The story is almost always the same. It goes something like this: a wide-eyed teenager scoffs at his or her parents’ wishes, throws caution to the wind and decides to study the art. Maybe it’s painting. Maybe it’s acting. Maybe it’s dance. But opting to focus on one’s passion in lieu of something more practical takes a combination of guts and naiveté one rarely finds past the age of 20.
The training goes well and confidence builds. Perhaps the budding artist emerges a favourite in her class. And then, boom! She graduates and lands with a thud in the expansive, confusing landscape of the professional world. She’s been imbued with a set of skills. But the daunting realization that skills don’t make a career gradually sinks in. The young artist is left to ponder the question “What the fuck do I do now?”
“Because of the work I’ve been doing as a teacher, I recognized there was what I call a ‘black hole,’” says Dancermakers artistic director Michael Trent. “This period as a young artist after you leave training and you’re trying to find your way into the field. At the same time, I thought some of the projects we were doing here could offer an opportunity for young artists to find professional experience through actually being involved in creation.”
Dancer Riley Sims is no stranger to this confusion. After graduating the School of Toronto Dance Theatre in 2010, the Scarborough native spent a few years lost in the woods.
“I went through that phase of wondering whether I would ever dance again, thinking maybe I should go back to university and get a degree,” he says. “The black hole Michael talks about is really real. I went into it and just kind of disappeared from the scene for a bit before I was ready to come out again. But once things started rolling and I started performing again, the need to be seen was there, and I was reminded how badly I want it.”
Trent founded the Emerging Dance Artist Project in 2009, an initiative designed to help young artists through this confusing period. Previous incarnations saw participants take weekend workshops and summer intensives and train with the company dancers. This year, for the first time, the program’s five emerging artists will create and perform in a mainstage show alongside the company dancers.
Around follows a formula Trent has been exploring for years. In lieu of creating movement he then assigns to the dancers, he works with structured improvisations, making each performance of a work distinct. Bringing the company dancers together with the emerging artists made the idea of “encountering” an obvious starting point.
“Each of us has developed our own way of thinking about the work and what it means to us, creating these separate worlds, having to use the imagination in a really, really big way,” Sims says. “There are so many moments that could be seen as very detailed and concise, but it depends on who’s watching and how they are watching.”
Trent isn’t alone in his desire to welcome new talent to the fold. Nearly every major performance company has an emerging artist program these days. It’s partly a function of funding; companies increasingly find pools of money available specifically for this kind of work. But in Trent’s case, at least, there’s another motivation.
“Of course, there’s a desire to share our knowledge and expertise with younger artists,” he says. “But more and more, I’m thinking of the exchange actually happening in the other direction, with the knowledge going from the younger generation up to a more senior one. This project is also about trying to find space for the company to be open to these young artists, who can expose us to a lot of new ideas and possibilities.”
While every field requires years of practice to hone the necessary skills, it’s often the youngest creators who have the most interesting taste. So has the youthful explosion in the room made Trent any more hip in his approach?
“There’s a common joke in rehearsals that I have really bad taste in music and costumes,” he laughs. “When it comes to those things, I’m always deferring to these guys.”