I spent the winter of 2012 living in the Prenzlauer Berg district of northeast Berlin. In the evenings, when I was done writing for the day or had finished wandering through my slushy neighbourhood, I took eccentric ballet classes at an old factory on Kastanienallee. In the co-ed change room of Dock 11, company members wriggled into their plastic pants alongside student dancers dropping by after work or school. I paid for my classes in a café where kids did homework next to choreographers scribbling notes. Amid the commotion of bodies and the clamour of overlapping music, there was a convivial sense of purpose and community, all centred on the making and practising of dance.
Dock 11 is typical of how contemporary dance is created in Europe these days – it's a centre where work is started, developed and presented in one place, and where emerging and established artists work in residency together. It's a good example of what the Toronto-based Dancemakers is trying to do with its new mandate – a mandate that will transform the company from its 40-year tradition in the repertory model into what they're calling an "Incubation Production House."
While the idea for the IPH was introduced by outgoing artistic director Michael Trent, the program is being launched this month by the two young new curators who are now at the company's helm. On a frigid day in Toronto's Distillery District, Benjamin Kamino has just finished teaching company class, while Emi Forster is discussing business with one of the company's new resident artists. When we sit down in Dancemakers' main studio – where light streams in from the high windows to make a row of ghostly rectangles on the dark floor – the two speak about their plans with palpable excitement.
"We both sensed a gap in the Toronto dance scene, particularly in the context of what's happening in Montreal and New York City," Forster says. "Toronto needs a place for the whole community to come together, share things, look at each other's work and develop collectively."
"The new model is meant to be supportive of all dance," Kamino says. "We want to lift up dance as an ecology in Toronto as a whole."
By changing the way that dance is made at Dancemakers, Forster and Kamino want to reconceptualize how Canadians think about art, creativity and risk. The IPH is intended to become a national centre for creation, where new work can be cultivated and nurtured amid a community of artists, and where the public can engage with dance in a more meaningful and in-depth way. One of the key tenets of the model is a shift from the ad-hoc support of individual works to a comprehensive investment in the artists themselves. The new mandate will support three resident choreographers for three years, funding them through the entire creative process and letting creation, production and presentation happen in one place.
"The question I'm asking myself is, 'What does it mean to curate people?'" Forster says, explaining the artist-centric basis of the IPH. "For an artist to have that kind of security over three years is really unique. We look across Canada, we look across North America and we don't see anyone else doing this."
Forster, who's originally from Australia, has worked extensively in dance curation, choreography and arts administration. Kamino, who's from Toronto, has made a name for himself across the country both as a performer and experimental choreographer. (Before we start the interview, the photographer jokingly alerts me to a photo propped inside the windowsill – it depicts an almost naked Kamino performing in shadows onstage. "I don't know what that's doing there," Kamino says, laughing. "It's normally in the changing room.") Together, Forster and Kamino's vision speaks to a larger debate on dance creation that pits the Canadian model against its European counterpart, from which the IPH derives inspiration.
Countries such as Belgium, France and Germany are often considered world leaders in contemporary dance – there's an argument that this is the upshot of a different approach to arts funding, with a system that better safeguards artists from commercial and financial concerns. By investing in choreographers over the course of their career, and accepting that failure is as necessary to artistic development as success, these countries seem able to consistently foster the production of more imaginative and groundbreaking dance.
"Part of the IPH is looking forward to the future of Canadian dance," Kamino says. "There are so many dancers now and such limited Canada Council resources. With Dancemakers' new mandate, you don't need to apply for your grant every year; you don't need to hustle to make a living. That's very special."
Another big goal of the IPH is to make dance more important and exciting to the public. Kamino is curious about why there's a more engaged general audience for contemporary choreography in Europe. He thinks that understanding dance is a kinesthetic process that goes beyond the aural and visual. "It can take weeks for you to get it – and it's that slow ontology that makes dance both so beautiful and ambiguous."
With this consideration in mind, the IPH will take an open-door approach to the community, inviting neighbours in before the show and educating audiences on the process of creation. "If you can shed light on the process, it gives an audience a language with which they can discuss and grapple with the form themselves," Kamino says.
"By welcoming people into the process and the centre, we're demystifying dance," Forster adds.
On Jan. 21, Dancemakers launches the first half of its 2015 season with 10 days of performances, workshops, talks and community outreach, including a public dance class and a coffee-and-biscuit gathering with the curators. The season features the work of Zoja Smutny and Dana Michel, the first resident artists under the new model.
"Both of our resident artists are pushing the definition of what dance is," Forster says. "And in very distinctive ways," Kamino chimes in. "Zoja is using dance as a vehicle to investigate other forms. Dana is doing the opposite: She's delving into dance as a space to investigate herself, her history, her own identity."
Both choreographers tell me how grateful and excited they are to find a home at Dancemakers. "It feels extremely luxurious," says Michel, who is originally from Ottawa and currently garnering attention on the international dance scene (she was just named one of the Top Female Performers of 2014 by The New York Times). "It feels like quite a privilege to know that I have this very focused time with open and intelligent people around me, to dig and to discover."
"I feel happy for Canada," Smutny says with an ever-so-slightly ironic grin. As an artist and performer, Smutny has worked extensively in Berlin, Montreal and Toronto, building a reputation for multimedia experimentation. "It's amazing to feel a part of a system that I believe in, and to start a dialogue about making art in a new way in this country."
ONE, the first half of the Dancemakers season, runs Jan. 21-31 at the Dancemakers Centre for Creation in Toronto's Distillery Historic District.