We had the chance to ask Michael deConinck Smith, Managing Director, Deborah Lundmark, Artistic Director and Natasha Poon Woo, Rehearsal Director of the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre a few questions about their company. This is a great opportunity to learn a little bit more about a unique group working with professional young dancers.
GD: CCDT dancers are all 13-19 years old, and yet they are all already professional dancers. Can you tell us a bit about what a week in the life of a CCDT dancer looks like.?
CCDT: Company dancers train around 20-25 hours a week at our studios, in both technique classes, conditioning, and repertoire rehearsals. On weekdays they are regular school students, so all dance training takes place outside of school hours. The dancers take 6-7 technique classes (RAD ballet, Limón modern, and contemporary classes with guest instructors) and one Conditioning with Imagery class throughout the week, with Thursdays as a rest day. Repertoire rehearsals take place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday each week, totalling about 12-15 hours a weekend. Our dancers learn excellent time management skills in order to balance their dance training and rehearsals with their school work, and everything else that comes up in between!
Show weeks are a different story — the dancers often miss a handful of school days a few times a year for touring and performances with CCDT. Because much of CCDT’s season includes performing for student audiences, many of our shows are weekday matinees, which means taking our Company dancers out of school. Touring and performance weeks usually involve one full day of technical rehearsals, followed by 2-5 days of shows (and often two shows per day). Especially in these theatre weeks, CCDT operates just like any other professional company: early morning warm ups, performances followed by notes, daily leisure time, and meals out together as a company. Frequent shows throughout our season allow our dancers to quickly learn how to adapt to new performance venues, bond with their colleagues, and cultivate and refine their artistry through repeated performances of our repertoire.
GD: What have been some highlights and challenges for the company over the years? What would you like to see moving forward into the future for contemporary dance?
CCDT: Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre, Challenges and Highlights, 1980 to 2018
The biggest challenge CCDT has faced was translating the idea that there is a place for young people performing dance as an art form for the general public, into reality. In 1980 the only performance options for young dancers were studio recitals for friends and family or competitions where dance was adjudicated, more like a sport, again with no public audience. Not much has changed with respect to these options – competitions still dominate “the industry”, though they do not prepare young dancers well for post-secondary artistry essential to a career in the performing arts. In spite of CCDT’s later successes - highlighted by some critical acclaim, generous arts council support, a broadening audience and higher profile guest choreographers - that credibility challenge has never completely gone away.
Solving a second challenge in the early years proved to be key to solving the original credibility issue - how to identify a common language of dance that was appropriate to younger dancers and, once internalized and shared, would have a collection of individuals begin to look like a Company. Toronto Dance Theatre with its powerfully defined Graham technique provided a perfect example but that technique demanded a degree of maturity beyond most of CCDT dancers’ reach. Then, in our 1987/88 season, Donna Krasnow arrived in Toronto and solved that challenge. Her deep understanding of the Limón technique with its free flowing, almost playful suspension and release principles, soon became a unifying syllabus suitable to children as young as seven.
Commissions that same season by “Limonesque” choreographers Carol Anderson and Holly Small and one by TDT’s David Earle that fused Graham and Limón, had The Globe and Mail proclaiming CCDT a “National Treasure” and Premiere Dance Theatre audiences springing to their feet – not to be forgotten highlights for an obscure Company barely seven years old. A subsequent three-week tour to the People’s Republic of China established the Company’s international credibility and returning to share the YTV Youth Arts Award with The Barenaked Ladies provided some indication of its increasing popular appeal.
CCDT’s third challenge was one shared by all new companies – finding a secure home. After fourteen years of hourly rentals and month to month leases, the purchase of the former Carlton Cinema and CBC AM Radio building on Parliament Street brought stability to the Company and the associated School. It also helped deepen CCDT’s role in the dance community as a reliable provider of workspace while increasing opportunities for our dancers to cross paths and collaborate with more senior artists. Among these visiting artists was Carla Maxwell, The José Limón Dance Company’s Artistic Director. She saw in CCDT dancers, uniquely steeped in her own Company’s technique, future Limon Company members and immediately launched 19 year old Kristen Foote on her seventeen year career with the NYC-based Company, the first of four CCDT dancers to join.
Regular residencies by Limón artists culminated with six commissions by Colin Connor, a former member of that Company who has gone on to become its new Artistic Director. This unique sister-companies relationship culminated in 2015 when CCDT was invited to perform Jose’s The Winged as part of The Limón International Dance Festival celebrating their 70th anniversary. Those performances in New York’s storied Joyce Theater, met with standing ovations, will forever remain the highlight of our many years as CCDT Founders.
CCDT: With respect to the future of contemporary dance in Canada, we would hope to see more studios recognize the constructive role that modern dance technique and movement improvisation can play in the development of young dancers. In terms of dance-as-art rather than competitive sport, Performing Arts High Schools and University programs are setting an excellent example for commercial studios to consider. In terms of public funding, no art form can flourish without generous support from arts councils and contemporary dance has found itself squeezed between extremely well-funded large ballet companies and a surge of multi-cultural dance genres that, while equally worthy of consideration, leave all barely viable. This condition is more evident with dance than theatre or music and should provide Councils the incentive for increased funding allotted to dance disciplines. One result of under-funding is the presentation of contemporary repertoire that has not had the more rigorous preparation characteristic of the other performing arts. The development of both artists and audiences is set back as a consequence.
Don’t forget to check out CCDT’s performance of SEEDS.whisper on Friday June 1st as part of the On the Stage A series, taking place at the River Run Centre at 8:30pm.