The news that CBC TV plans to revive Battle of the Blades is hardly a big surprise. It’s an obvious move for the new vice-president of English services – populist entertainment with an established title and it marries hockey with figure skating. Also, it’s superpositive.
Famously, in the first episode, choreographer Sandra Bezic called competitors Jamie Sale and Craig Simpson “squeaky-clean Canadian,” and that description defined the show, until it fell by the wayside as CBC grappled with funding issues a few years back. The funding thing must be resolved because the series is coming back and it’s expensive to produce. Squeaky-clean is what it was supposed to be, and what it will return as, presumably.
What it’s not is art. CBC parks most of its arts coverage online. With the new streaming service Gem, there’s more opportunity to see that coverage and for the artists featured to reach a wider audience. Good. Because hockey and figure skating are not crying out for coverage.
The Move (CBC online and CBC Gem) is one of these teensy little CBC Arts series that is actually crying out for attention and an audience. Gorgeously made, these short vignettes of Canadian choreographers talking about their personal and professional lives amount to a jewel of a series.
Nico Archambault may be the best-known. In 2008, he was the winner of the first season of So You Think You Can Dance Canada (a series later cancelled but closer to art than Battle of the Blades) and deservedly so. He also choreographed on later seasons and was superb at that, too. I recall a stunning piece he created set to The White Stripes’ version of St. James Infirmary Blues. I can see it unfold in my mind even as I type this sentence. It was that powerful.
Here, in a beautiful sequence shot partly in black and white, he dances and talks. He is partly deaf, he explains, and that shapes how he listens and moves. As a kid in high school, he was bullied and found that dance freed him from worrying about himself or what others thought: “Through dance, everything I thought was a flaw was actually my strength.” These days, he is vitally impressive as he dances. The strength of the body, the shrewdness of the position mark him out as an electrifying figure. As a dancer, choreographer and director, he’s on his way to being a national treasure. Right now, he’s the kind of artist who deserves more even celebration than this short explanatory doc allows.
Santee Smith is another enormously impressive figure featured. After an accident left her with two broken legs as a toddler, Smith was put into ballet as a form of rehabilitation. That experience grounded her in dance. However, as her work has evolved, she has integrated her Indigenous heritage and Indigenous storytelling into her performance, something she now describes as, essentially, “unlearning” what she was taught. Bedevilled by ailments at one time, Smith says she has relearned how to walk and move three times. Today, there is a formidable velocity to her movement and she talks eloquently about the impact of her Indigenous awareness on how she anchored her body to the earth as part of her practice.
Others featured in The Move are Esie Mensah (Afrofusion), Scott Fordham (jazz-funk), Heidi Strauss (performance art/theatre), Sara Porter (improvisation), Edz Gyamfi (dancehall) and Nova Bhattacharya (bharatnatyam). It would be inelegant not to mention all of them. CBC rather obviously tries to dutifully give time and space to people from all parts of the country and to dancers and choreographers from a variety of backgrounds.
Another standout is Bhattacharya, originally from Halifax. As a teenager, she announced to a guidance counsellor that she intended to do classical Indian dance for a living and was told that was impossible. Since then, she has devoted herself to the form but, like Smith, she is aiming to reinvent tradition and bring new perspectives to it.
All those given a platform in The Move are compelling performers. The fact that so many – apart from Archambault – are largely unknown tells us that we need to know more. And maybe, there should be room for that in CBC’s budget and priorities, especially if Battle of the Blades is to be an expensive big deal, again.