Rye’s School of Performance goes virtual for Fall for Dance North festival

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By Stephanie Davoli

Ryerson’s School of Performance (RSP) has teamed up for the fourth time with the world-class Fall for Dance North (FFDN) festival for the event’s newest endeavour into the world of digital performance. 

Due to COVID-19, this year’s FFDN festival, The Flip Side, was transformed into an immersive digital experience that runs from Sept. 29 to Oct. 18. The digital platform offers several unique experiences such as a ticketed livestream program, an augmented reality dance performance, workshops and several new films. These include A Gathering, directed by Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, with contributor Shamel Pitts and in collaboration with dancers from RSP. 

A Gathering focuses on 46 Ryerson dancers as they document and explore their remote choreographic processes and journeys of finding creativity and inspiration at home. The film premieres live on the FFDN website on Oct. 4 at 2 p.m., featuring a live talk from the creative team. 

Co-directors and choreographers Smith and Schraiber teamed up with Ryerson in June to begin working on the movie, which was remotely filmed by the individual students.

“We wanted to get a sense of how [the students] were experiencing the pandemic as young dancers, how it was impacting their lives and how they saw the world,” said Vicki St. Denys, director of RSP’s dance program. “We wanted to connect them with high-profile international film makers who could work through a meaningful creative process and share that process through a film.”

Schraiber and Smith both hail from the world-renowned Israeli Batsheva Dance Company and have been working as dancers, directors and choreographers for several years. However, for their first collaboration with RSP, they went for a very unique directive approach. 

Total creative freedom 

“We would stay very flexible and open [while working with the students] because they would send us something and then we’d take it from there,” said Smith. “They would offer ideas and movement and we would talk about it and question it to draw out the best from the experience.”

According to third-year dance student Karly Benson, Smith and Schraiber almost always gave the dancers total creative freedom and would usually only direct them through general choreography prompts, suggestions for filming locations and props to include or songs to draw inspiration from. 

“We would always start with a class to bring everyone together and then we basically had total freedom to go from there and use the prompts to create something that felt good to us,” said Benson. “We would also look at other people’s videos and get inspired from that. So although it was a virtual project, we very much felt like we were together and connected.”

“Young artists are the future”

For Ilter Ibrahimof, the artistic director of FFDN, including young talent in his festival has always been a priority.

After having a successful dance career and working at the original Fall for Dance festival in New York City, Ibrahimof created FFDN to showcase Canadian talent in 2015. Having seen how New York’s Fall for Dance festival would work with dancers from The Juilliard School, Ibrahimof was inspired to include RSP in FFDN. 

“Young artists are the future of our field so it’s really great to be partnering with an educational institute that offers the highest calibre dance education,” said Ibrahimof. “In Toronto, Ryerson probably has the most prominent dance program…so there’s a great pool of talent.”

For many of the student dancers involved with the project, the film-making process not only granted them professional, but also personal, opportunities. 

“Everyone was very thankful to have this connection with each other, and it also helped people connect with their families and with their neighbourhoods,” said Smith. “It felt like it reached very far beyond just making the project happen.”

This was especially true for Benson, who shared a special experience when she asked her mom to help her film at a remote location. 

“A random car stopped on the highway and asked what we were doing and my mom explained the whole thing to him probably better than I could have,” said Benson. “I think that it was a huge bonding experience for us just because she’d been asking what I was doing and it’s hard to explain it to [her family] but to have them as a part of the project definitely helped them have a better understanding of what it was.” 

Other students, such as recent dance program graduate Judy Luo, said that this opportunity will definitely positively impact her future career. 

“We do live in a new reality and you can’t really predict how the next couple of months or years will go,” said Luo. “So just to have this experience of working in the medium of Zoom with so many people and to have virtually connected with Bobbie and Or is a huge privilege.” 

Ibrahimof hopes to continue collaborating with Ryerson in future events, whether they are in-person or online. 

“The mandate of the festival is to connect people with the art form of dance and whether we do that in a normal year with performances or with other innovative programming that happens to be more digital, it’s still the same mandate,” said Ibrahimof. “We didn’t want to lose our opportunity to take a fresh look and try new ideas this year.” 

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