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From left, Monica Esteves, Raoul Wilke, Carmen Romero, Travis Knight, Alyssa Martin and Brendan Healy are photographed in the courtyard at Canadian Stage on Sept. 2, 2020. Esteves is the executive director at Canadian Stage, Healy is the artistic director. Wilke, Romero, Martin and Knight are dancers who will be performing at Canadian Stage's solo in High Park.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Canadian Stage has had to face the music about COVID-19 but, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers knew, you can face the music and dance.

The Toronto not-for-profit performing arts company has, with sadness, suspended its entire originally planned 2020-21 season – and put together a new fall mini-season centred on a pandemic-defying festival of contemporary dance to partly take its place.

Dance in High Park, set to run outdoors over three weekends from Sept. 26 to Oct. 11, will involve the company’s first live, in-person performances since its stages were shut down in March due to the spread of the coronavirus.

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“The dance community has been really hard-hit by the pandemic,” says artistic director Brendan Healy, who revealed his autumn plans to The Globe and Mail in advance of an official announcement on Thursday. “We wanted to provide a platform for Toronto dance companies to showcase their work.”

Taking place in the amphitheatre where Shakespeare is normally staged in the summer, Dance in High Park will kick off the weekend of Sept. 26-27 with solo work by Travis Knights, Carmen Romero, Raoul Pillay and Alyssa Martin in styles ranging from tap to flamenco and house.

The festival’s second weekend (Oct. 2-3) will be put together by Dusk Dances, an organization with a long history of outdoor performance. The third weekend (Oct. 9-11) will feature work by the Dora-winning Indigenous dance company Red Sky Performance.

Dance in High Park will be family-friendly with pay-what-you-can tickets – but attendees will have to register in advance and will be given a timed entry to the site, which will operate at a reduced capacity in line with provincial guidelines for outdoor events. “We’ve developed rather stringent policies and measures,” says Canadian Stage’s executive director Monica Esteves.

The company’s new fall season actually kicks off the week before Dance in High Park with a new work by Compagnie Marie Chouinard that will be performed live over Zoom.

Time For Time, an international co-production that will have three free performances from Sept. 17 to 19, will see members of the provocative Montreal-based choreographer’s troupe responding spontaneously to secrets and wishes shared by those tuning in around the world.

In the place of an indefinitely suspended production of a stage adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Canadian Stage is partnering with the Toronto International Festival of Authors to lead a virtual book club (Oct. 5 to Nov. 13) through a deep dive of the Afghan-American writer’s celebrated 2007 novel.

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Samra Habib, winner of the 2020 Canada Reads competition, will hold a series of interactive discussions and lectures on the book and its themes that will also include a conversation with Hosseini himself.

Canadian Stage is also announcing on Thursday a one-year residency – virtual for the time being – by the New York-based, Obie-winning theatre company 600 Highwaymen.

The avant-garde troupe run by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone is creating an original piece called A Thousand Ways that will be performed this fall through Canadian Stage, in which two audience members at a time – strangers to each other – will “use a carefully crafted set of directives relayed over a phone call to take a journey together over the course of an hour.”

The troupe’s residency, which will result in two more performances in the winter and spring, is part of a stream of development activity going on behind the scenes at Canadian Stage – including a number of residencies intended to help professional artists develop new technological skills useful in the age of pandemic performance.

“From artists, what we hear is that they really need support to help them make a fairly large artistic pivot into new technologies, new performance modes,” Healy says. “They need time and space and resources.”

While some theatre companies in Montreal and Vancouver have already announced rejigged programming that involves limited-capacity indoor performances, Canadian Stage’s leaders say that’s not yet in the cards for them – despite the not-for-profit being one of the few in Toronto that regularly produces in a theatre large enough to have room for physically distanced audiences.

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Toronto only entered what Ontario officials call Stage Three, permitting 50-person indoor gatherings, at the tail end of July; it’s risky to plan work when the city might abruptly go back a stage or two, Esteves says. Expect quarterly programming announcements with occasional updates on “pop-up” performances to be the new normal for Canadian Stage. “The situation is so fluid – and that’s going to be our state of being for a while,” she says.

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