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Understanding the deep wisdom of Asian dance

She spots talent at urban street festivals - say, a solo dancer's riff on whirling dervishes in Barcelona. And even the most traditional dance performances on her slate don't lack for creativity - one reimagines the extinct Buddhist kingdom of Sumatra, another weaves singing into sacred court dances.

Just don't use the f-word when you talk to artistic director Denise Fujiwara about the CanAsian International Dance Festival.

That would be fusion. And along with other superficial attempts to make traditional dances contemporary - for example, setting pieces to pop music or adding in other Western elements - she has a rather different mission in mind.

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For Fujiwara, the goal is to present Asian dance that reflects an essential concept of totality, an intense integration of the physical, the spiritual and the philosophical that rarely factors into Western dance forms. "It's understanding the deep wisdom in these art forms that allows us to find meaning in our lives," she says.

It's a form of meaning that Fujiwara says is underrepresented in mainstream Canadian dance series. "Most of the work that gets shown around the country is Eurocentric, which means that Asian artists tend to perform for their own communities," says Fujiwara. "The CanAsian Festival allows us to share their work with a larger public."

Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the CanAsian approach seems to be working. The modest little festival that started with a budget of $5,000 has now swelled to an international undertaking with a budget of $180,000 and a goal to raise even more funds in the next few years. And their audience includes not only die-hards looking for kathak or butoh performances but dance fans looking to broaden their horizons.

Despite a focus on outstanding traditional artists, including those at their peak, CanAsian does aim at diversity. As defined by the festival, "Asian" covers a broad spectrum: Choreographers are predominantly of Asian descent working in Asian dance forms or with Asian themes, but the festival also includes non-Asian artists who have devoted their life to Asian arts.

As well as selecting choreographers from submitted applications, a six-member jury at CanAsian commissions new works (this year's festival will include a piece by Toronto's Peter Chin) and invites artists they discover on their travels to other festivals (for instance, Ziya Azazi and her whirling dervish piece).

Taken together, these choreographers represent a wide sweep of Asian dance forms, from the kathak dance of Northern India to Japanese butoh to the lost performing arts of Cambodia.

As for how to keep old forms vigorous while respecting tradition? It is a dilemma that faces Mi Young Kim and her Korean dance company every day. (Kim is being honoured at CanAsian for her 60th anniversary as a professional dancer.) Cindy Yip, Kim's administrator, sums up the problem this way:

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"Do you stay within the dance traditions, or do you use those traditions to explore new forms, and risk cutting yourself off from both your roots and the ethnic conservative audience? We agonize over how to market ourselves. The good thing about this festival is that the traditional and experimental meet in the middle ground, so audiences see that the old and the new can exist side by side."

The CanAsian International Dance Festival runs at Toronto's Fleck Dance Theatre from Feb. 23 to 26.

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