Dances for a Small Stage: Finding a Niche

For the first Dances for a Small Stage, producer Julie-anne Saroyan convinced herself that it would be a disaster and only a handful of people would show up. After all, performances were taking place on a Monday and Tuesday, which aren’t the usual nights for going out in Vancouver. Plus, it was in a pub on Granville: The Royal Hotel.

The turnout was much better than expected. For its premiere, 140 people showed up to see dance performances on a three- by four-metre stage. On the second night there were 170.

The response was so enthusiastic, Saroyan decided to do it again. After the initial May performances, Dances for a Small Stage attracted similar numbers later that August, back at The Royal. Saroyan realized that dance fans liked being in a casual environment where they could order a drink and talk about what they’d just seen. The less than ideal sight lines were part of the charm.

Now, 10 years later, Dances for a Small Stage is about to launch its 25th production in Vancouver as part of the PuSh Festival. After its first few incarnations in bars on Granville, the dance series has found a home at the Royal Canadian Legion on the Drive – a venue dubbed by Dances as The Legion on The Drive.

Saroyan admitted that the number 25 isn’t entirely accurate. Left out of that figure are two versions she produced in Ottawa and the one last year at the Shadbolt Centre in Burnaby. Altogether, she’s produced a total of 28 Dances for a Small Stage that have cumulatively featured works by more than 200 artists.

Like the bars on Granville where Dances started, The Legion on the Drive has a casual atmosphere. People can order drinks and sit at tables with friends or make new ones by filling in a partly occupied table. In its new venue, Dances runs for three nights from Wednesday to Friday.

Saroyan believes the series has survived because it fills a niche for audiences and artists.

“I think these days there is a formalness to art that people don’t want right now,” she said. “They want to be challenged – and they also want to have a good time and have fun. So I think this is what it fills in the community.”

For artists, Dances has become a training ground for ideas that then get turned into longer, bigger productions. Simone Orlando, for example, tried out a work at Dances that later was expanded for the Turning Point Ensemble’s Firebird 2011.

“There are so many ideas that artists have tried on our small stage and expanded later on,” Saroyan said. “With our funding structures in place right now, hardly any artists trying an idea out are going to get money for that. At Dances, they can try out those ideas.”

For the 25th anniversary production, all artists have been invited to create around the theme of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the German collection of stories published in the early 19th century.

With tales that include Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Rapunzel, Grimms’ Fairy Tales are the kind of mythic stories that keep getting remade and updated by succeeding generations. The idea is a popular one at the moment with Julia Roberts starring as the wicked stepmother in a new movie version of Snow White and the new fantasy/crime drama television show called Grimm.

Saroyan has invited back some of the artists who were part of the first Dances at the Royal, such as Serge Bennanthan, Noam Gagnon and Cori Caulfield. Other artists creating works include Kim Sato and Karen Pitkethly.

One of the young artists performing at Dances is Joshua Beamish. The 24-year-old found inspiration in one of Grimm’s more obscure tales called The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was.

“It seemed that it was a title that was interesting enough so you didn’t need know the story to get something out of it,” he said, “but was rich enough for me to draw upon.”

Host for the evening is Patrick Pennefather, a composer, poet and performance artist.

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