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How two Montreal arts companies are paying it forward

Geneviève Robitaille is seen in choreographer Lina Cruz’s Tic-Tac Party. Cruz used the Centre de Création O Vertigo’s space for two weeks to build a set for a new project.

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

Modern dance companies often form around the vision of one choreographer, and sometimes shut down when the central personality dies or moves on. Ginette Laurin didn't want that to happen at O Vertigo Danse, the celebrated Montreal company she founded in 1984.

She was particularly concerned that assets built over the years would be lost if she simply retired and closed the company. In its basement quarters under Place des Arts, O Vertigo has a purpose-built dance-creation studio with a full lighting grid, as well as offices and meeting spaces. O Vertigo has also built up plenty of production and technical expertise, and wide experience in touring. Not least of all, the company has a privileged place in the feed chain at funding agencies for all three levels of government.

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Laurin began pondering her exit strategy several years ago, and eventually decided to open O Vertigo's resources to young or mid-career choreographers with a great idea or a strong work in progress. The company was reborn last year as the Centre de Création O Vertigo (CCOV), a hub for developing new work.

The idea, CCOV executive director Paul Caskey says, was that CCOV would nurture large-scale projects by established talents, one at a time, through a two-year incubation period. Each completed project would also be supported through one to three years of touring. Whenever the studio was not in use by the long-term resident, short-term residencies would be offered to younger artists with specific technical or production needs.

The creative continuity in this scheme lay in the fact that O Vertigo would go on producing and touring major works, just as it did when Laurin was building its repertoire. The big difference was that the choreographic ideas and the dancers to execute them would all come from outside the company.

This kind of institutional transition has happened before in Montreal. Ten years ago, the long-standing francophone theatre company Les Deux Mondes was also searching for a new future.

It decided to expand its quarters in north Montreal and hand off the facility – which includes a black-box performance space, three studios and a café bar – to a consortium of six younger companies, who call themselves Théâtre aux Écuries. The consortium began its joint artistic leadership in 2011, and its eponymous HQ now supports 10 new works in development, as well as frequent runs of completed pieces.

Les Deux Mondes chose what was essentially a group succession strategy. The companies within Théâtre aux Écuries had been working together for six years by the time they took over direction of the spaces built by Les Deux Mondes. What the venture would look and feel like was known in advance to all concerned.

Laurin chose to change the mandate of an existing company, and to invite others to use its facilities and expertise. She set up a committee for selecting the first residencies, then made a planned exit as artistic director last year. New residencies will be selected by Caskey and a guest curator – currently Andrew Tay – working with invited committees from the community.

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So far, the short residencies have turned out to be the easy part, Caskey says. There have been three since September, all aimed at moving a work-in-progress one step further along. Lina Cruz, for example, used the CCOV space for two weeks to build a set for a new project. Others have come in for closed showcase performances, or for consultations with CCOV's production or technical directors. At this level, CCOV can be many things to many people.

The first long-term residency was offered a year ago to Dave St-Pierre, for an ambitious dance-theatre version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Caskey saw it as a win-win situation: St-Pierre would get free access to production resources, and CCOV would launch its big program with "a well-respected figure with a great project, who draws lots of attention and has an impressive track record on an international level."

From the start, however, there were communication problems between CCOV and St-Pierre's team, Caskey says. Contract negotiations – still in progress after the residency had been announced – dragged on and were never completed. CCOV had expected St-Pierre to start working in its space in September, but he didn't appear until December, Caskey says, and in the end worked there for only about 20 hours.

Nearly a year after accepting the residency, St-Pierre told CCOV that he wanted to recast his project as a collective creation, and share authorship with 20 other dancers. "For us, that was a fundamental shift," Caskey says. "It was never part of our agreement." CCOV's board concluded that the chances of interesting outside producers and presenters in a group creation still in its early stages were drastically lower than for a major new work-in-progress by St-Pierre. Earlier this month, they cancelled the remainder of his residency.

In a long Facebook post, St-Pierre said that "there was a clear incompatibility between the two parties," that he had expected more flexibility from CCOV and that being released from the situation was a relief. "I have never been a man of 'the system,' and I never will be."

It was an untimely setback for CCOV. The company is just now appealing to its public funders to bankroll its new activity at the same level as when O Vertigo had eight salaried dancers. It obviously misjudged the difficulty of getting two different creative organizations to understand each other's needs and assumptions well enough to jump into a major three-year collaboration. It also underestimated St-Pierre's willingness to flout other people's expectations – a factor so evident in his recent work Suie that the Montreal presenter, Danse Danse, felt obliged after the premiere to offer tickets to an alternate production to any audience member indignant enough to ask. About 250 took up the offer.

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Caskey says CCOV has a plan B, soon to be announced, for the remainder of the studio time that had been reserved for St-Pierre. A second long-term residency, beginning in the fall of 2018, has already been offered to another mid-career artist. Here's hoping the fit is better this time. CCOV is too good an idea to let falter after one misstep.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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