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A celebration of dance

Shannon Rupp waltzes the uninitiated through a bluffer’s guide to next week’s Canada Dance Festival

Ottawa Citizen
Shannon Rupp

Next week the dance cognoscenti will be descending on Ottawa, as they do every two years for the Canada Dance Festival.

With 400 dancers and a cadre of international producers swarming the National Arts Centre, chatter downtown will turn to discussions of who has great lines, who is likely to hit the boards internationally, and who is the next hot thing.

Perhaps because it I the easiest art form to understand – you feel dance in your gut, rather than analyzing it in your head – dance aficionados have developed a lingo to separate those-in the-the-know from the uninitiated. Call me a cynic, but I suspect it’s so they can keep the good stuff for themselves. Like great rock’n’roll in tiny clubs, dance can make your pulse race, so it’s in the best interests of dance lovers to keep the crowds small and the venues intimate.

Don’t let’em intimidate you into missing the fun. As a service to those who want to slay the snobs, here’s a bluffer’s guide to dance going. You don’t actually have to drop these words and phrases, but know them will make eavesdropping in the lobby so much more fun.

Canada Dance Festival (June 9 to 17): A biennial festival that began in 1987 to feature the best works of the preceding two years in Canada’s rapidly growing dance scene. The $1.2 million festival attracts and international roster of producers and often serves as a springboard to launch touring careers.

Holy Body Tattoo – one of this year’s main-stage acts – was on of the many Canadian companies to get their first big break at this festival through the “Short Takes” mixed bills at Arts Court.

Good lines: A dancer has good lines if her muscles are long and smooth, and her body is well proportioned. It refers to bodies that aesthetically (although not necessarily erotically) pleasing by dance standards. Can also be used as a euphemism for ugly, as in “She has bad lines.”

Sightlines: Your ability to see the stage – and the dance – clearly. In some theatres you will find seats closed off, not because they didn’t sell, but because you can’t see the show properly from those sightlines.

Euro-crash: Refers to a style of contemporary dance that was popular in Western Europe and spread to North American in the 1980s it involves explosive jumps and punishing landings – the “crash” part.  A favourite form with knee surgeons everywhere. Now considered passé. But since new dance evolves out of everything that came before, you will see remnants of the style in current works.

Contact improvisation: A dance form originated by American Steve Paxton as an experiment in 1972. Dancers improvised their steps, leaping, falling, and catching one another spontaneously. Since then it has evolved into a sophisticated dance form which, when done by masters, has the same witty surprises as theatre improve, plus the added element of physical risk.

At the festival you’ll see how Toronto’s Kaeja d’Dance has employed contact techniques to develop a unique vocabulary and an unusual approach to choreography.

Accessible: Often sued by snobs o complain about a work they feel is pandering to the masses. As in, “Lord of the Dance is just so accessible.” But in the best sense of the word, accessible also refers to works that attract a wider audience because they are good enough to communicate even with first-time dancegoers.


This festival features the best-of-the-best so most shows are a safe bet for novices. But among the companies know for work that will whet a dance appetite are: Dancemakers, Peggy Baker Dance, and Lola Dance.


Virtuousity: Used in the same sense as “virtuoso” to refer to artists with exceptional technique. Some of the finest displays of virtuosity you will see at this festival – or anywhere in the world – come from dancers in Comapagnie Marie Chouinard, La La La Human Steps, and the National Ballet of Canada.

Physical: An odd adjective considering that, by definition, dance is physical. It is usually employed to describe that that is explosive and gymnastic – works in which the choreographer is conveying some ideal by making the audience feel these steps are difficult or dangerous.

In contrast, classical ballet, one of the toughest techniques to master, often creates the illusion that dance is effortless. Again, it depends on what the choreographer is trying to say.

The Glasco fiasco: The controversy surrounding the firing of one of the National Ballet’s principal dancers Kimberley Glasco, ahs been fanned by ill-informed newspaper columnists everywhere and there is bound to be plenty of buzz about it at he festival.

Here are the facts: Last season, Artistic Director James Kudelka fired Glasco, (now 39) claiming she was too old, and her dancing didn’t fit his vision for the company. Glasco claims Kudelka fired her because she spoke out against his new Swan Lake, which she said was too expensive. Lawyers arrived. The parties agreed to arbitration. The arbitrator recommended reinstating Glasco. The company appealed. A judge supported the arbitrator’s decision. All of which suggests the courts were persuaded that Glasco’s firing had more to do with her politics than her pirouettes.

However, an outraged arts community interpreted the legal rulings as an attempt by lawyers to dictate artistic decisions. Call it As the Ballet Turns because this saga won’t end soon.

 In the confusing labels department you will find:

Contemporary classical: The term used to distinguish companies and choreographers who give classical ballet technique a modern accent. They still work en pointe, and their vocabulary is based on ballet steps, but they play with the shapes and the angles. As with most dance terms, this one is fluid and changing; choreographers are always blurring the line between dance forms.

The National Ballet’s program includes works by contemporary choreographers John Alleyne and Dominque Dumais. But is artistic director James Kudelka a contemporary classical choreographer? Well, sometimes. And since La La La Human Steps’ Salt is dance en pointe, does that make director Edouard Lock a contemporary classical choreographer? Maybe. Bu most would probably call his work post-modern dance. All of which is open to debate.

Rule of thumb: Contemporary classical is anything that is obviously ballet steps but is also ore inventive and more surprising than the stiff stereotype of ballerinas in tutu. Think of it as ballet without cobwebs.

Modern and post-modern dance: Ah yes, the nailing-Jello-to-the-wall exercise in the definition game. Books have been written on post-modernism, and no one has defined it successfully. I’m not about to try here. Generally speaking, “modern’ is used by those outside the dance world to refer to anything that isn’t ballet.

In the dance world, “modern dance” generally refers to pioneers of the anti-ballet revolution, including Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, and choreographers working up until roughly the ‘50s when American Merce Cunningham began a new revolution. He is often referred to as the father of post-modern dance.

Most modern choreographers are actually “post-modern” in that they borrow from a variety of theatrical techniques and movement forms – gymnastics, tango, martial arts, yoga, sports, ballet, opera – or they include video, slides or other multi-media effects.

Also expect to hear the terms “contemporary dance” or “new dance,” in reference to the dance being made today.

One performer at the festival who draws directly on the modern pioneers is Susan McKenzie, who takes her inspiration from the legendary Loie Fuller, a contemporary of Isadora Duncan, who danced while waving metres of flowing silk.

Dance-Theatre: In Germany it’s called Tanztheater, and refers specifically to new dance and is rooted in the German expressionist movement. Pina Bausch led the renaissance of this movement in the 1970s and is the leading choreographer in this form. But the English-language variation has come to mean any work in which and theatre techniques are blended, and this covers a wide range of work (and yes, it’s another post-modern dance form).

At the festival, you will see work in the dance-theatre vein performed by Montreal’s Benoit Lachambre and his company Par B. L. Eux.

A word to the wise: Ignore the labels. Words fail to convey dance concepts precisely. Dance is a language of imagery and metaphors; if choreographers could express their ideas in words, they would be poets or playwrights. So just go, relax, and enjoy it.  

3 Jun 2000