from the colonial fantasies of smiling, compliant Polynesian women in coconut bras and faux flower leis. Runs Oct. 6-7, 7:30 p.m.; Oct 8. 2 p.m. at Meridian Hall, 1 Front St.

Michael Greyeyes and Soundstreams partner for another moving collaboration: Zipangu. The short film choreographed by Greyeyes is a kind of contemporary Indigenous song of the Earth: a goddess is wounded and lost, rediscovering her purpose and strength. The film features dancer Ceinwen Gobert, and is accompanied by the music of Claude Vivier, performed live by Soundstreams’ Ensemble. Runs Oct. 6-7, 7:30 p.m.; Oct 8. 2 p.m. at Meridian Hall, 1 Front Street.

Indigenous Enterprise are making their Canadian debut Indigenous Liberation. The award winning Phoenix, Ariz., based ensemble showcases traditional powwow dances learned from their elders with the hopes to uplift, inspire, and heal through their joyful dance steps and eye popping regalia. Runs Oct. 7-8, 7:30 p.m., Theatre at the Creative School (formerly Ryerson Theatre), 43 Gerrard St E.

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