A naked man and a naked mother brought an audience to tears, and a few nights later, a glittery lobster brought an audience to its feet. The Festival of New Dance in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, can only be described as a trip. A beautifully curated, thoughtful journey of a festival that’s existed for 31 years, The Festival of New Dance (FND from here on) is an institution.
But here’s the rub—it’s a little overlooked.
There was a recent article in The Globe and Mail entitled “Ten Chances to take in New Dance Across Canada,” and every event listed was in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. How does a fantastic festival like FND not get a mention? Even in more local media outlets, FND didn’t get much press. To that point, I found a 2013 piece in the INDY’s archives about the Festival of New Dance in which Rhea Rollmann wrote that “Getting the word out and convincing the broader public of the appeal of contemporary dance remains a challenge,” something that still rings true. But before we delve into all that, let’s back up and look at the shows individually.
The week (for me) kicked off with “Ballet Night.”
The show featured two performances from Ballet Kelowna, two from Kittiwake Dance Theatre, and a Q & A with the choreographers that helped put the work into context.
The stand-out performance was the piece entitled “Bolero,” performed by Ballet Kelowna. The lead dancer constantly tries to grow, expand, and escape from the other bodies on stage, but keeps getting encircled and entrapped. The bodies move in tandem at times, but there’s a frenetic aggression you can’t ignore. It was mesmerizing, edge of your seat, can’t look away stuff. I left thinking, “God, I need to see more ballet.”
I was a little apprehensive about attending this performance. Firstly, “m/Other” is a duet between a mother (Gabby Kamino) and son (Benjamin Kamino), wherein both dancers are completely naked. Secondly, it’s a longish piece. I’m a prude who gets self-conscious around nudity, and my attention span is shot to pieces, so I was nervous.
I didn’t need to be. This soft, kind piece stays with you in a particular way. It draws heavily from the psychoanalytic work of Bracha L. Ettinger, who proposed that our impressions of the world begin in the womb and are transcribed from the mother. The idea (which I’m probably butchering heavily) is that mothers and children are linked, are together and separate from before birth to death, and are constantly merging, emerging, and separating. What did this look like in a dance piece? Picture swelling music, exposed flesh, tumbling, hard falls, and closed eyes. Everything feels intensely sad, deliberate, joyful, and surprising. It’s a dance piece that leaves you feeling that your relationship with your mom will always be too much and not enough.
When it was over, I scanned the room and noticed every second person was crying. After a few minutes, there was a post-performance discussion with Gabby and Benjamin, who were charming, funny, and open about the piece and their artistic practice. Those fears of nakedness and length were pointless worries. The nudity in the piece is beautiful and natural; the audience doesn’t notice the time passing; I called my mom on the walk home.
One of my favorite of the week’s performances was “New Tricks,” a solo work by Christopher House. The stage was dressed with a desk and computer, costumes were strewn about, and everything about the stage set-up felt electric. The music for New Tricks was made with Toronto composer Thom Gill, which is incredible—electronic, kinky, moody covers.
There are many props, costume changes, and references to gender fluidity and ambiguity, but the piece is not laden with heavy-handedness; it’s creative, fun, and moving. There’s a moment when House struts around in a stylish but oversized, backward suit. It’s a big mood, a moment where you find yourself gasping at the creativity before you.
I just didn’t like this piece at all, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worthwhile.
Before the performance began, I read the show’s description in the program eight times, attempting to understand what I was about to see. Still, it read like word soup—like someone just tossed arty words like “interstices” and “accumulative leitmotiv” together in a mad way. I hate this kind of thing. Speak plainly about your art. Make it accessible.
I understand that explaining can be hard, but times are tough. Theatre tickets, dance tickets, a glass of wine at the show, gas…. the cost of everything has increased. Tell the potential audience what the show is about, so we can make an informed decision about how we spend our time (and money).
Next, let’s talk about the vibes. The choreographer, Daina Ashbee, stood on the steps, ushering people to their seats. Some chairs surrounded the stage, and the rest of us were separated and stacked in the theatre seats. The whole effect was claustrophobic. I felt trapped.
The show’s description says the piece “bathes into being a marshy universe” and “explores the interstices between the angst and the playful jubilation of a peripheral and naked body.” These descriptions don’t pass the smell test. There was no bathing in a marshy universe. Instead, I felt horror movie tension the whole time. Playful jubilation of a naked body? The dancer threw his body into contortions, his shoulders smashing onto the stage. I don’t believe that artists need to suffer for art. And I didn’t sign up to watch it happen.
A quick note. The dancer, in this case, is Benjamin Kamino, an artist I mentioned above. I mean no disrespect to Kamino. I was moved by the performance and wowed by his abilities, intensity, and passion, and I bumped into him at almost every event. Kamino constantly rose to his feet, applauding and supporting other artists and asking questions at each discussion. This is an engaged, exciting performer. The piece? I just don’t know. It felt violent.
On another note, as much as I didn’t enjoy “Laborious Song,” I have to say that my intense reaction probably means the piece did achieve its goal. A real failure would have the audience sneaking a look at their phones. All eyes were on the stage.
“Ruralesque” was intensely fun and playful, a mash-up of dance, drag, burlesque, stories, and songs performed at the old Masonic hall. The artists describe the work as “Moulin meets Simani,” “Champagne meets Carnation Milk,” and a “Gay Foggy Day.”
A stand-out moment was when performer Josh Murphy (AKA Newfoundlad) talked about how anonymity, the kind you can get in a big city, can make you feel like the freest version of yourself. It clearly resonated with everyone; I watched as heads around the room nodded in agreement when he said it. It’s remarkable when a piece can celebrate and gently mock the great things about home.
In Search of the Holy Chop Suey
In “Search of the Holy Chop Suey” won’t leave my brain.
Created and performed by Yvonne Ng, everything about this piece sticks with you. The performer comes on stage carrying the most exciting and well-designed prop I’ve ever seen. It’s a basket, a character, a shelter, and home. It lights up, each side revealing something new. Somehow, the prop never takes over—all eyes stay on the performer. According to the program, the piece’s title is about how we all search for meaning in our lives. The theme is about discovering different parts of yourself through imitation. The feeling you get when you watch this piece? Mostly astonishment.
The set deck for this piece was stark and fascinating—tin foil (or maybe emergency blankets) were draped from wires. The dancer and creator of the work, Caroline Niklas-Gordon, was equally captivating and moved her body with the intensity of someone who has seen something, someone who’s been through it. This was a gorgeous piece.
This was probably my favourite piece at the festival. This review is late because trying to describe this performance accurately was a Rubik’s Cube. There was a lot to take in, lots of moving pieces.
There are photographs from Ned Pratt, snowy wintery scenes projected onto the wall behind the dancer, and an original soundscore hits your brain like a hammer. Phillip McDermott is a captivating and commanding presence on stage. He reminds you of a wild animal. Or maybe that’s the choreography at work? Either way, he’s smooth and precise, but there’s something uncaged about it all.
Some Notes on the Festival Itself
Okay, I did not mean to turn this into a 2000-word essay on the FND, but there’s so much to unpack. This is an artist’s festival; I asked a few performers about their fees. They were very satisfied–delighted even. “This is a festival that values artists,” is something I heard repeatedly. “The festival was always quick to respond to my e-mails; I felt supported,” was another sentence that came up more than once.
Next, a shout-out to the technicians. You worked hard. I saw you sweating it out. I hope you felt appreciated.
Finally, let’s talk about the festival itself. I asked audience members questions after each show. The feedback was largely positive. A compliment I heard? “I appreciate the diversity, not just in dance styles or performers, but the diversity in bodies. I love that I saw older bodies, bigger bodies, and young bodies. It made me feel like anyone can dance.”
The complaint I heard most frequently? That buying tickets from the LSPU Hall was hard to figure out.
I live downtown and tend to get my tickets in person, and I’ve never tried the online system. Here’s how it went: I tried to make an account, but it didn’t work. Then I realized I must already have one and clicked the “Forgot your password?” button. I had to do a ton of clicking. It was not a user-friendly experience. My Mastercard was rejected in the end.
To be clear, I love the Hall. I’m glad we have this space. And in their defense, they have an awesome online tutorial and a clear FAQ page, and it’s entirely possible that patrons would complain no matter the ticket-buying system. Buying tickets is one of those things humans love to complain about.
It’s equally possible that a better ticket-buying system exists.
Near the end of the festival this year, seats were pretty full. The drag events, the burlesque show, Christopher House’s performance, and the show on October 7th were packed houses. Earlier in the week, though, attendance was sparse. I had imagined that ballet night would be full, but there were about eighty folks in the seats, some of which were funders. Why aren’t there more bums in seats?
Well, it’s a recession, and we’re still in a global pandemic—both valid reasons to stay home. It’s equally plausible that, “convincing the broader public of the appeal of contemporary dance remains a challenge” as it did in 2013. But I suspect a big part of the low numbers earlier in the week can be explained by the fact that autumn in St. John’s is festival season.
Things ramp up in September with the Shorts Play Festival, with the Circus Fest on its heels, and following that in rapid succession is the FND, the storytelling festival, and finally, the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival which closes out in October. Throw in the start of school, holiday dinners, and Halloween activities, and fall can feel a little hectic.
I understand why the festivals all pack into these eight weeks. Nobody wants to be indoors in the balmy summer months, and winter is unpredictable for travel; bringing artists in is risky when every second flight is canceled. But if just one festival could move to March: a) we’d have something to do in March, and b) audiences would have the mental capacity to take in more art in the fall.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that FND consider moving to March. In fact, as one of the oldest festivals, a festival that’s already moved four times, it’s probably the one that should stay put. I’m just suggesting that arts administrators from these festivals talk it out–media outlets are at their carrying capacity in the fall, and some very talented artists aren’t getting the attention they deserve.
The Festival of New Dance is a fantastic festival for artists; it supports them and gives them money, time, and space to create. It’s also a festival that considers the audience and brings world-class performers to our stages. This is me low-key begging you to buy tickets next year and low-key begging fall festivals to chat it out; there’s just not enough time or money to go to all these festivals in the fall.