It's Thursday afternoon after one of January's many storms. A small group of dancers, about 10 of them, have slid down icy streets and jumped over puddles to congregate at The Seahorse Tavern. They're rehearsing for the night's performance, Dancing on the Head of a Pin, a casual after-work cabaret hosted by Kinetic Studio.
The air is dank with the odour of generations of draught beer. It's a testament to the dancers' focus that they're ignoring the painful sound of a table saw, as a small construction crew renovates the bar. Sheilagh Hunt, Kinetic's artistic administrator, checks lights and takes stools off tables. Rafael Franco---filmmaker and artist, husband to dancer Rachel Franco---is performing a soundcheck. He will provide accompanying music for Susanne Chui's choreographed piece, which involves 10 dancers on the Seahorse stage---more bodies than your average mega-band. Franco creates a loop of beats while counting numbers into the mic, "28, 52, seven, three, five..." Combined with the saw, it's like being trapped inside a giant machine.
Yet these professional dancers, all women, with about a 35-year age span between them (you'd never know it), chat away. They're discussing muscles or bones that only dancers, athletes and medical professionals know the names of.
The dancers head to the stage. Chui stands nearby, watching as the group moves around, arms crossed, huddled into their bodies. They silently examine the walls, quizzically as if in an art gallery. Eventually the scene switches to what could be an after-work bar, filled with frivolous small talk and flirting, finally slowing into a slow dance where the women pair up and turn slowly, leaning on the axis of each other's forehead. It's moody and mesmerizing.
Afterwards, they gather around Chui for feedback. "Don't be afraid to move," Chui instructs the group, giving them permission to find a space on the small stage without fear of bumping into another dancer. This is a perfect metaphor for Halifax's tight-knit dance community.
If the Seahorse is an unlikely place to see dance, then the Maritime Centre is the weirdest place to learn how to dance. Tucked away in the basement of the mall, across from a muffin stand, Halifax Dance remains largely ignored by the hordes of government workers that pass by its doors, although on this Thursday, one of the studios is full of people sweating through a lunch fitness class. This space is also home to Gwen Noah Dance Society, Mocean Dance and Verve Mwendo. Halifax Dance has been in this 9,500 square-foot space since 2006, when a rent increase at its Brewery Market location was too much for the non-profit organization to afford. It's not a romantic spot and there's no sunlight, but it's bright and clean. There are five large studios with sprung floors---necessary to absorb shock---showers and locker rooms. Attention is paid to make sure that it's warm and that the floors have traction. Safety is top issue.
Mary Lou Martin and Catherine Walker are interim co-artistic directors. Martin has been teaching here for 28 years, primarily ballet but she's also a theatre director and choreographer. "My first dance school was the living room of the lady who lived down the street," she laughs. "We'd use the back of the furniture for barres."
Unsurprisingly perhaps, with her background in musical theatre, Martin is more dramatic then her softer-spoken counterpart. Walker has been teaching at Halifax Dance for 10 years, but was a professional ballet dancer/instructor for more than 20 years with FestivalBallet, Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens and Calgary City Ballet.
Although both have been working at Halifax Dance for a long time, their positions are new, since the organization used to make artistic decisions as a co-operative (Tim Keenan is the executive director).
"We began as a co-op, a granola thing from the 1970s," says Martin, who joined The Halifax Dance Co-op when it was three years old, in 1976. The co-operative was made up of teachers and dancers who joined forces to rent space together. There are other familiar names: Sheilagh Hunt and the late, beloved Diane Moore, who founded Live Art Productions, still Halifax's most prominent contemporary-dance presenter.
According to an article written by Randy Glynn for Dance Collection Danse, Canada's biggest dance archive and publisher, before the co-op there were schools for kids but nothing for adults or for modern dance. The city's first modern dance company, Halcyon Dance Theatre, grew out of the co-op as well.
He writes: "They coincided with the beginnings of a period of artistic freedom and growth in Halifax...a thrilling and open time. Money was not the worry that it soon became---rents were low, optimism high and seventy-five dollars a week was a liveable wage for an adventurous artist."
There are more schools in town now, like the Maritime Conservatory, whose Ballet Galaxy is performing next week. To be considered legit and accredited, these schools require affiliations with recognized methods.
In a 2008 episode of The Simpsons, Lisa joins a prestigious ballet academy, is admonished for her weight and becomes addicted to "dancer sticks." But Walker says that's not accurate here. "It's certainly much more positive in the classroom---it's positive reinforcement instead of negative reinforcement that we all grew up with, which was 'You're not good enough, you must get better.' We're trying to make dancing more fun. Recognizing it's an art form, but it's still a skill. It doesn't have to be a negative experience."
There's a new, exciting generation of contemporary dancers in Halifax. They live and work here, but travel frequently to train, teach and perform. There are traditional companies like Mocean Dance, the city's only full-time contemporary dance troupe, which steals hearts every time they perform. Others run by their own rules---multidiscipline entities like Verve Mwendo that don't apply for grants and treat their shows like one-off music gigs. Founded by Jacinte Armstrong, Cory Bowles and Jenne Gowing, Mwendo's work has a youthful, humourous athleticism. SINS (Sometimes in Nova Scotia) is an offshoot, comprised of Armstrong, Chui and Sarah Coffin.
"A lot of my teachers---not so much in Halifax, but other places, like in the States---my teachers had been in high-paying, high-working companies that produced really high-quality works and did a lot of touring," says Armstrong, who started at Halifax Dance, then studied in Miami. "That was their whole job---they had a full experience as a dancer. I had to learn how to be more creative myself and create my own work."
Armstrong calls herself and her peers commitment-phobes. Chui, for example, says that she often has many collaborations on the go. Bowles acted on Trailer Park Boys from 2001-'06 and his short film, The Scavengers, is hot on the festival circuit. While they accommodate each other's projects, conflicts can arise. According to Armstrong, Bowles once got a huge TV audition on the opening day of a show. "No amount of organization can help that out at all."
Lisa Phinney, a Mocean Dance co-founder, also works independently. In early February she premiered a work-in-progress at DANSpace, featuring Armstrong, Chui, Francis Brake and Ruth-Ellen Kroll Jackson, a founding member of Halifax Dance's Young Company who returned after performing with the prestigious Parsons Dance Company. It's a funny and sexy piece that will accompany a longer work for nine dancers, funded by Kinetic Studio.
The women are in cocktail dresses, but are crawling around as if the party is long over, they just haven't noticed. They slink low on the floor, tumbling over each other's backs like a multi-limbed creature, discussing mundane topics like grocery-bag bans, with brash certainty.
Phinney has brought in multi-talented Mary Ellen MacLean (Jest in Time) as a mentor. She's a movement/fight choreographer and Phinney's piece has a wonderfully frantic scene where fists and bodies fly at each other.
Ongoing mentorship is not a usual occurrence here, though, because working on their own projects keeps most dancers more than occupied. But Bowles says he's come to realize that "we have to be the people to be looked up to at this point."
Y ou don't become a professional dancer for the money. The Globe and Mail recently broke down the results of a nation-wide report on professional artists' salaries. In 2005, female dancers earned an average of $12,502.
When asked about money, most dancers groan or exhale deeply. But all seem resigned to the reality. The biggest complaint is that there's little time to create.
Dancers must train (according to Phinney, at a minimum this involves dance classes, yoga and specific exercises for injuries or weaknesses). Training costs money, so you need a job. Evenings are spent on everything else administrative and artistic. Grants and residencies can relieve some of the burden, but it's not an easy gala-going life.
"Everyone I know has a day job," says Phinney, "which is tough because in order to create great work you need to immerse yourself. Have another job or responsibilities on top of what you consider to be your job as a dancer, and your mind goes away, you lose the continuity. I'm all for outside influences but there are times when you just need to hunker down. But who's going to pay the bills when you do that?"
"I waited on tables for 12 to 14 years in my 20s when I was taking dance classes and vocal lessons and summer stock theatre," says Martin, "and at this point I'm making a living, but do you know what I do? I'm the co-artistic director here at Halifax Dance, artistic director at Chester Playhouse, I directed Les Mis for YPCo (Neptune's Young Performance Company), directed two plays for Citadel High and I'll direct two plays this summer. I'm maxed out. This is 30 years it's taking me to make a career and I can afford a car. Woot-woot. Not a house."
Finding a performance space can be a struggle, too. DANSpace-on-Grafton, run by Dance Nova Scotia, is good for small audiences. The James Dunn Theatre in the Dalhousie Arts Centre has a sprung floor, but because first priority is given to the university's performance programs, outsiders can get booted out with a moment's notice. Neptune Studio and Alderney are expensive and in shortsighted planning, the unfinished Citadel High theatre is not built for dance either.
Verve Mwendo has performed at the North Street Church, but spent a lot of time cleaning up, as they practice in bare feet. Bus Stop Theatre is popular but, because it's small, it's only suitable for certain types of dance.
And then there are the inevitable injuries.
Phinney makes regular trips to Citadel Physiotherapy where Sarah Gordon, who trained with the National Ballet School, focuses on dance medicine. Melanie Abramson, Citadel's massage therapist, developed the Thirty-Something Dance Co-operative.
But one solution doesn't fit all. "I have some major injuries," says Armstrong, who suffers from a back problem. She discovered a fellow Pilates trainer in Vancouver who has helped, so she makes trips out west for rehab. "I spend a lot of my personal time and income on rehabilitation," she shrugs. Lately, Armstrong's been thinking more about creating dance videos, after directing Techno Sloth, a fun cross between a choreographed dance and Norman McLaren's stop-motion films. At least it gives her body a break.
Dancers must also find audiences. There's a small but loyal dance following here, but you're competing against perceptions that it's all tutus, or that it's an elitist art that you must "get" to enjoy.
"I don't see dance as a wine and cheese thing. I see it as punk," says Bowles. "That's the audience I want to give it to. Young and old, who want to see some real ripping art. There's a crazy audience for that."
Not only does Bowles identify with punk---another rebellious, outsider form of expression---he thinks the dance community could gain audiences from their musician friends.
"Dancers here in Halifax, we segregate ourselves. I'll stand by that to anyone. We don't go see the other shows. We don't mix it up with musicians." During the Pop Explosion, Verve Mwendo did a performance with live musicians at The Bus Stop Theatre to about 14 people. In April they are collaborating with Zuppa Theatre, which, like Mwendo, has put instruments on non-musical performers.
Bowles and Phinney are also hatching a plan to create a Broken Social Scene of dance. He's approached 27 dancers already, but with everyone so busy, the plan's on hold.
If any dance company has captured popular interest, it's Mocean Dance. Their last performance in January sold out three nights at the Dunn. But the troupe has worked hard to fill seats.
"We were able to doing it by branching out into the areas of our life that aren't dance to try and grab those people," says Phinney, who has a degree in physics. "Talk it up and be all excited, which we always are."
When Mocean first began as a part-time venture, its original members were pursuing staggeringly diverse educational paths: on top of their dance training, Sarah Di Quinzio has a degree in microbiology and immunology; Carolle Crooks was in law school; Alicia Orr's degree is in neuroscience and Sara Harrigan has a dance performance degree.
"Dancers are smart," says Walker. "They're incredibly intelligent. But for a long time, especially in the ballet world, we were not allowed to be intelligent. We were supposed to just do what they said or lose your job. You weren't allowed to have a brain."
Halifax does not have a professional training school. This means that any young person who wants a serious career as a dancer must leave for other cities.
To train, you must dance all day, every day. Halifax Dance offers some professional classes; there are intensive summer camps and Live Art's touring artists are available to students, but it's not enough.
"If you take a year in a life of a 14-year-old who has spent the year dancing here and one who's been dancing in Winnipeg, what do you do? asks Martin. "Their academics are secondary to their dance studies. It's intensive here, but it's still recreational. After school, Saturdays and Sundays. They might be getting 10 hours a week, but it's not 30 hours a week."
Some dancers will never make it back professionally. Vivika Ballard, 18, graduated from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School last year, with awards and scholarships. She's just started auditioning for ballet companies.
Ballard arrived at the RWBS when she was 12 and before that, she was part of Halifax Dance's Intensive Training Program. But even if there was a professional program here, Ballard says over the phone from Winnipeg, "I don't think I would have wanted to stay home. That's a big part of being a ballet dancer, travelling around and experiencing other cities. It's weird sometimes, I realize, moving away when I was 12, living on my own, but it's great and it's totally been worth it, just to be completely immersed in what I love and have the opportunity to practice it every day."
It's 5pm at the Seahorse and there's a good crowd gathered. There are seniors and students and children. By 7:30pm it's all over and the dancers are off into the chilly night, on to the next project and, of course, the same challenges. But as Jacinte Armstrong says, "There's a magical quality in performing that has the ability to erase all the other junk away."