Newfoundland and Labrador has its share of festivals – even international ones – but one that is especially dear to organizer Ruth Lawrence’s heart is the Festival of New Dance, running Oct. 8-13 in St. John’s.

Now in its 23rd year, the festival has developed a reputation as one of North America’s premiere showcases for contemporary dance. Each year applications flood in from across Canada and the US, and recent years have seen a growing interest from further abroad as well.

Organizers are consistently challenged to balance festival programming in a way that it appeals both to professional dancers and dance enthusiasts, as well as broader members of the public who may be curious about contemporary dance. The goal of this process, for organizers like Lawrence, is to provide a festival that’s accessible and exciting for audiences of all interests and backgrounds.

This year features a combination of returning performers, including George Stamos, Tina Fushell, and Sarah Joy Stoker, and first-time appearances by the likes of Virginie Brunelle and Amber Funk Barton. Maya M. Carroll is traveling from Germany to Newfoundland to make her debut appearance in Canada.

Contemporary dance doesn’t exist in a vacuum, any more than other forms of creative work. The dismal economic situation and prohibitive travel costs mean dance companies have found it increasingly difficult to organize large-scale tours, so many of the performances taking place these days are solo shows.

Much to look forward to

Lawrence is hesitant to single out any particular pieces she’s particularly excited about and feels there’s a lot for the broader community audience to look forward to. She flagged the Friday night show with Virginie Brunelle – “a large company of dancers from Montreal with a gorgeous show that has many layers, from comedy to drama” – which the festival has paired with “a funny and sweet piece” by local dancer Catherine Wright.

Some of the performers have garnered significant local followings and are well known to the local arts scene; among them are local dance superstar Sarah Joy Stoker and multi-talented musician and arts doyen Liz Solo, who’s performing a piece Friday night that blends hybrid reality projections with live choreography.

Lawrence is also excited about the Festival’s closing show featuring Mortified, a two-woman dance band (comprised of Jenn Goodwin and Camilla Singh) who will “present a whole song set with drums, pompoms and lots of creativity.”

One of the benefits of organizing a provincial dance festival is the ability to showcase the very diverse range of dance that’s being cultivated and developed from all corners of the province. This year even features a group of young dancers from Labrador.

A window to our many worlds

Some might consider dance to be a very specific and exclusive interest. Lawrence does not. For her, dance offers a unique window into understanding our collective experience and our own cultures.

George Stamos "Liklik Pik"
George Stamos’ “Liklik Pik” is an intimate male duet emphasizing friendship while following imaginative impulses and tangents along the way. Photo by Johnny Ranger.

“The reason I started going to see dance all those years ago was because I realized that if I wanted to see artists from around the world, experience what was new and explore other worlds, so to speak, the most accessible way to do that was to attend the festival. The Festival of New Dance brings artists from afar right to our doorstep and presents our own artists right beside them. Many of the shows are highly theatrical, the discipline and talent is extraordinary – not just from the dancers and choreographers but also the light and stage design quite often. Though our own dance community is small, I am continually impressed by the work being created here.”

Those who live here are proud of our artistic heritage and local culture, but many aren’t aware just how significant a role contemporary dance has come to play within that scene. Local performers such as Anne Troake, Sarah Joy Stoker, Caroline Niklas Gordon, and Louise Moyes have all made significant names for themselves both locally and nationally while contributing to the development of a vibrant local dance culture. Lawrence also notes that Christopher House, a native of St. John’s, is the Artistic Director of the Toronto Dance Theatre, which she describes as one of the top contemporary dance companies in Canada.

“We have a strong dance community here and it feeds directly into and informs other disciplines – theatre, film, music, circus, visual art, et cetera – much more significantly than most people might think.”

Yet getting the word out and convincing the broader public of the appeal of contemporary dance remains a challenge. While the smaller audience sizes can create a more intimate atmosphere for those attending the performances, Lawrence hopes those audiences will continue to grow. She’s surprised the festival remains under the radar for so many of the city’s culture consumers.

“I find that, in particular, puzzling in St. John’s. Here we have an international festival that is recognized across Canada as being one of the best, yet we have to work really hard each year to get people out to see the shows. While other festivals our age, and younger, are selling out two weeks in advance, we meet people every day who have never been to or heard of this extraordinary event in its 23 year history.”

Yet she feels that’s beginning to change. She’s encouraged by the diversity and the enthusiasm that’s characterized audience engagement in recent years, and thinks it reflects the innate creative energies of the province. A professional filmmaker of considerable renown herself, she’s seen the tremendous growth in enthusiasm around the provincial filmmaking industry, and expects it’s only a matter of time until that audience energy spills over into dance.

“Newfoundlanders are extreme consumers when it comes to culture. I think it’s what makes life here so interesting and unique. Once people start going to the dance festival regularly, I think a similar effect will occur in that discipline as is occurring in film…we’ll see an audience expectation and our artists will be supported, challenged – which is what every artist wants – and inspired to create more work, knowing that the audience is waiting to see it.”

Like a beautiful song

Sarah Boyd

Choreographed by Tammy MacLeod and featuring Liz Solo, "Dance Me" is a choreographed performance developed through months of improvisation and play with movement, props and projected media. The live performer enters and explores Super 8 and large-scale data projections – metaphors for different eras of time – in a hybrid-reality choreography that unites her multiple identities. Photo by Rhonda Pelley.
Choreographed by Tammy MacLeod and featuring Liz Solo, “Dance Me” is a choreographed performance developed through months of improvisation and play with movement, props and projected media. Photo by Rhonda Pelley.

Lawrence likens the experience of encountering contemporary dance for the first time to the process of discovering “a beautiful song that brings a lump to your throat”. She says many people have a preconceived notion of what contemporary dance is, and that whatever that notion is, those attending the festival for the first time “can expect to have their experiences shattered.” She says the experience is much like being forced to study poetry or literature in high school – in a dry, clinical way – and then several years later discovering a beautiful poem that actually makes you realize, “That’s not the poetry I read in high school! Contemporary dance is the same for many people.”

So what exactly can attendees expect?

“We’ve presented pieces ranging in inspiration from b-boy to ballet, pieces inspired by CSI – yes, the CSI on TV – or by a wedding dress. Some pieces have had dancers swinging from trees, tumbling down the concrete steps between Duckworth and Water Street, or dancing in retail store windows. Some pieces have had performers dressed as sheep – and being sheared! – and in massive dryer vent tubing, and some haven’t been dressed at all … Some things you have to see to believe or understand and I think that’s the nature of most art experiences. So expect anything.

“If you are a curious person who is interested in the world we live in and how we live and move in it, I think you’ll find something that will intrigue you at the Festival of New Dance.”

The 23rd Annual Festival of New Dance runs Oct. 8 – 13 in St. John’s. For schedule and ticket information, check out the festival’s website.