“We’ve always had a tradition of trying to push boundaries, trying to bring in work that challenges.”

Lisa Porter has been involved with the Festival of New Dance in various capacities since its inception 22 years ago — first as a dancer, then as a board member and chair, and now as Festival Coordinator — so it’s no surprise she has some valuable insight on the annual event and the evolution of contemporary dance in the province.

“I would say the rest of Canada has caught up with us in Newfoundland, in terms of multi-disciplinary work,” she explains. “We’ve always had a tradition here in St. John’s of bringing in elements of theatre (and) elements of film … the idea of using different kinds of lighting and film and projectors and screens, and just enriching a piece so that it’s more than pure dance — we were doing that a long time ago. And I’ve seen that show up more and more in the programming that we’ve done from Canada and outside of Canada.”

The festival, which is coordinated by Neighbourhood Dance Works and runs Oct. 9-14 this year, aims to present “some of the most sought-after contemporary dance produced in Canada and (provide) main stage opportunities for local choreographers,” the festival’s web site states. If this year’s schedule of events is any indication of its success in achieving that goal, organizers should be doing their own little celebratory dance.

House is back with a brand new invention

The Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) opens the festival Tuesday evening at the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre with Rivers, an hour-long group performance accompanied by a piano suite from late Canadian composer Ann Southam. Artistic director, internationally-acclaimed choreographer and St. John’s native Christopher House is behind the production. House, who has been with TDT since 1994, worked with Southam in the early part of his career. In fact, it was Southam’s composition Glass Houses that served as the score for House’s career breakthrough work of the same name.

The Toronto Dance Theatre presents "Rivers" Tuesday evening at the St. John's Arts & Culture Centre.

“She gave me a few pieces from Rivers in 1981 or 1982,” House told The Independent in a recent phone interview. “I liked them but they seemed too complicated for me at the time […] Then, when Ann passed away in 2010, her music started to be played a lot again, and Christina Quilico, the fantastic musician we’re working with who’s coming to St. John’s with us — I heard her play and thought, my god, I would love to work with her and make a piece together that really celebrated Ann’s music. And that’s what we started from.

“Christina, when she’s playing, is making decisions on the fly all the time, with great virtuosity, but she’s really making decisions, so you’re really conscious of the liveness of the performance,” House explained. “It’s not the kind of situation where someone is executing something they’ve perfected and it’s going to be exactly the same every time.

“We’ve tried to do that with our performances as well so that (each one) is a little bit different, and the audience should really be aware of the improvisational nature of it — not in a make-something-up-in-the-moment kind of way, but in the awareness and sensitivity and sense of risk, and in a way (a) sense of play that the performers bring to their execution of the choreography.”

Hilarity and Sadness in the Hall

The festival moves back into its old homestead at the LSPU Hall Wednesday evening for Goggles, a “black comedy” performance from Vancouver’s Tara Cheyenne that is “hilarious and moving and terrifying in some ways,” says Porter. On Thursday Halifax duo Mocean Dance will present their “lonely and sad, but gorgeous” work Beside Myself, Gasping, alongside local docudance artist Louise Moyes, who will perform the first half of a new docudance based on the works of French author Mavis Gallant and St. John’s writer Lisa Moore.

Liz Solo presents "Dance Me" Friday evening at the LSPU Hall. It's her new choreographed performance developed through months of improvisation and play with media, props and movement. Using projection as a metaphor, the work is a hybrid-reality work that explores the merging of multiple identities in a quest to unite the real and the virtual self.

On Friday St. John’s cross-disciplinary artist Liz Solo will offer up her new “hybrid-reality” work Dance Me, which “explores the merging of multiple identities in a quest to unite the real and the virtual self,” according to the festival’s web site. And former St. John’s resident Caroline Niklas-Gordon will share Tilting – Resettlement, a commentary on relocation that incorporates projected images of Corner Brook native Glen Gear’s short film “Float Home”.

“I had seen footage from between the 1950s and 70s when there was a resettlement program, and people were floating their homes … and (it) was, to me, just completely beautiful, courageous,” Nilklas-Gordon recently told The Independent from her home in Toronto. “It’s one thing to move your house in boxes but it’s another to actually physically remove your home from its location and put it on stormy seas and take it across the water. So that in itself was really the start … and then I really wanted to have more historical footage, so I went on YouTube and I found this little short film called ‘Float Home’. I didn’t know Glen at the time but I loved the film; it was done in a really whimsical way.”

Images from Gear’s film serve as the colourful backdrop for Tilting – Resettlement, which Niklas-Gordon describes as a piece “about people moving, but also about relocating, whether it be the way I’m portraying it or just people moving from one country to another, or home to home. I think it sort of takes us of our axis a little bit — we have to readjust to a lot of things.”

Beauty and the Streets

Concurrent events run Thursday-Friday at the Arts & Culture Centre’s Third Floor Gallery Space (New York City artist Karen Bernard’s “Ouette”) and Friday-Saturday at Atlantic Place and Rocket Room (Toronto artist Eroca Nicols’ “Made To Order”).

In the midst of what Porter describes as “a lot of softness and beauty and nostalgia” in this year’s programming, the festival moves back to the Arts & Culture Centre Saturday evening for “IZM”, the latest work of breakdance hip hop choreographer Crazy Smooth and Ottawa street dance group BBOYIZM. Then, with an interdisciplinary collaboration between Neighbourhood Dance Works and the MUN School of Music, the festival will draw to a close Sunday evening at the D.F. Cook Recital Hall with The Pierrot Project’s “Pierrot Lunaire”. Led by Krista Vincent, this “cabaret-influenced melodrama” integrates live chamber music, singing, poetry, dance (from choreographer Lynn Panting) and video (from Michael Waterman).

Full circle for a former idea

Though some of the festival’s bigger attractions are from away, the diversity of talent it showcases is indicative of a wider trend in the growing contemporary dance community, both here and on the mainland.

“It’s coming full circle,” says Porter. “On the professional side (and) the semi-professional side there’s a huge burst in the training world, the dance schools. I guess with the advent of dance and all that TV pushing of dance, the dance school world has exploded and there are more and more young dancers who are furious about commercial dancing, or hip hop, and they’re at it and working really hard, so there’s a much higher skill level coming out of dance schools, and I find that amazing.”

For more information, including a full festival schedule, dancer bios and ticket information, visit the Festival of New Dance’s web site.

Justin Brake is an independent journalist from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, Newfoundland) who currently lives and works on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa. He is of mixed settler and Mi'kmaq descent and focuses much of his attention on Indigenous rights and liberation, social justice, climate action and decolonization. He has worked in various capacities for CBC, The Telegram, APTN News and The Independent, and is actively exploring new forms and styles of journalistic storytelling through emerging frameworks like movement journalism and systems journalism.