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How to Understand Contemporary Dance Shows

Last year, I watched Yvonne Ng once dance a duet with Robert Glumbek at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario. It was called “Stone Velvet,” and is a well-known piece within the contemporary dance world.

I loved it. To me, the dance was about taking care of one another. The next day, I fervently searched online for the “real meaning” of the piece. I learned instead that Tedd Robinson, the choreographer, had approached the piece more as a choreographic challenge. In other words, there wasn’t an “intended meaning.” I was disappointed that he wasn’t “trying to say” something. This month, more than a year later, I got a chance to talk to Ng about contemporary dance. As we talked, I realized I needed to adjust how I appreciated this beautiful, varied, and sometimes even controversial dance form.

Yvonne Ng and Robert Glumbek in “Stone Velvet.”

Ng is a dancer, choreographer, presenter, producer, curator, and arts educator. She is the artistic director and creative instigator behind tiger princess dance projects, which has been in operation since 1996, and founded the presentation series dance: made in canada / fait au canada, in 2001.

Contemporary Dance: A Different Kind of Show

If you’ve ever attended a musical, you likely knew the plot before you bought tickets. If you love the dance competitions on TV, each dance has a verbal introduction that shares with you the dance’s background. This is the commercial world, and it makes lots of money, in part because audiences know what to expect and how to interpret it.

Now, imagine going to a show where none of that happens, where it’s the choreographer and their dancers saying, “We have an idea we’ve chosen to explore, we’re going to show it to you, and you can decide if you like it or not. When we’re done, all we ask is that you let others know what you liked and didn’t like and encourage them to come out and see our work for themselves.”

That’s a very different approach from the commercial world, isn’t it?

Give me a few minutes of your time and let me—and Ng—explain why contemporary dance choreography typically works in a different way. With any luck, I hope to entice you to try something new and see a show.

If I Won’t Enjoy it, Why Go?

Ng understands this concern. “We make a lot of art and some people are a little bit worried when they know it’s dance.”

Despite my love of dance, I have to admit that I sometimes feel this way, too, about contemporary dance.

“Contemporary art is challenging because it’s non-linear. It’s a collection of images,” says Ng. She explains that the images do tie together, but it’s not always in a way your brain is used to. In addition, because contemporary artists come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s impossible to approach their work in a single way.

“So sometimes it has a very theatrical feel and sometimes it’s very pure movement and sometimes it’s very minimalist. Not everyone continues to work in the same vein,” she says.

Then How Do I Watch Contemporary Dance?

Ng compares a contemporary dance show with a potluck party: you don’t know what you’re going to get.

This means coming to the show with not only an open mind but also with acceptance that there will be some mystery. Because contemporary dance often revolves around the choreographer’s exploration of an idea, approach the show with a blank mind and see what you see. When Ng goes to a show, she expects to be fed something, but not a narrative.

“I try not to make too much sense of it,” she says. “I just try to absorb it and I find that sometimes a narrative might emerge. Sometimes the creator wants you to get that, but sometimes he just wants you to get that feeling and the sensation of that concept. It doesn’t have to match, word for word, your experience [of it] with the concept.”

Delete Those English Lit Classes from Your Mind

Two men in a contemporary dance piece called Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse.
Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse in ​La vie attend.​ Photo by Guzzo Desforges. Yvonne Ng curated this as part of the 2019 festival dance: made in canada/fait au canada.

You may remember high school English class, where you thought you had to figure out what the author was trying to say in order to “understand” the book. Because you obviously couldn’t figure that out, you felt like you failed as an English student. The good news is you can let go of that feeling of failure. When you read, just focus on what you see, not what you think the author wants you to see.

It’s the same with dance. Ng believes that the fear many have with contemporary choreography is that they believe there’s one message or intent they’re supposed to understand.

“But I believe for a lot of choreographers and great creators, we’re not wanting you to have the same identical experience,” she explains.

Let’s look at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. If you’ve seen it, did you sit there and ask yourself what Lloyd Webber was trying to say? I imagine not. When I was 14 and saw it for the first time, I was amazed by all of it. Now, in my 40s, I step back and wonder why I love a musical about a narcissistic murderer who stalks a naive woman half his age while terrorizing those who love her, including committing arson. It’s the kind of thriller that would give me nightmares, and yet it never does, because I’m so focused on the love story.

But with women’s voices becoming louder by the day, suddenly a classic musical like Phantom takes on a whole new meaning. And still no one asks: What was Andrew Lloyd Webber actually trying to say with this creation?

So why do we think we have to figure out what a contemporary dance choreographer is “trying to say”?

Contemporary Dance Needs You to Have Your Own Experience

It’s a bit funny when you think about it: We expect so many services and messages to be individualized just to us, yet we still crave entertainment that millions of others have approved.

Contemporary dance creators want you to have your own reaction,  they want you to talk about their work, the good and the bad of it. Whereas commercial dance emphasizes the group, contemporary dance emphasizes the individual. After all, how much can you say when you think the same thing as the person next to you?

(That happened to me in a reading group once. We all loved the book so much that we found it difficult to start a discussion.)

“An audience member should feel there is no obligation that your experience is going to match the person sitting next to you.” 

Yvonne Ng

That comment opened up my eyes. Just like when I was watching “Stone Velvet,” anytime I’ve seen a contemporary dance piece, I have truly wondered if I was missing something that everyone else was getting.

What I was missing was my own thoughts on the show.

“When you bring yourself to the theatre, you are going to bring your previous history. So that informs how you experienced the work that you see,” says Ng.

In other words, contemporary dance wants you to be you, see you, and feel you. It doesn’t expect you to be someone you’re not. You can actually let yourself go, leave your expectations behind, and just experience.

Quite frankly, that sounds refreshing.

Give Contemporary Dance a Few Tries

Contemporary dance choreographers are as unique as your own fingerprints. If you try one and don’t like them, first ask yourself if you entered the theatre with the same expectations you would have of a commercial piece. Then try another contemporary dance choreographer and see how you do or don’t like their work.

However, if you’re still too nervous to take the plunge and pay for a ticket to a show you may not enjoy, check out dance publications, like The Dance Current*, and read reviews and stories about different choreographers. You may find yourself discovering a new form of art that leads you to discover something about yourself.

*Full disclosure: I’ve written for The Dance Current before. However, it’s the only remaining dance magazine that’s about the dance scene in Canada.

dance: made in canada/fait au canada runs August 14-18, 2019. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

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How Essentrics® Fits with My Writing Business

by Christine Peets, Captions Communications 

Your first question might be, “What is Essentrics®?” The answer: a fitness program designed to re-balance the body through simultaneous stretching and strengthening all of the muscles and rebalancing the joints. Now, your second question: “How does this fitness program fit your writing business?” 

Essentrics® not only rebalances my body; it rebalances my work, and by extension, my life. 

Writing is a solitary occupation. You work alone either at home or in an office you’ve set up. You might do some writing in a café or library so you’re around other people but you are still working, writing, alone. Being in a group fitness class ends that isolation. It balances the need for solitude and quiet with the need for social interaction and some noise. Writing is also a sedentary activity.  So the passive activity has to be balanced with something more active. Some writers run; others bike; some go to a gym for a workout. I do Essentrics® I do it at home on my own, I lead three or four classes a week and I try to take a class once a week. If you want to try it look on the Essentrics® websiteto find a class near you, or check out the videos on the site to try the exercises at home. So what is it about Essentrics® that I love so much? 

Although I try to get up and move around, taking regular breaks while I’m working, the truth is that I can wind up sitting for waaaaayyyy too long. Sound familiar? My problem is that I have fibromyalgia, a syndrome of muscular fatigue and pain that is often centred in my lower back and hips. It is occasionally in my neck, shoulders and upper arms. Sitting for too long is not good for any of this. In fact pain can set in fairly quickly. Doing the Essentrics® exercises, even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes, goes a long way to stretch and strengthen those muscles and reduce the pain. Many days are actually pain-free, but only if I do the exercises. Some of the women in my classes also have fibromyalgia or sciatica and they tell me that that the exercises help. Getting together with others to exercise is important to me. It’s hard to motivate yourself to exercise alone. That’s why I teach: I have to show up. No excuses. Anything done with friends is always better and many of my students have become friends.

Once I have done my class and enjoyed some social time I am in a better mood emotionally and I feel better physically. I’m ready to get down to work. I can concentrate better and my writing comes easier. 

When you balance physical exercise with the mental exercise of writing, it is all positive. Check out Essentrics® for yourself and see if this program works for you. You can check out my website to see some videos and testimonials. Whatever you do, keep moving so that you can rebalance your work, and your life. 

Christine Peets is an Apprentice Essentrics® instructor in Napanee, ON. She hopes to have her Level 1 Certification this month. Learn more about her work at https://ChristinePeets.ca

You can reach her at Christine@ChristinePeets.ca

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“Between Worlds” Now Available in Large Print Edition

Cover for "Between Worlds 3: The First Step." On the left, in a muted image, is a teenage woman in a peasant dress, with a long apron and a shawl and headscarf. She's leaning against a tree. On the right, on what looks like the same tree, is a modern teenager girl wearing a bright winter jacket, a toque, and mitts. A cityscape is behind her.

Sophie Morgan, a supporting character in Between Worlds, is twelve and has juvenile macular degeneration. Aside from attempting to improve accessibility for my readers in general, it also seemed appropriate to offer the novels in large print edition because of Sophie. However, trying to learn what the norm for large print edition books actually is proved more difficult than I had thought.

Large Print, Small Selection

When I checked a major book store’s large print books section, I mistakenly thought all the packaged series books were the large print ones. Although there was no other indication on the packaging that these books were large print, they were on the shelf that had “large print” and “audio” on its label. (“Series” must have been there, too, but I probably developed tunnel vision once I saw “large print.”)

I wanted to see what large print looked like so I could produce it for my readers. However, with all these “large print” books wrapped in plastic, I couldn’t look inside. So, I went home.

Best Practices for Large Print

Online, I found the American Council of the Blinds’ best practices for developing large print materials. I read through them and did the best I could to reproduce them in book format:

  • 22-point sans serif bold font
  • 1.5 line spacing
  • left alignment for all text
  • no italics
  • asterisks to denote indented passages, like letters and Bible excerpts (necessary for the historical time line).

I’m certain some areas could use improvement, but the document said that the most important factors in creating large print books for the low-vision community were spacing, font size, contrast, and font style, and in that order. I think I got those okay.

Ensuring Large Print Editions Are Readable

It’s impossible to approximate with my own eyes how someone with low vision sees. I can blur my vision, but that’s not the same thing. Thankfully, an acquaintance of mine out West, Kyle Bergum, volunteers as an advocate for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. He agreed to evaluate the first large print copy of The Move.

How Kyle found time in between his career as a senior IT leader, work as an opera singer and voice over artist, and his volunteer role, I’ll never know. But somehow he did. When the first book got his blessing, I went ahead with The Distance and The First Step. All three books are now available as large print editions, and you should be able to order them online at major retailers or at your favourite book store, including many independent book stores. (They likely won’t be on any shelves, though.)

Large Print Books Are Not Cheap

All three books finally arrived in my home office last month. Because of their thickness, they cost more than the regular print ones. It’s a long story as to why I priced them at $18.99 CAD, but that was as cheap as I could make it if I hoped to support small book stores who should be able to order them in for their customers.

That Was Large Print?

A few weeks after that first visit, I finally woke up and noticed that the large print section was indeed where I was looking, except it took up a shelf-and-a-half further up. (I wondered how someone with low vision would ever find those—I’m 5’9” and had to look up.) When I finally opened one up, I was shocked: The font looked barely larger than that found in a child’s chapter book and it didn’t follow most of the ACB guidelines I’d read about and tried to follow. In fact, it looked more like a relaxing read for me, and I can read really tiny print.

So, there you have it. Between Worlds is available not only in ebooks and regular print formats, but also in large print that follows the guidelines of the American Council for the Blind. You can watch the video below if you’d like to see what that looks like.

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Writing Novels about Dance

Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.

How to Write about Dance in Fiction?

So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.

Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?

I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.

As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.

How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?

When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)

So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?

Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.

Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?

Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.

Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.

Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?

If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.

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What Does It Mean When a Story is “Inspired by” Something?

As a writer, I have my fingers typing away at many different projects, which keeps my creativity flowing. Today’s topic is my young adult series, Between Worlds, and the historical protagonist, Elisabeth. Elisabeth’s story is historical fiction, which means her timeline is based on documented facts about her time period. But does that mean Elisabeth really existed? Yes and no. Elisabeth Schuhmacher was inspired by a person who did exist, but she is not based on that person.

What’s the difference?

Writing About Real People in Fiction

There are two people who did actually live in the historical timeline of Between Worlds: Herr Blum, the teacher for the school that housed grades three to six, and Pastor Fröhlich, the Lutheran church pastor. They act as anchors in that time. I have some information about Pastor Fröhlich, who was apparently a controversial figure in the village, but I have almost nothing about Herr Blum.

However, if I need either of these figures in a novel, I’ll have to fill in all the holes. I’m comfortable doing that with the pastor, because he’s down in the congregation’s minutes as causing a lot of issues. Writing about Herr Blum, though, is more difficult because of the lack of information on him, so you probably won’t actually see or hear him too often.

But besides those two, I generally avoid writing about real people in my fiction for three reasons:

  1. There’s often too little information to create a fully fleshed character.
  2. No one likes having their negative sides on display in public.
  3. A good story requires showing characters’ negative sides.

So I started with someone and built a character from that starting point. In other words, a real person was the inspiration for Elisabeth. 

Who Was the Inspiration for Elisabeth?

A teenager in 1917 or so reading a magazine

Elisabeth was inspired by a great grandmother of mine, Katharina Wolf. But Elisabeth Schuhmacher is not Katharina Wolf

Katharina was born in 1901 in Semlak, Hungary. I only know her through a few stories in the family and several postcards she had written, though, because her son, my grandfather, died before I turned nine. Katharina got stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Romania, so she could never leave to travel to Canada, and for a period of time, Romania had also remained closed to travellers. Sadly, by the time her son and his family could travel to Romania to visit her, she had died.

Katharina strikes me as an outspoken woman who placed family above all else. One of these postcards (or, more accurately, photos with a letter on the back) was her “most cherished”: it showed her father in his coffin, with her family standing behind him. (It was normal to take photos of deceased ones back then.) She numbered each person, and on the back wrote down who they were. This was all so my mom would know her father’s family.

Where Does Katharina End and Elisabeth Begin?

Elisabeth is outspoken and does get herself into trouble because of that. She was born a few years later, in 1905, but also in Semlak. Like Katharina’s father in real life, Elisabeth’s traveled overseas, to Pennsylvania, too.

Cover of "Between Worlds 1: The Move," by Lori Wolf-Heffner
Cover design by Angela Donelle

However, I have no idea what Katharina’s childhood was like, what she thought about the war, if she had an opinion on what we nowadays call PTSD, what she liked to eat, what she disliked…I have no information on any of that.

In addition, photos I have of Katharina suggest she began modernizing her personal fashion around 1917. (This assumption comes from some of the research I had done in Romania for Between Worlds 3.) Elisabeth, in contrast, still follows the traditional style of dress in 1920. (But keep reading the series, and you’ll see that eventually change.)

If I had based Elisabeth on Katharina, I would have had to make a lot of assumptions about someone whom some people alive today will have known, and that’s just not fair. Plus it would have needlessly limited what I could do with Elisabeth and therefore affect the series.

Folding More Family Stories into Elisabeth

The various experiences my grandparents on both sides of my family shared with me also helped me make Elisabeth more real and not a cardboard cutout of an Eastern European peasant girl.

For example, the family name, Schuhmacher, was inspired by my dad’s side. My grandfather lost his father at age 4 to appendicitis, and his mother never remarried. (I knew her as well as any grandchild knows a grandparent: She died when I was 17.) My great grandfather’s profession was shoemaking. In addition, because he had contracted polio sometime in his life, he had a limp, which is why Samuel Schuhmacher, one of Elisabeth’s cousins, has one.

The Larger Circle: Incorporating Others’ Stories into Elisabeth

It’s hard for me to envision a life in the 1920s that still didn’t involve electricity, indoor plumbing, and “the Roarin’ Twenties” culture. As part of my research for the novels, I asked others from these German communities in Eastern Europe for their stories. If you’d like to see such discussions, you can subscribe to the Donauschwaben Villages Helping Hands listserv. It’s a group of family historians interested in researching this branch of their family tree, and through their questions, memories spring up that the older members share with us young’uns. It’s some of those memories that I try to incorporate into Elisabeth.

Elisabeth in a Nutshell

Elisabeth Schuhmacher is a fictionally living, breathing character in her own right. But to help me better understand what her life may have been like, I’ve collected stories from several people and researched (and continue to research) her era, country, and village. If you have any questions about Elisabeth, feel free to email me or ask me online! All my contact info is in the footer, and I’d be happy to answer whatever I can.

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Oh No! Fixing Errors From “Between Worlds 1: The Move”

Lori Wolf-Heffner with an "oh oh" look on her face

Reviewing Between Worlds 1: The Move after it had been released was exhilarating and depressing. Not only had I finally published my first novel, but I also found a few errors. In addition, several kind souls pointed out some inaccuracies to me, and I also learned a few new details as I researched Between Worlds 2: The Distance. I won’t be able to go back to each novel and fix mistakes after the fact, but improving the very first book in the series made sense, especially because I was switching distributors, anyway. Curious to know what was changed? Well, then read on!

World View

One of the hardest things about recreating Semlak as accurately as I can is the simple fact that this agrarian village has not left much written material about it. So, for example, I don’t really know the general world view of the Germans in this village. After an online acquaintance read the first edition, he wondered if Semlakers would have indeed known who Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was. Therefore, I removed this part from chapter 2:

“If Kaiser Wilhelm hadn’t attacked France, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“He got greedy and wanted more.”

Elisabeth frowned. From what her father had told her, war could rarely be blamed on just one side. That was why so many dignitaries were spending so much time on the other side of Europe, in Paris, sorting out the mess the war had made.

Between Worlds 1: The Move, 1st edition

The villagers of Semlak would have been aware of their own political leader, King Ferdinand I for this series, but likely not of leaders of other countries or empire. And if they did know, there’s a good chance they may not have cared. I’m still trying to deduce just how much reading material was actually consumed by these people, but so far as I know, they got their news via the mailman, who announced several headlines and perhaps gave a quick summary and/or answered questions from the crowd.

Time-Traveling Characters?

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried
Did they notice?

Despite best efforts, Elisabeth suddenly showed up on page 55 in Juliana’s timeline. I’ve made a few changes to my editing process now to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sorry about that!

Historical Accuracy

I knew indoor plumbing didn’t exist at that time, so I assumed each household had a water pump. It wasn’t until I researched the home space more for Between Worlds 2: The Distance that I discovered the well. When I then returned to old photos I have of the village, I did indeed find one with a well off to the side.

In addition, a character named Adam Pinczes in the first edition has been renamed to Adam Krehling in the second. The various church congregations usually married within their own membership, and Pinczes is one name that is recorded only in the Reformed (Calvinist) church, not the Lutheran church that features in the series.

Medical Accuracy

When I wrote The Move, I knew Sophie would be blind and simply assumed she would have no vision at all. However, the more I read, the more I learned that the blind community faces many challenges, one of which is the assumption that someone can’t be blind if they don’t “look blind.” One blind friend of mine in university had no vision, I believe, and another had some. By the time I sat down to outline The Distance, I had found an appropriate condition for Sophie and realized that I needed to make the few descriptions of her visual impairment more accurate.

It’s in the Numbers

Unlike Canada, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had switched to metric in the previous century. So although these German communities had some of their own measuring units, other units were already in metric. In the first edition, I used imperial.

Or My Head

Lori Wolf-Heffner looking worried, again.
Will my readers forgive me?

I didn’t realize until Between Worlds 2 went to print that I had renamed the dance studio. Of all the things! I had written from memory instead of referring to any notes and didn’t double-check that before sending everything off. So I changed it, too. Advice for those of you want to write as a career: create a style guide for your series!

Elisabeth’s Journey

Another difficult aspect of writing about characters who lived long ago is putting yourself into their context without falling back on stereotypes, especially ones about village life. (There’s actually an entire genre in 19th-century German writing called the dorfgeschichte, which presents village life as idyllic, regardless of whether it actually was. It was inspired by Maltese writer Sir Walter Scott.) So I made some minor changes about Elisabeth’s journey into womanhood.

Do You Need to Buy the New Edition?

No. None of these changes affect the plot in any drastic way, and Between Worlds 2: The Distance was written with these corrections in place. However, if you do have a copy of the first edition, consider keeping it. There are only about 80 or so in existence, and who knows? It might be worth something. (I do have 14 left in stock, so if you’re in Canada, you may be able to order one from me, signed.)

Between Worlds 3 is tentatively scheduled for release at the end of March. To stay up to date on plot developments, get a sneak peek at the new cover design, and get coupons for discounts for in-person purchases, sign up to my email list.

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Svetlana Dvoretsky: The Woman Behind Theatre

A Russian-Canadian Impresario

Have you ever heard of the word “impresario”? That’s someone who organizes and maybe even finances performing arts events, including concerts, plays, ballets, operas, and more. It’s a very risky profession, and likely not one taught in arts management programs. And yet, impresarios are in part responsible for expanding our interests in the arts precisely because they always stand on the cliff of audience expectations. An impresario calculates the risks with bringing in various performers, and if the risk doesn’t pay out, the impresario loses out, often quite a lot. But it’s a risk impresarios like Svetlana Dvoretsky, owner of Show One Productions, are willing to take. Why? Because they love the arts so much.

Who Is Svetlana Dvoretsky?

Her name is likely unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know her: she’s one of the movers and shakers in the Toronto arts scene, and she’s ready to take risks.

Born in Russia, Dvoretsky spent eight years studying piano. It inspired her to make a living in the arts, but not as a performer. Instead, she moved to Canada and eventually—by accident—became an impresario. 

Studying piano in Russia means something almost entirely different to studying piano in North America. Dvoretsky’s music education included not only direct piano instruction but also hours devoted to other aspects of music, like music history and conducting. After school, she’d spend four to five hours a day, four days a week at her music school. By the time she emigrated here, she had an appreciation for music that only a few dedicated music students in Canada likely possess.

Arts Culture in Canada

When I speak to people who’ve immigrated here, I often hear a common lament: that arts programming in Canada is weak. My local newspaper backs me up in this impression. Despite my living in an area with almost 500,000 people, the arts section in our local daily is only two pages long, with ads occupying about a quarter of that space, at least once a week. On good days, it’s a few pages long, but with even more ads.

Another example: Canada, to my knowledge, has only one magazine devoted to dance (the other one folded earlier this year). Moreover, if I enter into small talk about something arts related, it’s usually a movie, TV show, or pop artist, and rarely about relatively unknown shows or acts.

So why become an arts impresario? Good question.

Music and Pop Culture

It’s probably easiest to see the development of pop culture through music: the Dave Clark Five has a vastly different sound from Drake. But that could only happen because those artists (and the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, between them) learned and experimented to develop an audience.

In the world of the performing arts, like dance and theatre, it’s impresarios who help bring this experimentation to the fore to expose these artists to a broader audience than the artists could do by themselves.

Dvoretsky and Experimentation

For Dvoretsky, that experimentation often is bringing Russian artists to Canada. These names in the Russian world are huge, and yet they may be unknown to us, meaning we’re much less likely to go.

But this year, Dvoretsky brought a world-famous name to Toronto: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The show was called Brodsky/Baryshnikov.Which you’d think would have the entire dance world flocking to Toronto.

But Baryshnikov wasn’t here to dance; he was performing poetry by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, a friend of his, in Russian. Although Baryshnikov was no newbie to acting, he has always first and foremost been known as a dancer.

So, Baryshnikov in a one-man show in Russian about poetry?

Dvoretsky’s risk paid off: according to The Toronto Star, all four shows sold out.

Dvoretsky’s Latest Risk: Clowning

One clown inside a plastic bubble; another clown bounces a large bubble on a stick.
Photo by Pascal Ito

The latest show Dvoretsky is bringing to Toronto is called Slava’s Snowshow. Its package may be unfamiliar and “untrendy” to many viewers: instead of talking actors, the show’s stars are clowns. Instead of a well-known story, none is advertised. And yet, despite these problems, the show has been on the road since 1993 (with breaks in between, of course), spent six years on Broadway, called London’s West End home for a time, and has performed in dozens of countries around the world. It’s won a Drama Desk Award and Laurence Olivier Award and in 2009 was nominated for a Tony Award.

Clowning is an art form that, as I understand it, connects the deepest parts of the performer with their audience. Clowning is perhaps less about putting on a personality, the way stage acting is, and more about bringing out something hidden within you and sharing it with the audience. Some people have fears of clowns, others consider them relics of a bygone era.

But not Dvoretsky.

To present art, you have to be confident in what you’re presenting, and Dvoretsky’s confidence about this show is unshakeable.

“This show makes people kinder, at least for a little while,” she says. “That is guaranteed. Those two hours are guaranteed. The rest is up to the person. It’s an emotional and visual spectacle. It’s really, really amazing.”

And emotional, visual spectacle that guarantees to make you a kinder person, at least for those two hours.

Sounds like the perfect, snowy, winter night, doesn’t it? Only you get to sit in the comfort of a warm theatre, sharing the experience with thousands of others.

Slava’s Snowshow runs December 7 to 16, 2018 in the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.

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What Is Flamenco Dance? Myriam Allard Answers

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam Allard

Continuing With Flamenco

Last month, I wrote about Bonnie Masina, a woman who took up flamenco dance at age 50. This month, I ask the question: What is flamenco? And Myriam Allard, co-founder of and dancer and choreographer with La Otra Orilla in Montreal, answered.

Head shot of La Otra Orilla co-founder, choreographer, and dancer Myriam AllardAllard didn’t start learning flamenco dance until she was 19, an age by which many professional dancers start their careers. She moved to Spain when she was 21 and studied flamenco intensively for six years.

What Is Flamenco?

“First and foremost, flamenco is an expression of a people, the southern Spanish Gypsies,” she explains. “It’s a voice of their struggle.”

If you’ve only seen flamenco, whether on television or on stage, you likely think first of the dramatic form of dance, usually done by women draped in elegant dresses with frills. However, Allard explains that it actually started with song.

“It’s songs of pain, but also of joy. So, it’s really a sub-culture that was really, for a long time, put aside, and they were actually for some time not even allowed to sing,” Allard says. “So, the voice comes first, and then the guitar came, the rhythms, the dance.”

When the Body Doesn’t Fit the Type

As an artistic director and choreographer, though, Allard must add her own voice to this old art form, so she began with her body. As a blue-eyed woman who stands 5’9”, she is not physically what the average viewer likely imagines when they think of a flamenco dancer.

“I’m physically not at all Spanish looking or Gypsy looking,” she says. “So, I have to really somehow adapt from the very start of my studies. I had to adapt the movement to my body, which wasn’t short.”

Adapting an art form, though, doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel works and leaving the rest behind. It’s still important to learn the basics.

Always, Always, Always, Start a A

“I trained in traditional flamenco, because it’s the only thing you can train in, and I believe very strongly in knowing your ABCs before actually doing poetry. You can’t start from poetry, you have to know the words,” Allard says.

I feel very strongly about that in any form of art. It’s not to bore you: after all, who gets a high from practicing straight lines and squares of dots when you first begin to draw? Or from doing more pliés in one month of ballet classes than you eat chocolate in a year?

The point is that those basics strengthen you to carry out your art with fewer errors down the road. In the case of drawing, those errors may mean inaccurate lines. In the case of ballet, those errors can be injuries.

The Basic Structure = Your New Language

There’s another reason, though, for focusing on those basic structures, whatever your form: you learn the form’s language, which is what allows you that new channel of expression. Even if you choose to write, you are still learning a new language, because the forms that typically make for strong writing are different than those that work for a wonderful conversationalist.

It’s the language of flamenco that allowed Allard the freedom to begin experimenting. Her company’s name means “the other shore.” Not only is she located in Montreal, Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic from Spain, but she also experiments with flamenco. When you watch this video, can you see the language of flamenco breaking through the fur cap and exposed pregnant belly?

Flamenco for Today

“I see flamenco as a a very contemporary art,” Allard says, “because I see I’m doing this today in 2018, so I don’t think I have to wear a skirt with frills, I don’t think I have to wear a flower in my hair. If I feel like it, I will, but for me that’s not a code I feel I have to respect, if I can use that word. I’m very free that way. If I want to wear trousers, I will.”

Even just by wearing pants, Allard’s choreography changes.

“As women in flamenco would traditionally wear long skirts, it makes movement rounder, and it also makes for a prop because you’re actually touching the skirt and using it in the movement and it gives volume to a movement. When you have pants on, you don’t have that volume, you don’t have round, it’s all angles. When I work with pants on, I go for angles.”

Flamenco’s Essence

For Allard, flamenco’s core is a raw emotion, one that borders on ugliness. She explains further:

“There’s that very fine line between something that is beautiful and something that is ugly. When you watch a flamenco singer, the expression on the face sometimes is very intense. For somebody it can be very ugly to look at, but I find that very beautiful.”

There is no ideal age to start flamenco. Allard has students well into their senior years who, she feels, have a stronger wisdom about their body than younger students may have. She suggests taking advantage of this wisdom: if you are older, you do what you can, you don’t push.

If starting dance is on your mind, just find an adult class taught by a qualified instructor and sign up. If that’s too much for you, though, maybe get out to see more performances, even ones you’re not sure you’ll like. (Something we discussed in the previous post, with Trevor Copp.)

And if you’re in Toronto from October 2-6, catch Fall for Dance North, where Allard’s company will be performing, be sure to get tickets (only $15 each) and enjoy the rawness and intensity that is traditional flamenco dance.

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Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Actor/dancer Trevor Copp is looking up at a bright light

Engage With Your Art Form

Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.

The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”

He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”

Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.

Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity

Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.

“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.

I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.

So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.

“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”

Afraid of the Negative?

Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.

(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)

As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.

Neil Gaiman on Arthur

If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’s Arthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.

Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.

In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).

(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)

But You Don’t Have to Publish

Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.

And that’s totally fine!

But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.

Vulnerability and Art

Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.

“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.

Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.

And again, that’s okay!

Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.

“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”

Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot

As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.

“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”

Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.

“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).

“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”

Two men in ballroom dancing positions, with a tuxedo jacket on a mannequin behind them.
Jeff Fox (l) and Trevor Copp (r) in First Dance, produced by Tottering Biped Theatre

Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first for personal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.

In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.

“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”

Creativity = Art + Life

For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.

“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”

So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.

That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.

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Flamenco at 50: “It’s too easy when we age to give up. I don’t agree with that.”

Starting Dance Past 50

When I turned 40, I suddenly cared about aging. Always active in my younger years through dance, and proudly displaying a photo of me doing the splits still at age 37, turning 40 suddenly made me realize my body was changing. So when I spoke with Bonnie Masina, who started dancing flamenco at age 50, I was all ears.

Flamenco is a passionate, emotional dance form for both men and women and has its own style of musical accompaniment. I’ve seen flamenco dances on and off over the years, thought right now the music for the flamenco routine from Riverdance is playing in my mind.

One thing I’ve noticed is the age range of female flamenco dancers. (I feel like I see more pictures of female dancers because of the beauty of their dresses.) Coming from your standard North American background, seeing an older female dancer is rare.

The Body Changes As You Age

But starting flamenco at age 50 is not something I hear of too often. Granted, Masina did compete in ballroom and Latin dance in her youth, but she says she stopped when she was 20 because of kids and, well, life. Getting back into dance after a 30-year hiatus can’t be easy.

But that’s not as remarkable as the rest of Masina’s story. She worked for decades in IT, eventually reaching IT Manager and working extensive hours, which she describes as 24/7. From all those hours glued to a computer, she’d developed rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders and spinal problems resulted in pain in several of her fingers. Over time, she’d lost the ability to raise her arms past her shoulders and to articulate those three fingers: they started functioning as one because years of bad posture had begun pinching things. (I’m fighting the beginnings of that kind of job-related injury.) In addition, a broken toe had broken through the bottom of her foot and healed that way.

These may sound like minor inconveniences. After all, we’re used to hearing about catastrophic accidents to get our attention. However, this is how aging works: bit by bit, the story of your life grows into your body. But instead of the sexy scar across the adventure-movie star’s face, it’s little aches and pains that start to change how you move. I’m over 10 years younger than Masina, and I’ve already noticed it, too.

Flamenco at Fifty

Masina’s hectic work schedule inspired her to seek out its complete opposite: dance. She sought out something Latin but didn’t want a partner. So flamenco it was. She registered with Carmen Romero’s School of Flamenco Dance Arts in Toronto. Masina learned quickly the need to leave work at work and focus on her dancing.

“If you let the outside world in, you’ll mess up,” she says.

Masina didn’t let her injuries get in the way. When Romero tried to push Masina’s arms up, Romero said, “Oh my gosh, you’re stuck!” Masina recalls. “I wanted to be unstuck and I knew dance and repetitively doing it and trying to do things better would help. I can now pull my arms all the way beside my ears.”

Masina even found a way to deal with her improperly healed foot: orthotics with a hole for her bone and, with Romero’s help, special flamenco shoes with a lower heel.

But unlike those products-for-the-aging commercials that make it seem like aging is a picnic, Masina explains it took her a while to dance properly. “But I was determined I was not going to not dance because of one stupid bone in my foot,” she says.

Over time, Masina sought chiropractic treatment and therapy for her fingers, and with Romero, who’s also a brain-injury therapist, regained almost complete use of those three fingers.  She also learned how to balance better so she wouldn’t aggravate her foot.

Age Doesn’t Matter With Flamenco

Bonnie Masina in a lavish, purple flamenco dress, seated on a couch.
Bonnie Masina poses in a flamenco dress.

Flamenco has become a sort of second life for Masina, and she’s adamant that you can start at any age and at any ability level.

“I don’t think it matters what your age is, dance can help you, even if it’s just having fun,” she says. She’s even taught flamenco at a senior’s home. “You can dance in a chair. You don’t have to be all over the dance floor to enjoy dance.”

Picking up dance can be done at any age and at any ability. When my chiropractor told me the pain I’d been experiencing for months in a joint in my toe was osteoarthritic pain, I thought I’d never be able to dance again. Mind you, I don’t dance every year, but the thought of never is a bit much. However, after talking with Masina, I might revisit that.

[grey_box]The Little KW Flamenco Fest takes place this weekend, running July 31-August 2 at various locations. The program includes workshops (disclosure: some are held at my sister’s studio), and they’re open to all.[/grey_box]