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A festival that celebrates a fusion of cultures

Bageshree Vaze (right) is an Indian classical (Kathak) dancer, tabla player Vineet Vyas and flamenco dancer Ilse Gudino rehearse a performance at Harbourfront Centre April 27, 2011.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Bageshree Vaze loves Toronto's diversity. She just doesn't like the word "multiculturalism."

"It's as though there are several little communities in the city, each in their own zone, never interacting with each other," she said. "Instead, we should talk about making Toronto one big community."

That's why this Indian-Canadian Kathakclassical dancer and choreographer is working hard to establish a new festival at Harbourfront that would encourage musicians, dancers and food vendors to create cross-collaborations. She calls it Spectrum Festival.

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"Usually music and dance festivals feature only one cultural heritage, and the majority of the audience that goes to that festival is from that community only," she explained, citing Masala! Mehndi! Masti! and Afrofest as examples. "You run the risk of ghettoizing, or segregating, communities this way. Where is the Canadian element?"

Not that she has a problem with cultures maintaining their specific tradition - "Heck, I'm very clear I'm an Indian Kathak dancer," Ms. Vaze said. Her personal history, however, reflects this mixing of styles. Initially trained in the style of Bharatha Natyam (a South Indian tradition) in St. John's, she learned North Indian classical voice music from her father. She has studied dance and music in both India and Ontario - getting her master's degree in 2000 from York University in dance. She has also cut a self-titled album in 2001 that is a combination of classical, pop and electronica.

Artists must reflect their audiences, Ms. Vaze said. "The political is personal. The world is changing, and with intercultural marriage, in 20 or 30 years the cultural landscape in Toronto may look very different from what it is now. Doesn't it make sense that our art also be a fusion of cultures?"

Please outline your idea.

This festival will feature cross-collaborations in music, dance and food from GTA artists. All cultures have common elements in the music and dance - stringed instruments, percussion, vocal traditions, dances that feature strong footwork. The point of Spectrum is to show the commonalities and similarities, rather than feature cultures in isolation. This festival will be an opportunity for the city to create an atmosphere of unity and sharing, rather than ghettoizing [cultures]

What sort of collaborations are possible?

I have several basic ideas for programming.

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"Rhythmic Feet": a collaboration of dancers from different styles that feature footwork, such as tap, flamenco and Kathak;

"Global Voices": would feature Chinese opera singers alongside native throat singing and Western operatic music.

"Different Drums": featuring the Indian tabla with the African djembe and Brazilian percussion.

"World on a String": would have musicians working together on the bass, guitar, oud and sitar.

"Sacred Dances": would have dancers whose pieces have religious or mythological influences, such as Odissi (from India) and Chinese traditional dance.

Food: vendors will offer "fusion" cuisine: Indian-Chinese, Asian fusion (Japanese/Thai), African fusion, etc.

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This isn't something that can be just slapped together in a few minutes. Unlike performances, combining different cultural forms that come together and improvise within their forms, these performances will be commissioned and call upon the artists to create a unique program. In other words, a new hybrid form will be created with each collaboration. It makes no sense, for example, to throw together ballet and Kathak, which have completely different aesthetics. But flamenco and Kathak partner well together because they both have really strong footwork and delicate arm movements. To do this kind of work almost requires artists to truly understand the other's work. Only then can beautiful fusion art be created.

Won't the purists be upset with this "fusion" art?

Please! Find me an artistic form that exists completely in isolation! I'm not saying we should forget about cultural traditions and heritage, but art has to always be pushing the boundaries and looking forward.

Is there an audience for this kind of a festival in Toronto?

I believe so. Art has the same underlying principles regardless of cultural background, and once people begin to recognize this more, audiences will demand it, too. This will create a more positive landscape for artists, where we all recognize we have just as much right to be Canadian as anyone else, and that art from all cultural traditions will be equally valued.

How will a festival like this benefit Torontonians?

On an urban level in Toronto, what need to change are mindsets for this to be a positive experience. This is only a natural progression of former prime minister Trudeau's concept of multiculturalism. We've celebrated how different we are. Now, we need to take multiculturalism to the next level and show how similar we all are.

When do you expect Spectrum to become reality?

I'm already collaborating with Harbourfront Centre to stage this in summer or fall of 2012. As of now, what we need is funding and artists who are willing to make this work. Obviously, I have certain ideas of what the programming should look like, but eventually I would like this to be a far more organic collaboration with artists putting in their own proposals.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

One reader's bid idea: Union Street

The railway corridor through the core of downtown Toronto occupies approximately eight hectares of land. Similar but smaller sites in Montreal are occupied by Place Ville Marie and in New York by the Waldorf Astoria hotel, part of Fifth Avenue and several huge office buildings. Development of the corridor, zoned at a density consistent with adjacent property, could add 1.85-million square metres of buildings worth $5-billion to the city's tax base.

The key to this development is the four-hectare portion behind Union Station that is also owned by the city. For many years, the province has looked for a site to build a new 93,000-square-metre courthouse to serve York Region: Where better than over the region's transit centre?

The relocation of the York County courts to the city's Union Station property would provide a tenant for all the office space in a restored Union Station and use its Great Hall for access to whatever amount of additional space over the tracks that would be required to house the courts for the next century.

The first floor constructed over the tracks could be a pedestrian mall called Union Street: the first phase of a two-kilometre pedestrian mall that would join the rest of the buildings built over the corridor. The portion of Union Street between Bay and Simcoe Streets would serve as a new rail passenger station half again as large as the present facility, be far more efficient, provide better access to the convention centre, CN Tower, Rogers Centre, the new aquarium and itself be a tourist attraction.

The province would cut its overhead by consolidation of courts, most of which are already in rented space; the city would turn an $80-million embarrassment into a profitable investment and both would generate millions of dollars of new tax revenue from a project that could honestly be described as world-class.

Ron Adams

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