Fall for Dance North ARISE: 2022 Signature Programme

Toronto's Meridian Hall Front Street

Erica Cheah

Guest Writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator

Dance, dance, and more dance! But not just dance, a multimedia feast for the senses. That’s what’s on full display at Toronto’s Meridian Hall until Oct. 8. Fall For Dance North is Toronto’s Premier International Dance Festival. Back live for its eighth season (the first since 2019) FFDN has curated a 2-and-a-half-hour show packed with an eclectic, international buffet of dance, film, and live music. The brainchild of Artistic Director, Ilter Ibrahimof, FFDN offers mixed bills that include performances by large-scale local and international companies for a supremely affordable ticket price of, get this, $15!! Unbelievable! The aim of FFDN is the “whet Toronto’s dance appetite and inspire audiences to seek out more dance throughout the year”. Well, after attending the other night, I’m hungry for more!

The show brought five distinct offerings to the stage, most world or Canadian premiers – an enthralling tap number with live music, a comedic short dance film, a Hawaiian ancestral dance, another short film accompanied by a scintillating 13-piece string ensemble and an evocative show-stopping piece by students of the National Ballet School! Every piece was set on a bare stage with nothing but props/instruments and simple lighting to frame the performances.

Act one started with the world premiere of Canadian choreographer Dianne Montgomery’s ‘Softly Losing, Softly Gaining’. The six-member troupe, accompanied on stage by musicians Bryden Baird on trumpet and Drew Jurecka on violin, gave an energetic, nuanced and highly stylized 30-minute routine. This cast dressed in bright shirts, pants and suits (Cori Giannotta, David Lafleur, Jonathan Morin, Veronica Simpson, Kai Somerville and Tarra Tresham) was mesmerizing. With impressionistic-style projections by Todd Kowalski and warm hues by lighting designer, Siobhan Sleath, these happy hoofers were synchronized and precise with wonderful shading in their crisp and clean tap sounds. I was often so caught up in their dance story and conversations, I forgot they were tapping. I couldn’t stop smiling!

Next up was a silly 15-minute dance film called, “…Savannah?”, directed, choreographed, and starring Zui Gomez, co-starring Alicia Delgado, first presented as part of FFDN’s inaugural short dance film series, 8-Count. While stylistically shot in one-take in an empty loft apartment, the duo seemed to just be kicking around and having high-energy fun but without much point or purpose. If anything, the film served as a much-needed “filler” for the backstage crew to set up the next performance.

The curtain rose again to reveal the 28-member company of Hawaii’s Kuma Hula of Kamehameha High School and Ka Leo O Laka/Ka Hikina O Ka La performing “Kau Hea A Hiiaka”. This Canadian premiere by choreographer Kaleo Trinidad featured Hawaiian ancestral costumes (designed by Trinidad), drums and powerful traditional meles (songs), supported by a video projection with a conservationist message – nature in the Pacific Isles is being destroyed by pollution. Like the ancient ancestors, we need to be the curators of our planet’s rebirth.

I found the storytelling in these tribal dances – especially the drumming sticks - fascinating. The group moved with military precision and had powerful choral work. However, many of the beats were repetitive and hypnotic and caused more than a few heads near me to nod off. Kudos to the impeccable organization of stage manager Janelle Rainville for having props, instruments and cast members glide on and off the stage so magically.

Act 2 started with yet another world premiere of dance film, “Zipangu” (Marco Polo’s word for Japan), directed and choreographed by Indigenous artist Michael Greyeyes, with live music provided by Ensemble Soundstreams. In the film, we see a semi-nude single dancer (Ceinwen Gobert), painted gold, representing a waking mythical Japanese Goddess. Her modernistic dance stylings with wild gyrations and sharp, staccato movements evoke transformation, a portrait of earth itself. Below the screen in stark lighting was a sensational 13-piece string ensemble (violin, cello, double bass) playing a haunting, bellicose original score by Claude Vivier under the nuanced direction of conductor David Fallis. These talented musicians had an impeccably balanced sound. Close your eyes and you could hear the power of a full orchestra. I was connecting more with them than the rather monotonous visuals on the screen above.

The program ended sensationally with 146 professional young students of our own National Ballet School brilliantly performing choreographer Jera Wolfe’s inspiring and explorative piece, “Arise”. This 30-minute lyrical-ballet routine featured highly disciplined 12–19-year-olds pouring their very souls into thrilling storytelling and exploring how, according to the playbill notes, “collaboration and support for one another enable us to rise up and face challenges in our lives.” Dressed in simple grey T-shirts and shorts designed by Robyn Clarke, these brilliant young artists moulded their bodies into exquisite shapes and moving waves with exquisite principal dancers in pas de deux and pas de trois silently landing their jumps with ease.

The seamless fluidity of movement, precision, focus, athleticism, and flawless technique had me and the entire audience transfixed. Lighting designer Simon Rossiter’s use of dim lighting on the ensemble while bathing principals in warm side glows, perfectly enhanced the movement.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was so emotionally invested in such beautiful theatre. Hats off to the genius of choreographer Wolfe for his stunning use of the expansive Meridian stage. Moving and placing 146 bodies into intricate formations in any space is no easy feat. I also can’t imagine how stage manager Jennifer Lee managed to corral all those kids into first positions! Brava! This number alone was worth the already-low price of admission.

I had never heard of Fall for Dance North prior to last week. After witnessing this celebration of their eighth season, I regret missing their first seven! I can’t wait for next year’s festival.

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