“More HootinÊ¼ TootinÊ¼ than HighfalutinÊ¼” is the motto for the Toronto Fringe Theatre FestivalÊ¼s 24th season. The cityÊ¼s largest theatre festival opened its doors on July 4th, and features 155 new shows that were literally pulled out of a hat. With performances in over 25 different venues, the 12-day event is an unfathomable feat of logistics, aided by over 600 dedicated volunteers.
Gideon Arthurs, executive director of the festival, says that dance has always been a part of Fringe in some capacity since it opened its doors in 1989. Movement-based shows, performance art, and musicals have always found a home at the Fringe, depending on what was pulled out of the hat on any given year.
After the Fringe Festival of Independent Dance Artists (FFIDA) folded, the Toronto Fringe partnered with the Dance Umbrella of Ontario (DUO) to bring dance into the Fringe in a more serious way. In 2008, they launched the Dance Initiative, a separate application process whereby dance projects can apply by lottery for eight coveted spots to have their work showcased in the festival.
“We really felt like dancers needed an outlet to continue their work. The Fringe provided one,” said Arthurs. “And the demand is definitely there.”
This year, over 50 dance companies applied for seven local and one national/international spot. Fringe audiences embraced the new dance shows with open arms… and wallets. “I think in our first year, to those eight companies, we gave them back $22,000, which was a huge amount for those companies. And that number has gone up every year.”
Last year, the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) made up of 23 member festivals across North America returned more than $5.5-million to 1,200 companies, thanks to its policy of returning 100 per cent of the ticket price directly to the artists.
So what is the dance line-up for Fringe looking like this year? A real mix. From a belly-dance rendition of The Little Mermaid, to a physically intense The Gravity Hour, to the comedic With Someone Who Loves Me: A Gay Dansicle, variety is the order of the day.
Two dance shows kicked off the festival, PlutoÊ¼s Revenge by Ten Toes and With(out) by LastName FirstName Productions. The two productions could not be more different– a testament to the artistic range of this populist and inclusive festival.
With(out) is a an emotionally charged physicalization of two couples, on the brink of disaster, accompanied by the beautiful and original songs of James Everett performed live onstage. Raw and physically detailed, at times compelling and highly intimate, it is a combination of contemporary dance and gesture and a good dose of earnest relationship angst.
The total commitment of the performers keeps this show engaging. Camille Stopps and Virgilia Grifith are riveting to watch, though, at times, With(out) becomes repetitive and exhausting, as the audience witnesses the emotional wreckage of two couples perpetually in crisis.
At the complete other end of the spectrum – or galaxy – is PlutoÊ¼s Revenge.
Quirky, cheerful, and highly physical, this show is full of planets with personality. Written by Meg Dryden, and supposedly narrated by Stephen Hawking, it tells the tale of frumpy Pluto, who, demoted from planethood, seeks the help of Mars and Saturn to enact her wild and comedic revenge on the glittery glam girl, the Sun. The solar system takes on the dynamics of a high school cafeteria with a hipster Mars, B-boy Saturn, golden girl Sun and, of course, nerdy little Pluto, played by Emma Letki. This show would be at home in the Fringe Kids program; itÊ¼s goofy, fun, and a chance to see dance that doesnÊ¼t take itself seriously.
When asked about what challenges the Toronto Fringe dance shows face, ArthursÊ¼ answer is twofold.
“I think one of them is overcoming audience anxiety about dance,” he says. “What people donÊ¼t understand is itÊ¼s not a story, you donÊ¼t need the answer; dance is dance, you take it for what it is.” Still, Arthurs admits that Fringe audiences, generally open to anything, are more welcoming than most.
The other challenge Arthurs cites is that dancers have trouble getting the word out. “The entrepreneurial skills of the dancers is a little less developed. A lot of theatre performers are used to hustling the lineups, talking, and pushing, but I think dancers are so focused on their craft that their not as natural producers.”
The Toronto Fringe offers five workshops leading up to the festival on how to produce and market your show. Since then, Arthurs has noticed a higher percentage of dance company attendees than their theatre counterparts. If there is a knowledge gap, it would seem that dance companies are keen to fill it.
Arthurs also says that that dance shows at the Toronto Fringe havenÊ¼t always gotten full support from the cityÊ¼s dance community. He attributes this mostly to a bias against the lottery system. He admits that there are members of the dance community that feel “itÊ¼s not real dance,” but Arhurs argues thatÊ¼s just not the case.
Plus, with $22,000 being split between seven companies, “What they donÊ¼t realize is that these companies are doing incredibly well.”
The Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival runs from July 4 – 15.
LastName FirstName Productions
Factory Theatre Mainspace
July 4 – 15
For tickets visit www.fringetoronto.com
George Ignatieff Theatre
July 4 – 14
For tickets visit www.fringetoronto.com