The first time I experienced a story ballet was when I was cast as one of Isadora Duncan’s students in the English National Ballet’s Isadora Duncan. I was ten years old and the English National Ballet was touring in Toronto. I remember the details vividly… my costume fitting for my Isadora-style tunic, being chaperoned around the stage by Monica Mason who was playing the role of the “nanny”. Each night I found a spot in the wings to watch the tragic death scene. The genre of story ballet captured my heart and transported me. This love never left me. When I was in the National Ballet of Canada corp de ballet during Romeo and Juliet, I stood in the wings in my peasant costume and watched all the big scenes. I was fascinated by how dancers interpreted the story differently within the frame of the choreography. I stood there transfixed. I loved the feeling of my heart breaking and rebounding. I felt alive. Giselle, Napoli, Taming of the Shrew, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Right of Spring, Sleeping Beauty, The Merry Widow, West Side Story… they are all in my blood.
When I was starting out as a choreographer there was a push towards abstraction in both the ballet world and the modern dance world. I remember an esteemed choreographer seeing my work at a National Ballet Company choreographic workshop saying, “it’s all too personal and too emotion based”. At the time, I was twenty and trying to find my way as a woman choreographer. I could’ve taken his advice and moved towards abstraction. But I had a stubborn steak in me and always seemed to do things differently than others. I let his advice point towards that which I loved and could be good at with practice. And to this day, I continue to move towards story-based work. In “Frames of Control” (1996), I told the story of recovering from an eating disorder. In “Long Live” (2010) I told the story of a daughter grieving the death of her dad. In “Men’s Circle” (2017) I told the story of men in a therapy group. In “Thread Bound” (2019), Suzanne Liska and I told personal stories of epigenetic inheritance from our grandmothers. These pieces were multidisciplinary. I used a pallet of ballet, modern dance, contact dance, text and song. But at their heart they were following the dream a ten-year-old sitting in the wings, her heart breaking and rebounding with each dancer’s steps.
I was on this path when a life changing event happened that re-adjusted my course. My youngest son was diagnosed with high functioning autism. The psychologist gave me an autism symptom check list and told me how my son had received his diagnosis because he had so many checkmarks on the list. I looked at that list and discovered that I had all the same check marks and then some! In that moment I realized I had high functioning autism.
It is common for women with autism to be so good at masking their symptoms by learning social patterns and relying on coping strategies that they often don’t get diagnosed until their 30s to 40s. Seeing life through the lens of a diagnosis of high functioning autism shifted all my past and present stories about myself. I turned the kaleidoscope just one turn and saw how different everything looked. It explained so much about why I tend to do things differently than others, my unique look on life, my challenges with career networking, the way I follow my own path without wavering, my sensory challenges, how I get sensory “hang-over for days after a big social outing and so on. I did not want my son to feel ashamed about having autism and I was his main example. I realized it was my job to go forth in life without shame and to embrace my autism. This new way of seeing myself started to change the way I told stories.
Accepting and embracing my disability led me to be curious about a movement called Cripping the Arts. “Cripping” is a term that reclaims the pejorative term crippled to enable people with disabilities to take back power and ownership over their bodies and minds. Cripping the arts is a movement that describes a process of adapting/ re-writing the script of the traditional theatre experience to be more accessible and inviting to both performers and attendees with disabilities. I realized that simply by having autism and telling stories through my unique lens I had been cripping the story ballet for years without realizing it. But I wanted to step further into this movement and started by offering relaxed performances.
A relaxed performance is an inclusive performance practice in which the traditional theatre rules are relaxed to be more welcoming to audience members who are neurologically atypical including, but not limited to, those with autism spectrum disorder, Tourette’s, concussion syndrome, sensory and communication differences, learning disabilities as well as other ways of being.
The first relaxed performance I produced was during the run of “Thread Bound” and it moved me to tears. I was creating an inviting atmosphere for people like me. I felt a tension relax in my body that had been so constant that I did not realize it was there. My crew was uncertain about the endeavor. We had never done this before, and I could feel the sense of stretching and letting go it took. My stage manager asked me, “so you really want me to say that people are allowed check their phones during the show?!”. I said, “if knowing they can use their phone reduces anxiety enough so that someone can attend a show who otherwise might not, then yes I want that.” We offered free ear plugs to anyone who needed at the venue. My box office person said, “only one person took a pair of sound canceling ear plugs, so maybe next time we skip offering them”. I responded that even if no one takes any it sends a message that we see you. I explained how seeing people is a vital part of cripping the arts. A ramp says to those in wheelchairs, “we see you”. Offering free sound canceling ear plugs says, “we see you” to those with sensory processing disorders. Audio description services says, “we see you” to those with vision loss.
Jessica Watkin is an artist-scholar living in Toronto, who is blind and disabled. She describes in a Toronto Star article how accessibility is not so much a checklist of protocols to check off but a correction to institutionalized ableism”. I have learned from personal experience that systemic change is needed to remove that barriers to the arts. Theatres do not have the infrastructure to support access initiatives and this leaves the cost of doing so on the shoulders of small producers who often have limited budgets. I would like to see it mandated that all theatres supply in-house audio description equipment. If this occurred, you would see many more theatre companies supply audio description for their performances.
To many institutions, “accessibility” means providing ramps and washrooms to accommodate audience members using wheelchairs. While this is very important, they have missed and important part of the process if performers using wheelchair do not have access to the stage.
Some forms of accessibility are often overlooked with acoustic accessibility being one of them. There is a theatre in Toronto that has a café/ lobby area that one has to walk through and often lineup in to get to the theatre. The ceiling is metal and the din caused by bouncing sound was so painful for me I made a note to never go there again without my sound canceling headphones. The fix is relativity simple and within financial reach for most theatre companies. It would involve buying sound absorbing panels for the ceiling. To have an acoustically pleasant café/lobby would benefit all and would be a much better set up for seeing a play. It also would be an example of how non disabled people often benefit from accommodations made to disabled peoples. It is a win, win. But if people like me are not on their radar this fix will never happen.
In my upcoming project “Dancing with the Universe” I am cripping the story ballet with my friend and colleague Vivian Chong who is a multidisciplinary artist who lost her sight fifteen years ago. In “Dancing with the Universe” Vivian tells her story with an ensemble cast of six dancers and cellist Cheryl O. We are co-directing together, and audio description of the choreography is key so that Vivian can have a sense of what is happing on stage and makes sure we are telling her story though movement as she wants it to be told. Cripping the arts for me is about being disability-led. This project does not involve theatre experts telling Vivian how to tell her story. It involves Vivian taking the creative reigns. As the choreographer and co-director, I am in service of her vision. “Dancing with the Universe” will involve a performance with on-stage ASL interpretation, optional audio description via headsets, and a relaxed performance. The performance happens in tandem with the book launch of Vivian graphic memoir “dancing After TEN”, co-created by Vivian and comics artist Georgia Webber. The graphic novel will be in available in hard-cover and audio-described format.
Nothing can ever be one hundred percent accessible due to completing access needs. We can only aim to open up accessibility as much as possible. I invite you to come out and see the show!
In 2005, Vivian Chong experienced a rare reaction to Ibuprofen that caused third-degree skin burns over her entire body. She was put in a medically induced coma. Upon waking, she had to relearn how to breathe, eat and walk and her reaction to Ibuprofen eventually cause complete loss of sight. As her vision deteriorated, she accepted her sight-loss and learned new ways to navigate her environment.
“Dancing with the Universe” is a dance theatre production adaption of Vivian Chong’s one-woman show “The Sunglasses Monologue”. The production is co-directed by Vivian Chong and choreographer Kathleen Rea with dramaturge by Tristan Whiston. Vivian tells her life story alongside an ensemble cast of six dancers and cellist Cheryl Ockrant. “Dancing with the Universe” is a multi-disciplinary journey of human emotions that shines a light on loss, grief and resiliency.
When Vivian was in the process of losing her sight, she was driven to document her medical experiences through drawing. She created the first 100 pages of a graphic memoir before sight loss made it impossible to draw further. This draft stayed on the shelf for twelve years, until she found comics artist Georgia Webber who collaborated with Vivian to bring the rest of her story to the page. Vivian’s graphic memoir “Dancing After TEN” , published by Fantagraphics will have its book launch alongside the “Dancing with the Universe” premiere. The book launch will include book sales in paper format and in audio described format.
LOCATION: Betty Oliphant Theatre, 404 Jarvis Street, Toronto. Venue is wheelchair accessible
Thursday, April 9, 10, 17 AND 18 at 8 pm – “Dancing with the Universe” Production
Sunday, April 12 at 3 pm – “Dancing with the Universe” Production and “Dancing After TEN” Book Launch. RELAXED PERFORMANCE with ASL INTERPRETATION and AUDIO-DESCRIPTION
FUNDING: This project received project funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Ballet of Canada’s Open Spaces Residency. REAson d’etre dance production currently also receives operation funding from the Toronto Arts Council.
ACCESSIBLE BOX OFFICE:
http://bit.ly/DancingAfterTEN where you can buy tickets for the 3pm matinee (April 12, 2020) performance and book launch.
https://dancingwiththeuniverse.eventzilla.net/ where you can buy tickets for all the “Dancing with the Universe” performances (various dates April 9 to 18, 2020).
Ashley Belmer https://www.b-rebelcommunications.com/
I recently performed the final show in the “Thread Bound” run as a relaxed performance and many people asked me what that means. Some thought it meant the audience needed to participate. Some thought it meant performers only perform at 2/3 their regular energy level. Some said they did know what it meant and it sounded a bit scary so they decided to avoid it. So today I am going to tell you what a relaxed performance is.
To clear up these misconceptions, I’d like to say that audience participation is NOT something that is added to a relaxed performance and the performers WILL still go all out and perform at their usual full intensity and artistry!
A relaxed performance is an inclusive performance practice in which the traditional theatre rules and expectations are relaxed and/or presentation is specifically designed to make theatre more welcoming to audience members who are neurologically different from the norm. Relaxed performances are sensitive and inviting to theatergoers who may benefit from a more relaxed environment, including, but not limited to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Tourette’s, concussion syndrome, sensory and communication disorders, learning disabilities as well as other ways of being.
People who are neurologically different may have sensory-processing challenges that make light, sound and touch feel different: Sound might seem extra loud or a bright light cue might feel painful for them. Differences in processing speed might mean that it takes a while to understand what is being said on stage. The emotional intensity of a play may seem unbearable without access to their regulatory stims such as rocking or making sounds. They may experience claustrophobia at the thought of having to sit still in a theatre seat for an hour. They may feel anxieties about audience etiquette as they strive to figure out what the social theatre rules are. All these different types of experiences may feel overwhelming and make theatre in a traditional setting not accessible to them.
Every production company will design their relaxed performances differently. Whatever the choices they make, it is important to remember that a relaxed show will never make a production 100% accessible. Nothing is every 100% due to competing access-needs. I will give an example from my personal life to help define competing access-needs. Both my son and I have high functioning Autism. Sometimes he needs to makes a clucking noise to feel right in his body and sometimes I need to repeat a specific sentence over and over to feel right in my body. The thing is that both our self-regulating stim methods drive the other person to distraction and irritability and thus represent completing access needs. What is helpful to one person might interfere with access for another.
A vital aspect of relaxed performance is that the artistic excellence of the production and director’s vision remain unchanged. Rather it is everything else that surrounds the production that may be adjusted to be more welcoming.
So what are the type of things might be involved in a relaxed performance?
- House (audience) lights may be kept at a dim level rather than completely turned off
- people may be invited to leave the theatre during the show and the re-enter of they want or need.
- audience members may be asked to be aware of people’s needs to move or make noise.
- sound and lighting cues may be adjusted to be less startling or intense
- “fidget” devices such as hand spinners may be welcome and yes this may even include the use of cell phones or other devices as long as they are kept in quiet mode.
- self-regulation support items such as weighted blankets may be welcome or provided.
- a copy of the script may be provided in advance so people can prepare or gain an understanding of the content on their own time.
- description of possible triggers may be explained to the audience prior to the show.
- earplugs or sunglasses may be provided.
- people may be told its okay to plug their ears whenever they need to.
- people may be given advanced entrance or a longer time than usual to leave the theatre to help them avoid crowded theatre aisle or lobby.
Since all relaxed performances differ in how they provide a more relaxed setting, it is vital that what is being provided is outlined at the time of ticket purchase. This enables theatergoers to get a sense of whether the production will be accessible for them. For instance, sometimes a director will decide that turning down the music or light level will not work for a particular scene because the performers need that level of intensity. So earplugs may be provided instead of lower music levels. If you cannot stand the feeling of earplugs you may decide to bring your own noise-canceling headphones or decide not to go.
Production companies should not shorten their program by cutting out scenes as part of a relaxed performance. By doing this, they are making choices based on what they think is best for a disabled theatergoer. I offer that production companies put the choice in the hands of the theatre-goer. Present your full production and let the theatergoer make their own choice to self-edit by leaving the theatre for moments if they need or to want to.
Recently, my dance company REAson d’etre productions did a relaxed performance of “Thread Bound”.
This is how we designed the show to be more welcoming to those with neurological-difference:
- Music was played slightly lower than usual.
- “Stim” gadgets were welcome, including cell phones or devices as long as they are in quiet-mode.
- audience were asked to be aware of people’s needs to move or make noise
- people could leave and come back in as needed.
- script was sent to attendees ahead of time so they could process the meaning of the text and work-through/prepare for possible triggers on their own time.
- ear-plugs and sunglass were provided at the box-office to be worn in sections in which blinking-lights and sound levels might be painful for some.
- description of possible triggers was given prior to the performance.
After the performance, the box office manager said, “providing earplugs was a waste of money as hardly anyone used them.” He guessed that people who needed earplugs had brought their own and suggested that for the next relaxed performance we forgo supply them. I explained that even if no one had used our earplugs that they were still an important relationship-building tool. As a person with Autism if I arrive at a show and saw that earplugs were provided I get a sense that who I am is visible and my needs are being considered. This is a wonderful moment of being seen that builds a positive relationship between me and the producing company even if I had brought my own earplugs.
Photo credit: Suzanne Liska and Kathleen Rea in Thread Bound
Guru Suraj with Marielle Gerke
Guru Suraj, a dance artist living in Chennai, India is visiting Toronto to present his film Contact Improvisation Lab Goa, co-created with Rahul Varma and Hari Choudhary, at the Contact Dance International Film Festival. Their film was selected by the festival jury as a Silver Award winner. Guru will be accepting the award for his team at the July 1 Gala screening at the iconic Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles Ave in Toronto.
Guru Suraj is a painter, dancer, theatre artist, Yoga trainer and more. He graduated from one of the most established Art Institutions in India – The Government College of Fine Arts (Chennai) and has a master’s in the philosophy of Yoga. He started practicing Contact Dance Improvisation 10 years ago and fell in love with the form. Guru has taught Contact Dance in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and UAE and is a teacher and team organizer at popular Goa Contact festival. He has been instrumental in building the contact dance scene in India through his group Contact Improv India Organization, which focuses on spreading Contact Improv around India and making it accessible for everybody. Guru explains, “I see dance as not only everyone’s birthright but one of the greatest tools of awakening one’s consciousness and awareness. Dancing can be a mirror to look deeply into our self.”
Contact dance improvisation is a social dance involving touch, in which momentum between two or more people is used to create and inspire dance movements. Similar to martial arts like Aikido, momentum is harnessed through weight sharing and rolling point of contact. Contact dancers use these techniques, not to defend themselves, but to dance. The form requires a deep awareness that allows dancers to respond in the moment to their partner. There are no pre-set roles and the role of leader and follower interchanges and blurs together. Contact dance is accessible to people with no previous dance training and to people with physical disabilities.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival celebrates films featuring momentum-based dance created by some of the top creators and dancers in the field of Contact dance improvisation. It provides an opportunity for both film and dance lovers to experience the joy, chaos, and intimacy of human connection through physical movement. The Festival runs every two years on the odd years and is presenting its fourth season in Toronto, June 29 to July 1, 2019.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival was founded by local Roncesvalles, Toronto area resident Kathleen Rea through her dance company REAson d’etre dance productions. Kathleen, a former dancer with the National Ballet Company of Canada, switched ship from ballet to Contact Dance when she tried it for the first time twenty years ago. At that moment, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life towards supporting and promoting contact dance. Kathleen explains, “Contact dance is just about the furthest form of dance from ballet. They are both beautiful but really are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Ballet is about control and exacting technique, while contact dance is more like surfing a wave that you do not have control of. One does not have control the momentum of another decent but it takes a practiced level of awareness and skill to this harness kinetic force ”
Kathleen goes on to describe her philosophy in creating a contact dance film festival. She says, “Contact dance is really an all levels dance form in which experienced dancers get just as much joy from dancing with a beginner as with more advanced dancers. I really wanted the Contact Dance International Film festival to have the same feel. So, we program all level films! This means that films with high production values are screened right next to Instagram clips filmed on someone’s smartphone.”
Dancers Guru Suraj, Marielle Gerke and Hari Choudhari
The festival has always received submissions from around the world, but Kathleen noticed during the submission phase this year that there was an increased level of diversity. Since Toronto is such a diverse city, she was excited that the festival content was starting to come close to matching the level of diversity in the city in which it is occurring. Contact dance improvisation is not a codified dance form and as such every part of the world practices, it in a different way led by their community’s curiosities and interest. When different groups meet there is a chance for a rich and inspiring exchange of new ideas can that invigorate the community.
This increase in diversity of films submitted to the festival is partly due to the growing contact dance scene in India and the draw and history this community has to dance filmmaking. This season CDIFF is screening 4 films by Indian filmmakers. The popular Goa contact festival has in particular been the springboard for the creation of numerous contact dance films. A documentary on the Goa festival won an award in the 2015 festival. Two of the four Indian films this year were created in Goa and both have won festival awards. Guru’s filmmaking team has won the CDIFF silver award and Rohit Prem is a co-winner of the CDIFF emerging filmmaker award.
Film-still from Rohit Prem’s film Contact Improvisation Goa India with dancersRosolind Hogate Smith and Ariane Bernier
Possibly Bollywood culture plays into the fact that so many contact dance films are created by Indian filmmakers. Dance in Indian films has had a large cultural imprint both in India and on the world and Indian contact dancers may naturally gravitate towards creating films focused on dance because of this cultural history.
The Contact Dance International Film Festival invited Guru Suraj to come to Toronto to pick up the Silver Award on behalf of his filmmaking team and to network and share knowledge with the Toronto Contact Dance community. After a lengthy and involved visa application process, the Canadian Government initially claimed that they did not believe Guru would leave Canada after his visit and denied him a tourist visa.
Kathleen says, “as Canadian citizenship, international travel is a relatively easy thing for me. I was shocked at how involved the application was to apply for a tourist visa to Canada for many of the festival’s filmmakers from countries targeted with strick and involved travel visa policies. When two of our filmmakers received visa denials, I came to understand better how access to travel can affect a person’s career trajectory. The Canadian government’s belief that Guru would not leave Canada was unfounded. He is teaching in Germany later in the summer. He is a well-known and respected dancer who has made it his life work to bring contact dance to India. Why would he want to stay in Canada?”
Guru Suraj and Maite Moreno Martínez
Both Kathleen and Guru did not want the rich cultural exchange to be swept aside by travel policies that target certain regions of the world. In one week, they raised enough funds to hire Bondy Immigration Law to reapply for Guru’s tourist visa. A petition was also started that garnered 1440 signatures. Federal MP Arif Virani got on board as well, writing a letter of support for Guru’s re-application. The Contact Dance International Film Festival was moved by the level of support from both the Toronto and the international contact dance community. The team effort paid off as Guru received his Canadian travel visa on his third application.
Guru says about this visa application process, “…What a start for a journey, journey before the journey itself. I have never been involved in such a fight or had to ask for so much support or have received so much love. And as I receive the visa… I feel a lot of gratitude for everything that happened. I’m grateful for the determination … of Kathleen Rea to try every way possible to make this happen. I remember her saying: “you are coming to pick up this award!” But also to make this case as loud as possible. It’s such an eye opener for people who were not aware of this regional discrimination and travel politics. This goes far beyond my personal opportunity to travel and teach. What I received will be shared with my co-artists here [in India]….. And this is also about carving the paths for Artists from all parts of the world to have equal opportunities to share their work. And about the strength of this nomadic CI community that truly backs up its members when needed.”
Kathleen says, “I am late in the game in terms of realizing how much access to travel imbalances have shaped the international Contact dance improvisation community. The fact that many contact dancers have to go through months of rigorous visa applications and frequent denials creates an imbalance in terms of who can build their career through international travel. I wanted in some small way to repair this imbalance by supporting Guru in obtaining his travel visa, but it is not enough actually. What I would like to see is that a global discussion starts in the contact improvisation community around this issue that leads to practical solutions. Festivals could have a travel access fee added to registration to be used to support those having trouble getting visas. If those of us with travel privilege can pitch in to support those without the privilege then I hope things can become more balanced. Money raised could be used as well for education about the issue and on lobbying countries that have unfair travel policies targeting certain regions. As a Canadian, I am ashamed to say that Canada is one of those countries.”
Come out and meet and learn from Guru Suraj at the Contact Dance International Film Festival occurring June 29 to July 1, 2019, in Toronto.
Irma Villafuerte in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The spotlight over the past years has turned towards the under-representation of female choreographers in the established dance companies. In the press and social media, I have seen a repeat of the same sort of questions and thought processes in regards to this issue that goes something like this “… where are all the female choreographers?” or “why aren’t there more female choreographers” or “If only there were more female choreographers then we could hire them”. While it is great to see the press and dance community having these discussions, I would like to counter by saying we are not that hard to find. We are mostly finding our way, on our own terms by starting our own companies and self-producing. They should concentrate on finding us, seeing our shows and writing reviews. This would shine a spotlight on our work that can help even out the gender inequalities we face. Roshanak Jaberi is an Iranian-Canadian female choreographer whom I had no trouble finding. I would like to shine some stage-light on this talented and brave creator.
I just came home from Jabari’s production “No Woman’s Land”, created for her company Jaberi Dance Theatre and presented by DanceWorks at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto. Jaberi Dance Theatre is a multi-disciplinary performing arts company that explores socially relevant content and highlights the lived experience of racialized women. “No Woman’s Land” tells stories of refugee women fleeing their homelands due to acute starvation, poverty, natural disasters, armed conflict and war. Roshanak engaged in an intense research phase with the support of IRIS (Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society) and scholar Dr. Shahrzad Mojab. The work that arose out of the stories and information collected is a weaving of dance, visual images, text and sound. Pre-show, the stage is set with something that looks like the frame of a tent. Light shines through the frame casting shadows that look like bars of some virtual prison. Or perhaps they are a net that will hold the audience together while we witness the stories that are about to unfold. One of the beautiful aspects of Jaberi’s work is that the images portrayed hold multiple meanings and tones, creating a richly layered tapestry.
The work starts at high velocity with the frame turning over to become a boat. Images of a storm are projected over all surfaces of the stage. We witness refugees fighting for their lives in stormy waters. The choreography is direct in its movements, but the nuances are complex and cut deep into the heart. The cast (Irma Villafuerte, Nickeshia Garrick, Victoria Mata, Denise Solleza, Drew Berry, Ahmed Moneka) are fully committed. One can sense they know the importance of the job they have in bringing these stories to the stage.
Victoria Mata, Irma Villafuerte & Drew Berry in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
The program includes a fold-out pamphlet that educates the public about the world-wide refugee crisis. We learn that 68.5 million people have been forced from their homes and that one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds. We learn that approximately one in five women in refugee camps are sexually-assaulted. This statistic is brought to life on stage through Irma Villafuerte’s solo that depicts unwanted hands reaching for her body through “bars”, and through a voice-over of a young girl’s story of a brutal rape. The pamphlet also describes how refugee women become shrewd survivors through their lived experience, finding strategies, cunning and independence. In a fierce solo by Nickeshia Garrick, sharp movements cut through the air with grace and speed. Every cell of her body exemplifies pride and beauty that dismantles the stereotype of the helpless, passive victim.
Victoria Mata in “No Woman’s Land” photo by Wayne Eardley
In another scene, dancers frantically fight for limited buckets. The rattling sound of hollow metal clanging reverberates on stage, a music score that gives the audience a felt sense of the panic of thirst. The buckets then become stepping stones across minefields or seats at a social gathering that gives relief from the worries of being displaced. Text and projected images deliver story and setting, but dance is the element that delivers the emotional world hidden behind the words and statistics. This embodiment is what brings the stories home to those witnessing. Throughout the work a repeated poem delivers the message that people flee their home when fleeing is safer than staying. This made me think of what it would take to make me grab my kids and flee. A vital aspect of “No Woman’s Land” is that it invites the viewer into an immersive art experience that encourages the viewer to imagine what it would be like if those circumstances unfolding on stage happened to them. Jaberi’s states in her program notes that “No Woman’s Land” does not attempt to present solutions to systemic systems of oppression that lead and influence the refugee crisis. Rather, she hopes the work will start discourse amongst those in a position of influence.
Roshanak Jaberi is a brave and articulate choreographer with a strong vision. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.
Interview date: June 2017
Olya Glotka, a self-made filmmaker based in Toronto, is transforming the contact dance improvisation community she is a part of. Contact dance improvisation is a social dance involving touch, in which momentum between two or more people inspires dance movements. Like martial arts, it uses a rolling point of contact and trains the ability to sense one’s partner’s movements. There are no set gender roles which enable a fluid exchange of lead and follow. With limited resources, Olya decided to embark on a self-training program to become a filmmaker. Her goal was to make one-hundred dance films. Currently, she has just finished her fifty-eighth film and has already started to win awards. Her films showcase a range of people from beginners to professional dancers. In several of her films, Olya has chosen to showcase dancers using wheelchairs. When watching her films, one starts to see the beauty that she sees in all people. You start to see that dance is for everyone and can be done everywhere.
Kathleen Rea, director of the Contact Dance International Film Festival, recently sat down with Olya to find out what drives her as a filmmaker.
KR: When did you first fall in love with contact dance improvisation?
OG: I was at my first contact dance improvisation workshop and we were doing an exercise in which one person is lying on the ground and the other person practices balancing their weight on their partner. As I felt the compression from my partner’s weight on my back, I suddenly realized that I had a body. I know that might sound strange. Analytically I knew I had a body, but this was the first time I understood from the inside out that my body existed. This was such a new feeling for me because I was a sickly child growing up. There was so much fighting, anger and negativity around me and I think my body reacted by being in pain. I was in and out of the hospital. Being sick became my identity. But in that first contact dance workshop, I started to see myself in a new way… one in which my body was strong and was something I could depend on. I started to see my body as a source of creativity. These realizations changed everything that came next.
KR: What else is it about contact dance that is healing for you?
OG: For me something fundamental changed inside me when I, this “tiny, little, pretty girl” learned to pick up a full-grown man and carry him across the room! You see, for me contact dance is my life’s lab. It is a playground where I can try out things or ways of being that I am scared to do in “real” life. Dance improvisation helps me face my demons and in so doing learn to face myself, to fall in love with all that is in me.
KR: I understand. I use contact dance in that way too. So, when did you become interested in dance film?
OG: Four years after my first encounter with contact dance improvisation I went to Allen Kaeja’s dance film workshop. That experience answered a question for me: “why can’t I stick with anything?”. You see, as a kid, I would do all kinds of arts and crafts. I went to art school, studied piano, guitar, creative writing, songwriting, did crafts, sewed my own clothes and went to theatre school. I was good at everything I tried yet I never ever stuck with it. I would quit after a year or two and I always felt like a failure. When I made my first little dance film in Allen’s workshop, I had this “Aha!” moment. The skies opened, I heard the angels sing and my life finally made sense. All the art forms I had ever loved were encapsulated and merged into one – filmmaking.
KR: You did your first contact dance workshop just before the 2015 Contact Dance International Film Festival. Did that festival influence you?
OG: Oh yes. I was so inspired by the films I saw I couldn’t sleep for two days. When I took Allen’s film workshop I knew I wanted to make dance films, but I didn’t know if there was a place for them. Then I went to the Festival and I saw there would be a place for my work. I knew the next Festival was in 2017, so I decided to get busy.
KR: How did you go about pursuing this new-found art form? Did you enroll in a film school?
OG: No. I didn’t have the resources that would allow me to get any long-term professional training. So I decided to do it myself. I set a goal of making one hundred dance films.
KR: Kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. How many hours have you logged so far?
OG: I’ve filmed about seventy dance film projects and completed fifty-eight of them. So I only have forty-two films left to reach my goal.
KR: From your first dance film to your fifty-eighth what has been your progression?
OG: It is very entertaining to look back at my first films and see the quality of them. Very basic. Very boring. Very self-centered. I think I am now better at engaging the viewer. I understand that I need to edit in service of the film instead of in service of myself. This has helped me tighten up the pacing of my films. I have learned the technical aspects of the craft and this has improved image quality. I have cultivated my voice and artistic vision and I think it is now more direct, meaningful and thought-provoking. When dancers and artists ask me for advice about how to “turn into a filmmaker”, the only thing I can say is, “go make 100 films”.
KR: Besides making one hundred films, what else was involved in this progression. How did you teach yourself all the different aspects of filmmaking and find your creative voice?
OG: For a year, I woke up every Monday two hours earlier then I needed to, and participated in free online courses on all aspects of filmmaking. First, I learned editing, then production, then camera movement and so on. I had four part-time jobs at the time and I didn’t even own a camera and somehow, I managed to work on over sixty film projects that first year. I would study in the morning and then go to my nine-to-five retail job where I’d listen to hours and hours of film-related podcasts. My evening job was babysitting and when the kid would fall asleep, I’d open my laptop and edit, edit and edit. Then I’d run home to sleep. I would repeat the whole cycle again the next day for the rest of the work week. Then I had the whole weekend to shoot! I had lots of friends in the contact dance improvisation community who were eager to dance and help. Because I was making so many films, I was able to explore the medium and quickly get results by trying different things and learning lessons from my mistakes.
KR: That’s intense.
OG: Whether watching dance films or editing my own work, when something would catch my eye I would always ask myself the same questions: “why do I like this?” or, “why do I not like that?” I would look at it over and over, trying to figure it out and I would either try to recreate the effect later or try to avoid it if I didn’t like the effect. I was in a loop of learning, try, analyze and then repeat. I fed back into the loop everything I learned and figured-out, as well as feedback from others. I was exhausted by the pace but also happy.
KR: I know that you were born and raised in Ukraine. Can you tell us the story of how you came to Canada?
OG: I never planned to move to Canada. In fact, I always dreamed to dedicate my life and art to my home country. I grew up in Ukraine, and when I was eighteen I left so I could learn life by traveling the world; just myself and a few dollars in my pockets. During my travels, I fell in love with a Canadian and after several trials of getting my partner adapted to the life in Ukraine, we gave up and ended up here in Canada. I really had planned to live my life in Ukraine. I had always imagined that I would be able to help my troubled country. To be one of the young people fighting for human rights. I think this fight for human rights still lives in me. All my dance films are a celebration of human rights. A celebration of people.
KR: How else does being Ukrainian influence your work?
OG: I think Ukrainian people have this ability to work hard for the things they want in life because that is the way of life there. Also, growing up in Ukraine I learned the value of family and community. When things are tough these two aspects of life are the only solid ground that enables survival. After I came to Canada the relationship that brought me here ended. I was alone in a new country. I had not been dancing because my ex was not comfortable with contact dance improvisation. Leaving the relationship meant I was free once again to pursue dance. I came to a Toronto contact dance jam and met my new “family” that would provide me with solid ground. Knowing how vital this was for me strengthened my drive to build community through dance. I started a new Contact Dance Jam in the east end of town for this reason as well as to get more dancing in.
KR: Does your queer identity influence your work?
OG: It makes me question a lot! It inspires me to create something different that will challenge the norm of, if there is a man and a woman on the screen, they must be in love, have been in love or are about to fall in love. It has always upset me to see the lack of other types of relationships on TV and film. A man and a woman don’t have to only be lovers, they can be siblings, family members, best friends, soul mates, opponents, business/dance/sports partners. Two women don’t have to be either friends or competitors. They can be lovers, muses, partners in crime, sisters for each other. And men can be nurturing and sensual with each other.
KR: So you feel that people would benefit from seeing gender roles represented in a more fluid manner.
OG: In terms of gender stereotypes, I grew up in a world where everyone was telling me that girls are stupid, mean and catty. Once I discovered this belief in me as an adult, I spent years healing from it. I am committed to doing anything I can to change pop-culture and the message we put out there so people can see the infinite range of possibilities.
KR: Can you tell us about your recent 30 Days of Contact Dance project?
OG: I made thirty films in thirty days. Over fifty dancers were involved in the project, most of them from Toronto. It was a tribute to the Toronto contact dance improvisation community. It is my way to thank the community for being there for me when I was struggling. My partner, Kim Simons, who is also a contact dancer was an integral part of the project. She alternated between camera person and dancer and offered support and encouraged throughout. It felt great to find a creative outlet that we could share. The first film in the series involves Kim and I dancing everywhere we could think of: the beach, a dollar store, the gym, a couch, a swamp, leaves, snow, hallways, living room floor.
KR: Now, ten films from this project were selected by the jury for screening at the Contact Dance International Film Festival, which is coming up at the end of June. I was overseeing the jury and remember a big discussion they had about whether it was fair to program so many of one filmmaker’s films. Finally, one jury member said let’s not think of that question and instead think of the merit of each film separately. Also, of note is that Allen Kaeja, your first film teacher is staring in one of the films, Farewell to Honest Ed’s with his wife Karen Kaeja. How did that feel?
OG: It definitely gave me a feeling of coming full circle. I felt that by appearing in one of my films he had recognized me as a fellow filmmaker and that felt really good.
Another one of the films in the festival, that especially moves me is Contact Dance Every Body, which features Luke Anderson, who dances using a wheelchair.
OG: I met Luke at a party. I was contact-dancing with someone and he came up after and asked, “what was that?” I started telling him about contact dance but then I realized that none of the regular Toronto contact dance spaces were wheelchair accessible. I felt terrible seeing how eager he was to try it and knowing that it was not accessible to him. Meeting Luke inspired me to start my own all accessible monthly contact dance improvisation jams at Artscape. Later I asked Luke and his friend Laura if they wanted to make a dance film. We met at their favorite place, the Art Gallery of Ontario. Luke was very nervous because he hadn’t done much contact dance. But when they started to dance, his nerves melted away. When I edited the film, I frequently had tears in my eyes. Their dance was so tender and the look in Luke’s eyes was so alive. I have been told by the Festival that this film has been selected for a prize and to prepare a speech. We are so excited about the attention the film is receiving because it has such potential to break down barriers faced by people with physical disabilities.
KR: What is your vision for contact dance improvisation. Where do you see it potentially heading?
OG: I really see contact dance in a much broader sense than most. I think contact can be a way of living a life in which there is more connection and touch. It can teach mothers how to playful interact with their kids. It can give elderly people a much-needed sense of community and connection. I really want contact dance improvisation to move beyond the dance studio and offer its healing properties to all. For me, ensuring that this dance form is accessible to people who can benefit from it is a human rights issue.
KR: Now that I think of it, not one of your dance films are filmed in a studio. They occur inside and outdoors in public spaces. They occur in people’s homes. They occur in the rain, in the snow, and in the blazing sun. Your films really do show that we all can dance wherever we are. Thank you for sharing your story. I think it can inspire many people. And a warning if you run into Olya at the film festival she might just convince you to star in her next dance film.
OG: [laughs]. Yes, there is a chance that will happen! Thank you, Kathleen.
This interview was done in June 2017.
Here is our update. The Contact Dance International Film Festival returns for its fourth season, June 29 to July 1, 2019, in Toronto Canada. This festival, produced by REAson d’etre dance productions, celebrates films featuring momentum-based dance created by some of the top creators and dancers in the field of Contact Dance Improvisation. Four different screening programs will be presented alongside dance workshops, jams, and parties. The upcoming June 29 to June 30, 2019, Contact Dance International Film festival will screen two new films by Olya. Visit www.contactdancefilmfest.com to see the line-up.
Olya is now working full-time as a filmmaker.
On Friday we performed our final studio run-through before we move over to the theatre. Here is what our small audience that attended has said about Men’s Circle.
Laura Bisoc wrote:
I loved watching Kathleen Rea’s new dance theatre production, Men’s Circle. It tells several stories of emotional vulnerability and unfettered expression with a seamless integration of singing, dancing and spoken dialogue. The dancers are brilliant and combine virtuosity, playfulness and clarity of expression in their fresh and fast paced acts.
A dead patient (most likely killed by the ineptitude of his therapist!) haunts the entire production and is one of the most endearing and mischievous characters I have ever seen. In his defence, the therapist is a wonderful singer and I hope his signature song, Appendicitis, will make it to the top charts. Performed while the therapist is wrestling with his dead patient, Appendicitis is full of emotional ardour and physiological urgency.
The white canopy that represents “our brain waves” is almost a character in itself, and so is the violin case with wings.
Definitely a not to miss event!
Evadne Macedo wrote:
Men’s Circle by Kathleen Rea is brilliant, surprising and touchingly funny. As a work of theatre, the stories reveal the hurts that lie beneath the surface of smiles and the hidden fears that separate us from ourselves and others.
As a work of dance, we are treated to a showcase of male strength, beauty and vulnerability as the characters struggle to heal and to find authentic connection through movement. In watching these courageous men reveal themselves in their acting, dancing and live music, we are challenged to reach into and beyond ourselves to find belonging and understanding in our own lives despite the risks of pain and rejection.
With the spectre of death ever present, and represented on stage as a character who confronts and soothes each man, Men’s Circle reminds us that we each have the capacity to live with grace and humility, and that we are never alone in this incredible human journey.
MEN’S CIRCLE – dance theatre by Kathleen Rea
DRAMATURGE: Tristan R. Whiston
ORIGINAL SONGS: Ariel Llama
DATES: November 2 to 5, 2017.
LOCATION: Betty Oliphant Theatre, 404 Jarvis street, Toronto.
BOX OFFICE: http://menscircle.eventzilla.net/
FACEBOOK EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/events/150598895531063/
PRODUCED BY: REAson d’etre dance productions http://www.reasondetre.com/
FILM STILLS from footage by Drew Berry
Growing up, The Velveteen Rabbit was my favourite story. I think as a young child I understood that becoming “real” is a sort of magic that can happen to all of us when we truly engage in life. I even had my own stuffed velveteen rabbit that I “loved” into being real. Years later when Bengt Jorgen invited me to create a children’s ballet on his company, The Velveteen Rabbit was the first story that came to mind. I asked my costume designer to use my old toy as a model for the lead dancer’s costume…and so my childhood toy did actually come to life! As a mother of two young boys, I am excited to create a ballet version of my favorite story that my boys can enjoy and learn from.
Watch the video:
Robbie Wychwood from The Sacred Fire Blog, sat down to interview me just after the launch of my book The Healing Dance: The Life and Practice of an Expressive Arts Therapist. Robbie is a singer/songwriter who has a passion for creative and sustainable living. He is also a painter, writer and ecstatic dancer. He is currently being mentored as a spiritual counselor in pagan traditions. After several previous interviews with hosts who had not read my book, it was refreshing to talk with someone so well informed and passionate about expressive arts. He will be posting the interview two parts.
Here is an excerpt from part one:
I made it out to celebrate the launch of Kathleen Rea’s book, ‘the Healing Dance’ at Café Arts and the Norman Felix Gallery in Toronto.
The gallery was packed with Kathleen’s family, friends, mentors, peers, students and fans. During her introduction Kathleen’s sister, Lovisa commented “only Kathleen could have a book launch like opening night for one of her shows.” Indeed it was a wonderful evening of art, readings, and with original music performed by Kathleen’s long-time friend, Ariel Brink.
Her former ISIS Canada-mentor, Steven K. Levine started the evening with a lovely, heartfelt endorsement, saying “this book demonstrates to me that my student, Kathleen, might know more about being an Expressive Arts Therapist than I do.”
Having anticipated this book for some time I was blown away by how captivating it was. Kathleen’s tells a very personal, deeply moving, and powerfully transforming story.
I caught up with her a couple of weeks later in her home for the following interview.
Robbie Wychwood (RW): I was at the book launch and it was a wonderful gathering. It is wonderful to see this book come out knowing the story, and that it was a big project for you. So I would like to start there. There are many arts to Kathleen Rea, the artist, the dancer, the choreographer, the ballet company director, the expressive arts therapist… and now Kathleen Rea, the author. Tell us about becoming an author, and the process. I gather this was not an easy book to write?
Kathleen Rea (KR): The book began as my Master’s Thesis which I actually started in 2000. There was two years of writing even before I thought I should make this Master’s Thesis into a book.