Last year, at the little-known TOES for Dance festival at Toronto’s new Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, I saw an arresting sequence of solos performed by Canadian dancer Belinda McGuire. It was the kind of rare, intimate, black-box-theatre event that should have been sold out. The work not only featured progressive choreographers in contemporary dance that we don’t often see in Toronto (Israeli Idan Sharabi, American Doug Varone, Canadian Sharon B. Moore), but McGuire has the kind of preternatural talent that makes her a turbulent force onstage. You watch McGuire and you think: Ah yes, I see how dance is singular, fascinating and relevant. But then, you also would have been looking around and thinking: Why is there no one here?
Cue my usual dance-related grumbling: Do non-dance people like dance? Should they like dance? Is dance to blame? Are people to blame? Is ballet to blame? Are ticket prices to blame? Will dance ever garner the same general-audience interest that seems automatically granted to, say, theatre, music, film?
They are questions that are in some ways being addressed by Fall for Dance North, an ambitious Toronto festival, now in its second year, and opening Wednesday night at the Sony Centre. It’s a spinoff of the successful Fall for Dance in New York; both festivals aim to cultivate new dance audiences by offering a sampling menu of the best and brightest in international dance for the price of a movie ticket (last year $10, this year $15). The 2015 festival in Toronto was a massive box-office success, completely selling out its three-night run, totalling nearly 10,000 tickets.
Let’s put that number into perspective. A Mainspace play at the Tarragon Theatre will sell an average of 6,000-6,500 tickets. For Soulpepper, it’s between 4,500-6,000 tickets. Of course none of this adjusts for the impact of price or capacity or run length, but 10,000 tickets sure does suggest that dance has a ready-made audience in the city, that dance isn’t just a fringe interest, and that if you advertise well and offer affordable, high-quality material, the demand for dance is there.
And the quality at FFDNorth is high indeed. In 2015, some of it was extraordinarily high, such as Israeli Ohad Naharin’s weird and theatrical Minus 16 by the Atlanta Ballet Company and Ballet BC’s stunning Twenty Eight Thousand Waves by Cayetano Soto, both treats to see in Toronto. There were disappointments, too, notably the city’s major flamenco company, Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance, who followed the MacArthur Prize-winning Michelle Dorrance’s tap company, Dorrance Dance, and seemed unpolished and technically sloppy by comparison. Another disappointment came via one of the event’s big draws, a piece commissioned by the festival between renowned veteran dancer/choreographer Peggy Baker and violinist Sarah Neufeld (formerly of the band Arcade Fire), which felt under-conceptualized.
This year, the festival has two new commissions. One is a big departure from the classical/contemporary spectrum: a duet by champion Canadian ballroom dancers Maria Shalvarova and Alon Gilin. The other is equally exceptional in its rigorous intentionality: a solo by dancer/choreographer Natasha Bakht, who is trained in classical Indian Bharatanatyam dance and is also a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Bakht’s academic work looks at the intersection of women’s equality and religious freedom and is specifically interested in the rights of niqab-wearing women. (Her writing was cited in the 2012 Supreme Court case on a complainant’s right to testify while wearing the niqab.) Her FFDNorth commission, 786, is thematically related. When I spoke to Bakht on the phone from Ottawa, she explained that she wants the piece to get people thinking about Muslims beyond the broad – and often negative – strokes that are propagated by a media too focused on radicalism, extremism and terrorism. “This is kind of my small counternarrative. It’s my way to show that another way to think about Muslims is as artists, as people who live urban, busy lives, but who find moments to acknowledge the divine,” she says.
It’s a fascinating premise, and the idea of approaching choreography with a clear mandate is both irreverent and risky in a medium that works on a level of emotion and abstraction. Bakht is setting herself up with a further challenge by performing alone; solos are definitively tricky, leaving the onus of sustaining audience interest on a single body moving in a large and, given the restrictions of a festival, likely empty space. The stakes are high and that can pay off; it will be interesting to see what’s made of them.
Other notable programming includes Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton, who has created works for the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov, the American Ballet Theatre and Nederlands Dans Theater. Her company will be performing excerpts from her critically acclaimed Awaa, a piece that explores the experience of motherhood, a theme that was triggered by the collaborating dancers. “I don’t create work with a fixed plan; it comes from my interest in the artists that I’m working with and the conversations we have,” says Barton via phone from New York, where her troupe is performing the same excerpt at Fall for Dance.
We’ll also get to see the work that landed Canadian Crystal Pite the prestigious Olivier Award for choreography last year, A Picture of You Falling, about the devolution of a romantic relationship. Dancers Anne Plamondon and Peter Chu have performed the work at least 50 times since they developed it with Pite in 2008. Pite is an explosive force on the international dance scene right now; her 54-dancer piece, The Seasons’ Canon, just premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet and her first commission for London’s Royal Ballet premieres in March. It’s hard not to envy European audiences, but maybe a little less hard with this acclaimed duet making its Toronto debut.
Fall for Dance North runs from Oct. 5-7 at the Sony Centre in Toronto (ffdnorth.com)