York graduate student captures the Olympic spirit in dance

As excitement rises about the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, the 45,000-kilometre Olympic torch relay is taking Canada by storm. The arrival of the symbolic flame in Toronto on Dec. 17 will be celebrated in style at the city’s Torch Relay and Community Celebration, taking place from 6 to 8pm at Nathan Phillips Square. York talent will play an integral role in the celebration. 

Graduate dance student Alejandro Ronceria (right) was commissioned by the City of Toronto to choreograph a 13-minute work for the ceremony. This performance will welcome the torch bearer into the square just before the lighting of the cauldron that will be home to the flame of Olympic spirit for the following two days.

Ronceria, who is studying choreography and dance dramaturgy in York’s Master of Fine Arts in Dance Program, is using this remarkable and prestigious performance opportunity as a key creative component of his thesis.

The title of his dance is Convergence, which is how Ronceria views Toronto’s vast diversity.

“Diversity of race, religion and lifestyle help define and set Toronto apart from other cities around the world,” says Ronceria. “Toronto is home to virtually all of the world’s cultural groups and more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken here. My theme aims to put the spotlight on Toronto as a city that represents a diverse world. We truly are the world within a city.”

Ronceria is a Colombian-born choreographer, director and film artist now based in Toronto. An influential figure in international indigenous dance, he was the first director of the aboriginal dance program at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta.

Ronceria has invited a selection of Toronto’s diverse dance companies to participate in Convergence. Like the Olympic rings, the performance will represent Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania and the Americas. In total, more than 25 dancers will share the stage. York Department of Music faculty member Rick Shadrach Lazar’s Samba Squad will accompany the dance with a percussion piece specially composed for the occasion.

The dance companies involved include some of the most popular and critically acclaimed ensembles in Canada. Each group brings its own unique performance style and movement vocabulary, with Ronceria providing the framework and overall vision for how these diverse techniques will fit together in the show.

Sampradaya Dance Creations, led by founding artistic director and York alumna Lata Pada (MA ’96), is contributing its unique blend of traditional and contemporary South Asian bharatanatyam dance. COBA (Collective of Black Artists), whose co-founders include York dance alumni BaKari Lindsay (MA ’04, BEd ’06), Charmaine Headley (MA ’07) and Junia Mason (MA ’08), will perform with an Africanist esthetic.

Left: The Olympic torch. Photo © VANOC

Kahurangi Maori Dance Theatre and Hawaiian Pacific Magic bring the Oceanic component with Polynesian and Maori dance forms. And Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company represents Europe with Spanish flamenco dance. The soloists include wheelchair dance artist Spirit Synot and First Nations hoop dancer Lisa Odjig

“Our starting inspirations were the welcoming customs from each of the dance companies’ cultures,” says Ronceria. “The companies will share the stage in the same way that Toronto’s diverse population share the sidewalk. My goal is to showcase and honour each of these diverse cultural dance forms, interweaving common dance elements and playing with contrasting their differences.”

The celebration is free and thousands are expected to attend. It will also be broadcast live on CTV and CP24.

As if Toronto’s torch ceremony isn’t enough, Ronceria is also creating a work for the Yukon First Nations to be performed in Vancouver at the Olympics’ Aboriginal Pavilion on Feb. 21, plus four other venues in Vancouver and surrounding communities. The piece will premiere in Whitehorse at a special gala and celebration Jan. 10, 2010.

“Using the four seasons as a narrative structure, the show will present the best traditional and contemporary arts and artists of the Yukon,” says Ronceria. “Music, dance and storytelling will be showcased along with digital projections of the breathtaking landscape of the Yukon, a landscape which deeply informs these aboriginal artists’ work.”

These are not Ronceria’s first large-scale dance creations. He has produced similar projects throughout North and South America, including BONES: An Aboriginal Dance Opera, created for the Banff Centre’s Aboriginal Arts Program, and Agua, choreographed for the Toronto-based Earth In Motion World Indigenous Dance company, which was presented at Harbourfront Centre and in Mexico City. He also served as artistic director of the gala performance for Nunavut’s inauguration.

“The challenges and opportunities in working with traditional dance artists draw me to this sort of project,” said Ronceria. “I have such deep respect for the artists who are keeping these centuries-old dance customs alive. I want this diversity of movement to be shared with as wide an audience as possible.”