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Faced with cuts, Toronto dancers learn the art of the sell

Without touring, dance exists in a bubble. Which is why, faced with funding cuts, a group of dancers put together their own choreographic showcase.

Connect T.O., initiated by choreographers Sasha Ivanochko, Heidi Strauss, Susanna Hood and Susie Burpee, is an artist-driven marketplace for the presentation of Toronto dance. Between Jan. 12 and 15, each dancesmith will show work to the public - and, more importantly, to eight presenters from Ireland, Germany and Canada.

"We dancers have to create our own opportunities to get our work seen," Ivanochko says.

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Presenters are the people who program dance into their theatres. To be picked by a presenter is considered a validation of an artist's work. To be selected for a theatre outside the home city is even better, because touring can also lead to lucrative residencies and co-productions. To be part of the international dance circuit with a worldwide profile is the holy grail.

Cathy Levy is the dance producer at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, home to the largest dance series in the country. She will be attending Connect T.O. "Touring is important because it lengthens the shelf-life of an artistic project," she says. "The more a dance piece is performed, the more it can deepen and grow." Levy also likes the showcase format because it is an efficient way to catch multiple performances in a condensed period of time.

Ivanochko sees touring as broadening her personal experience as an artist. "I'm informed by other choreographers, and the communities in which they live. Artistically and socially, touring bridges and unites. It's a peaceful, provocative and creative way to bring ideas and people together."

Two years ago, the Harper government cut funding for two programs at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. One provided grants for touring and the other subsidized the cost of bringing presenters. Although the Canada Council has stepped into the breach with grants from its Audience and Market Development Program, this pool of money is a fraction of what DFAIT used to offer. It is an AMD grant that has allowed Connect T.O. to bring in international presenters.

A mandate of the grant is that the wider community has to be involved. Thus, Connect T.O. also includes an open rehearsal featuring new work by Peggy Baker, Nova Bhattacharya and Burpee, and a panel discussion on building partnerships. There is also one afternoon devoted to a pitch session, where a series of local choreographers, chosen by an independent jury, get to talk up their repertoire in one-on-ones with the visiting presenters. Even though the presenters are not seeing actual work, an articulate choreographer can excite interest. Pitch sessions are de rigueur events in any dance showcase.

Getting the support and funding they needed was a massive undertaking for Connect T.O.'s team. "We figure we collectively logged about 1,000 hours manning the phones getting the showcase organized, not to mention the work involved in filling out grant applications," Burpee says. "We all have busy lives as it is."

The paramount task was finding presenters with venues suitable to the consortium's small scale performances of solos, duets and trios. Without a list of presenters willing to come to the showcase, one can't apply for the AMD grant. The choreographers also had to find other funding, mostly from the Toronto Arts Council, to rent the theatres, pay their dancers, and cover production costs.

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The big question is, what if some get chosen and others don't? The women admit it's something they think about, but they are philosophical in their answers. "We are up against each other all the time, because grants are decided by juries," Strauss says. "Presenters will also take into consideration such things as how our dances will look in their spaces. Will our sets fit, for example. Choices don't always reflect whether the presenters like the pieces."

The main subtext for this event is the group's belief that Toronto dance is under-represented on both the national and international scene. "Toronto doesn't have a major dance festival," Ivanochko says, "so we're without an annual showcase for both local dance and visiting companies." Burpee points out that a multicultural city like Toronto covers so many diverse dance forms that no single identity or signature has emerged. All the women envy Quebec and its long history of touring its own choreographers.

But there are positive signs - the Ontario Dance Platform, an initiative of the Ontario Arts Council held in Toronto last fall, brought together juried companies and presenters with the aim of strengthening dance touring throughout the province. Connect T.O. is another step in getting Toronto dance noticed. "We want to see dance from Toronto going places," Strauss says.

Connect T.O. runs in Toronto, Jan. 12 to 15, at various venues. For more information, visit www.adelheid.ca/cto

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