Theatrical dance is an art of fusion. Movement, its essential substance, exists only as interpreted through the human body. Choreographic visions are almost always enhanced by costumes, decor and lighting, and animated by music or a soundscape. Movement itself has been rooted in cultural traditions. BALLET, for example, an aristocratic form of Western dance, reflects the elegance and decorum of the courts of the Italian Renaissance where it began. MODERN DANCE has often been thought of as a revolution toward a more individualistic style and democratic philosophy; a revolution, however, only in the context of a culture with European roots. Many of the early modern dancers understood the universality of dance as a form of expression. Pioneer modern dance creators, including Ruth St Denis, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, began to borrow and revive powerful ancient and non-European traditions, symbols and mythology through their dances.
In Canada, a tradition of ritual dance among native people preceded the arrival of British and French settlers. The dance that the new settlers brought with them was based on European court dancing or folk forms. The theatrical dance that emerged from their burgeoning culture was based on European ballet traditions. Native forms of dance were all but obliterated in the spread of European-dominated culture.
Today, dance is characterized by a growing respect for diversity, and by an animated interest in embracing a broader spectrum of dance traditions. A parallel exists in the growth of WORLD MUSIC, which has both challenged and extended Western music. The fertile meeting and blending of many dance traditions has seeded a fluid, constantly evolving dance form that can be best described as dance fusion.
Dance is always sensitive to social and political change. Contemporary dance expression in Canada mirrors the increasingly multicultural nature of Canadian society. The result is a potent brew of dance traditions and the creation of dance works characterized by a sense of dynamic cultural expansion.
From the 1970s through the beginning of the new millennium Canada has been enriched and changed by the immigration of people from the Caribbean, Africa and South and Southeast Asia. When these new Canadians settled into Canadian society, they encountered an indigenous Canadian concert dance culture derived from European and American sources. The first ballet and modern dance did not reflect the experience of recent immigrants.
Now, with a broader acceptance of and respect for cultural diversity, many dance artists of differing backgrounds work in collaboration, exploring the expressive potential of each other's dance traditions. Many artists work in exploratory ways; the example of certain artists can serve to illuminate the field as a whole.
Karen JAMIESON is one such explorer. Her deep knowledge of anthropology and her fascination with dance have led her to integrate native dances, which are essentially sacred, into her choreography. Her Vancouver-based company has given performances of the resultant rituals on sacred ground, by permission of the native people who "own" the work.
Before Jamieson, Paula ROSS, also then based in Vancouver, worked out of a tangle of traditions - her native heritage, her Scottish blood, her Canadian birth. Coming Together, a strong work from the 1970s, had its source in her sadness at the high number of native people in Canada's prisons.
Chinook Winds Aboriginal Dance Program is based at the BANFF CENTRE. The innovative company Chinook Winds, founded in 1996, annually draws together young aboriginal dance artists of many nations for performance and study of all aspects of stagecraft. In August 2001, Bones, the first aboriginal dance/opera, with choreography by program and company director Alejandro Roncerias, premiered at the Banff Centre.
Many contemporary dance creators fuse cultures and styles, drawing on dance from India, Japan, China, Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia as well as from Spain and dances of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. The main centres of this work are Vancouver, with a strong Asian presence, and Toronto, which is a rich cosmopolitan stew.
One of the strongest non-European dance traditions in Canada is East Indian classical dance. Kala Nidhi, a festival of East Indian dance launched in 1993, focused international attention on Toronto as a centre of this dance. The festival performances have found an audience in the wider dance community as well as in the large local Indian community. Among the dedicated artists who have created this excellence, three stand out: Menaka THAKKAR, Rina Singha and Lata Pada. All work in the Toronto area.
Thakkar has danced and performed in Canada for more than 25 years. In 1997 she presented a work titled Duality, created with choreographer Claudia Moore. The two dancers found their dialogue in the physical play of footwork and rhythm, and in exchanging ideas about the narrative and expressive approaches of Indian and Western dance. The result was a work that delineated differences in the way the two women charged the space, Menaka Thakkar drawing energy in, Claudia Moore shooting it out. Their work spoke of two philosophies of what the dancing body says, one the reflected image of devotion, the other a conduit of energies.
Rina Singha, Indian classical dancer and Biblical scholar, has combined her interests in dances based on Indian Christian texts. As well, she has collaborated with choreographer Danny GROSSMAN on the creation of And it shall come to pass... (1996), based on an apocalyptic text from the Book of Revelation. Lata Pada, expert in the classic Indian form of Bharatanatyam, collaborates with dancers in other distinct Indian dance forms, including Odissi and Kathak. In Toronto, Joanna Das, a blonde, blue-eyed Kathak dancer, collaborates with Esmerelda Enrique, a Spanish dancer. Rhythm, gesture, footwork and music are the elements used to create cultural links.
In recent years Denise Fujiwara, with a personal foundation in dance improvisation, ballet, acting and gymnastics, has been mining concepts of time and performance that she discovered through collaboration with Natsu Nakajima, a master of Japanese butoh dance. Fujiwara and Allen Kaeja founded the CanAsian Dance Festival (1997), a forum that convenes once every two years for artists of Asian heritage. Ottawa artist Tedd Robinson creates a unique theatrical signature with works that draw on his years of Buddhist monkhood, his contemporary dance background and his study with Lindsay Kemp.
Jau Hirabayashi and Barbara Bourget, founders of Vancouver's KOKORO, work from a base that stretches to include the diverse aesthetics of ballet, contact dance and butoh. Peter Chin, a Toronto-based artist, brings together in dance his own Asian and Caribbean roots, his interest in design, fabric and decor, and the blend of Western and Indonesian musical knowledge that underpins the music he composes for his dance rituals. Maxine Heppner pursues her career in Canada and Indonesia; her series Across Oceans creates cultural bridges.
A Montréal-based artist who understands the energy release of cultural meeting is Roger Sinha. His work Burning Skin (1992) brought him attention as a creator of angry dances that deal with racial tensions. His work melds gestural detail from East Indian dance, coiled power from his martial arts background and a kinetic intensity that is his own. His work is disturbing; its forceful imagery shadowed by violence.
Many black dance artists are promoting and presenting work based either on a fusion of styles or on indigenous forms. Patrick Parsons's Ballet Creole blends Caribbean music and dance with Parsons's Graham training. Eddison Lindsay is both choreographer and designer for COBA (Coalition of Black Artists), started with Charmain Headley in 1993. He is a skilful proponent of indigenous Caribbean dance, and has created such works as Distant Voices (1995) and Danse Bélé (1995). The company works with traditional African dance, music and folklore and Caribbean folk dance, presenting ritual for the theatre in the purest form possible. As well, the company explores contemporary style. Toronto choreographer Ronald Taylor borrows from modern dance in creating new role models in works for his company Canboulay. He has also collaborated with Lata Pada. Choreographer and dance activist Vivine Scarlett's DanceImmersion is an annual Toronto showcase of black Canadian dance.
Much of the work that emerges from such complex, interwoven interests is exploratory. There is tremendous energy in these meetings. Exploration of today becomes the point of departure for emerging generations of dance artists.
Not all dance fusion is about the meeting of cultural traditions. Many contemporary dance artists are interested in expanding the possibilities of dance expression by exploring other media - theatre, film, video, the spoken word, visual art and architecture.
Paul-André FORTIER's creations from the 1990s such as Bras de plomb, La tentation de la transparence and a remarkable hour-long solo for Peggy BAKER, Loin très loin (2000), are notable for their strong symbolism and links to visual art. Fortier's contemporary Danielle Léveillé has created dark social commentary that mines the essence of dance and theatre. Ginette LAURIN's work for her company O Vertigo explores new physical territory for each new work she creates. The dancers' training in activities as different as skydiving and pointe work are called into play in her work. Laurin collaborates closely with designers in creating the settings and decor for her work - La chambre blanche was a beautiful example. Her work has a challenging range, from pop reflections (Chevy Dream) to the supernatural (Train d'enfer), and is stated in an idiosyncratic, deeply physical, heightened stage language.
Edouard LOCK's work for his spectacularly successful Montréal-based company La La La Human Steps has borrowed from the world of rock concerts. His work is sensational, physically risky and supercharged kinetically, incorporating gigantic close-up films, graffiti and pop music as special effects.
The internationally renowned Jean-Pierre PERREAULT altered the scale of dance so radically that his work must be considered architecturally. The huge ramps he used in Joe (1983) and Stella (1985) were integral to these landmark works, as was the extended stage of his 1986 work Nuit. In 2001 his work The Comforts of Solitude was premiered by the National Ballet of Canada. Perreault was also known as a visual artist, for his paintings and choreographic drawings on paper.
In Toronto, Bill James, with roots in the experimentalism of LE GROUPE DE LA PLACE ROYALE, has become noted for site-specific works that tap deeply into extra-European traditions while exploiting the potential of mixed media.
Vancouver-based Conrad Alexandrowicz works with a unique blend of original text and dance movement to create physical theatre. His play The Wines of Tuscany (1996) shows all these strands brought together. JUMPSTART PERFORMANCE SOCIETY, another Vancouver company, draws on its director Lee Eisler's talents and the allure that film creation holds for her. JumpStart, founded by Eisler, a former Olympic competitor, and writer Nelson Gray, is notable for its blend of text, live music, film and an athletic, flat-out, long-phrased movement style. HOLY BODY TATTOO is acclaimed for the striking theatricality created by film, music and the no-holds-barred physicality of Dana Gingras and Noam Gagnon in works such as their tango-inspired Circa (2000).
Dance, always a sensitive plant, twists toward the light, changes and germinates new reflections of the moral and physical characteristics of a time. A dynamic art, laced with challenging variations and redefinitions of its American and European roots, dance reseeds itself with great vitality, throwing off forms and expressions that fuse and blend traditions and cultures in remarkable ways.