York Dance Ensemble performs Strong and Free

The York Dance Ensemble (YDE), the spirited young repertory company of York University’s Department of Dance, leaps into the limelight with patriotic fervour with Strong and Free, running March 4 to 6 at the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre.

Subtitled From Living Legacies to Emerging Forces, this dynamic celebration of Canadian dance features classic and new works by renowned and rising choreographers – a trajectory of Canadian dance accomplishment spanning more than six decades.

York dance Professor Susan Cash, an independent choreographer and the YDE’s artistic and managing director, began programming the show more than a year ago.

Right: Susan Cash

“Perhaps it was the burgeoning Olympic spirit that turned my thoughts to our national heritage in contemporary dance – where it’s been and where it’s going,” she says. “Strong and Free pays homage to those who put down the roots and championed contemporary dance and helped it emerge and grow with a distinctive voice in this country. That foundation gives the current and next generation of artists the opportunity to succeed and continue to develop the dance culture of Canada today.”

Three towering talents of Canadian dance have been artists-in-residence at York this season, working intensively with the YDE to contribute repertoire to Strong and Free.

Emmy Award-winning choreographer Debra Brown (BFA Spec. Hons. ’78), an alumna of York’s dance program, returned to her alma mater to create a new work for the YDE. Brown’s choreographic credits include 10 Cirque du Soleil shows, musical acts by rock stars Aerosmith, Madonna, Shakira and Céline Dion, the 2006 World Cup Soccer finals, and operas such as John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Right: Debra Brown rehearsing with YDE members

Brown invited the YDE to perform in a work she created for the Special Olympics gala fundraiser held at Toronto’s Westin Hotel last December. Now the ensemble is giving the world premiere performance of her latest work. It’s a kinetic and life-affirming dance that uses Marva Wright’s uplifting version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door as an inspiration and soundtrack. “It’s not about the fall,” said Brown. “It’s about whether you get up.”

Canadian dance legend Rachel Browne, founder of Canada’s first professional modern dance company, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, has remounted her 2007 trio Ceremonies on the YDE. Set to Canadian composer Ann Southam’s evocative electro-acoustic composition Seastill, the work juxtaposes dynamic high kicks with slow motion rolls in a highly textured, compelling movement vocabulary.

Browne has been a seminal force on the Canadian dance scene for almost 50 years. Her groundbreaking work as choreographer, performer and teacher has earned her numerous national honours, including the Jean A. Chalmers Award for Creativity in Dance, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Jacqueline Lemieux Prize and the Order of Canada.

Pioneering Quebec choreographer and visual artist Françoise Sullivan (who holds an honorary degree from York and is currently enjoying a retrospective of her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Unionville’s Varley Gallery) reconstructed two of her iconic works, Dédale and Dualité, on the YDE during her residency last fall.

Left: Françoise Sullivan (centre) rehearsing Dualité with the YDE

As a member of the Automatistes, a group of Montreal artists and activists at the forefront of artistic and social change in Quebec in the 1940s and 1950s, Sullivan embraced abstraction as the means to achieve spontaneous, subconscious expression in the arts. Her 1947 duet Dualité embodies two sides of the same personality, parting and coming together, locked in struggle between dark and light. The contemporaneous Dédale, a solo set to the sound of the dancer’s breathing that uses the repetitive swing rhythm of the body to create and communicate meaning, has been described as the purest incarnation of Sullivan’s Automatiste theory.

Closer to home in time and space is Startle Reflex, a world premiere for 16 dancers choreographed for the YDE by Toronto indie dancemaker Meagan O’Shea. Building on O’Shea’s collaboration with the YDE for Toronto’s 2009 Nuit Blanche, Startle Reflex combines improvisation and storytelling with carefully crafted chaos and crisp syncopation punctuated by flashes of humour and wit.

Two other premieres round out the YDE’s Strong and Free program. (her) inVersions of Before is a duet choreographed by Sky Fairchild-Waller, a recent graduate of York’s Dance Program. His work utilizes video projections on the dancers’ bodies, and explores how the ephemeral delineation of movement and light can operate as a metaphor for the fluid and ever-changing nature of identity.

Cash’s own gift to the YDE is Our Native Land, a joyous dance she created for and with the 16 members of the ensemble. Cash initially conceived Our Native Land as a serious work, inspired by primal elements of the Canadian landscape: trees, mountains, water. With her encouragement, the dancers became part of the creative process, and together the choreographer and performers transformed the work into a subtle Canadian comedy. The result is an airy confection celebrating Canada’s myriad dance forms.

Now in its 21st season, the York Dance Ensemble features outstanding young performers on the brink of their professional careers. Lighting design for Strong and Free is by dance Professor William Mackwood and Elizabeth Asselstine, chair of York’s Theatre Department. Mackwood also serves as production manager for the show.

Strong and Free – Dancing Canadiana, From Living Legacies to Emerging Forces takes centre stage March 4 to 6 at 7pm at the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre in the Accolade East Building on York’s Keele campus. Tickets are $15. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the York University Box Office Web site or call 416-736-5888.