#UrgentExchange Stop Abuse & Exploitation in Toronto Dance

Left to right:    Kate Nankervis, Tina Fushell, and Robyn Breen of the Love-In, Kristina Lemieux and Sedina Fiati of Generator, and Oriana Pagnotta of the Love-In.

Left to right: Kate Nankervis, Tina Fushell, and Robyn Breen of the Love-In, Kristina Lemieux and Sedina Fiati of Generator, and Oriana Pagnotta of the Love-In.

In December, we partnered with the Toronto Dance Community Love-In (now a Resident Company at Generator) and Daniels Spectrum for our first ever #UrgentExchange devoted to dance. Together with the Love-In, we asked community members to vote in Twitter and Instagram polls choosing between the topics “Accessible Process Now” and “Stop Abuse and Exploitation.” The results were 50/50 on Twitter, so the deciding votes were on Instagram, where 74% told us that what was most urgent in dance was stopping abuse and exploitation: how do we dismantle harmful power structures and create safer spaces?

On December 17, we gathered at Daniels Spectrum. ASL interpretation was provided by Rogue Benjamin. After introductions from Generator and the Love-In, we invited participants to rotate through each of the following four topics, in 25-minute sessions:

  • Social Location facilitated by Jiv Parasram: understanding the ways in which we ALL hold power and privilege

  • Race facilitated by Rodney Diverlus: examining the race problem in dance, and what we can do about it

  • Gender facilitated by Sze-Yang Ade-Lam: from understanding how gender plays a role in conversations about power, to asking everyone’s pronouns

  • Community Agreements, facilitated by Sedina Fiati: what they are, what goes into building them, and how to incorporate them into your process

We also had an open table available for folks who had other topics they wanted to discuss. Before we started, a participant proposed that this be a space to discuss Accessibility.

Unlike many other #UrgentExchange conversations (like #MeToo One Year Later on December 9), there was no recorded or live-streamed component to this event - this was to encourage open and frank dialogue. Instead, we invited “witnesses” to observe each of the four topics, as well as the open table, and write down their thoughts and learnings. What follows are the responses of our five witnesses, along with resources we suggest for further learning. To find out more about each of the witnesses, scroll down to the bottom of the page.

General Resource for Talking about Power and Privilege Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege

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Molly Johnson responds to RACE, facilitated by Rodney Diverlus

First up, this discussion was COMPLEX - beyond a summary listing of what we got into, I don't have the means with which to fully share it. The following is one distillation of my experience and what it sparked for me - I could offer many others.

I'm a witness at the race table and as a white person talking about race, my cheeks are pretty fucking red as soon as I speak. I don't want to fuck up, you don't want to fuck up -  there are different measures of what that means at this table. Discomfort is necessary. Discomfort is something I have spent a lot of my life avoiding. Discomfort is a thing some of us get to avoid and some of us are thrust into, and that becomes real apparent real fast.

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The speed dating vibes are almost useful in that there's no time to waste and we get to it as quickly as we can but it feels a little too emblematic of [my experience of] the dance community - and the white capitalist hetero-patriarchal society from which it takes its cues - AKA as a place where good intentions and conversation starters abound but very rarely result in meaningful change. The system is in full effect even in environments like this where the intention, I believe, is wholehearted.

One of the prompts Rodney gives us is to answer what is missing in the conversation on race in dance. I look around the room and think not so much about what topic is missing but about who is missing: 99% of the white men in the dance community are missing, dance artists over the age of 45 are missing, the power holders in the dance community are missing - the two previous categories and the educators, presenters, funders, and artists who are on operating are missing. These people are not in the room. These people need to be in the room. I take my sharpie marker and write this down on my little post it note. But then what? I write it here and maybe somebody reads it and feels called out but then gets over it and pays attention. Or...business as usual.

It's weird and informative and enlightening and troubling to see Rodney run the same drill for each session. All I can think about it is how many times he's had this conversation. He's civil and articulate and kind. I recognize these things and how I appreciate them and then recognize the scary mental space of appreciating racialized people conducting conversations about something that is actually pretty fucking abhorrent in a civil, articulate, kind way so that white people can feel okay inside the conversation about the thing they created and continue to perpetuate but mostly avoid discussing. None of that is exactly what it is but it's also not not that.

What is missing in the conversation on race in dance? White people are missing. Urgency on behalf of white people is missing. The point is very often missing. We are still getting confused between having enough and having privilege. We are still crying meritocracy at the same time as knowing full well that meritocracies are a fallacy when each of us begins with very different resources, very different access points, and that this dance world is still being built for a certain kind of person to thrive.

Resources “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, Jonathan Osler on Moving from Actor to Ally to Accomplice

Mikaela Demers responds to SOCIAL LOCATION, facilitated by Jiv Parasram

On Monday, December 17th, #UrgentExchange Stop Abuse and Exploitation in Toronto Dance was co-hosted by Generator TO and The Dance Community Love-in at Daniels Spectrum. All who attended rotated between four tables every 25 minutes, set up with stationary facilitators focused on different topics. I had the fortune to sit with Jivesh Parasram who was facilitating conversation around the topic of social location or position.

After quick introductions, Jiv led our table in a fairly common exercise:

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The Power Flower, with all of its flaws, is designed to demonstrate where you fall in the societal power structure of a chosen community. The idea is, that through completing the Power Flower, as a group, conversations between table members will surface. Jiv explained the Power Flower with transparency and facilitated each group with a personalized sense of care. As a witness of three different groups of people who came to the table, it was hard not to notice the radical differences between groups as a whole during their experience of the Power Flower.

Group 1 selected a community of focus and flew through completing the Power Flower. When Jiv asked, for example, “Sexual orientation? Which group has the most power in community X?” answers from the group came with immediacy, confidence and often from multiple people. Some categories did give some group members pause, but it seemed that even lack of knowledge was admitted with certainty and in the spirit of learning. ‘Human/Non-human’ is an example of a category that resulted in an exchange between an artist who admitted to not understanding what the category meant. A fellow artist reciprocated, with care, on a perspective to consider for this category (SUCH A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT). But in general, the group went around the Power Flower and the categories were filled in with small clarifying conversations by different folks in the group.

When Group 2 was asked the same questions by Jiv, responses were more frequently returned with whole minutes of silence. Answers came as offerings; suggestions or guesses in quiet voices and a questioning tone. The group was preoccupied with the semantics of the exercise as opposed to the goals, spending the majority of their time dissecting the Power Flower as opposed to generating productive and critical discourse. By the end of the 25 minutes, a third of the Power Flower had been completed.

In reflection, there were a number of takeaways from the evening:

  1. The varying responses in groups as a whole and the productivity or level of understanding surrounding the topic of social position is a reminder that it is important to recognize and call out power structures around us.

  2. The Power Flower requires the active participation of its participants. Much like creating change, active conversation in a safe space provides more learning opportunities and overall productivity.  

  3. Members of the Toronto Dance Community are at varying levels of understanding or comfort with conversations that focus on critical observation and reflection on the community.

Upon reflection, group 2 brought to light blind spots or areas to be considered in future conversations for the Toronto Dance Community. Seeing gaps in understanding or an inability to participate is essential to continuing conversations of this nature with goals of critical discourse and affecting change in a community as a whole.

Resource Express Yourself: Crafting Social Location Maps and Identity Monologues,” The New York Times

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Kallee Lins responds to COMMUNITY AGREEMENTS, facilitated by Sedina Fiati

Efficiency. Legacies of colonialism. The way things have always been done. Inequalities and hierarchies in the creative process. These were some of the responses cited as reasons why community agreements have historically not been used in the studio.

Implicit in hierarchical processes of dance creation is that the product is prioritized above the people involved. As a collaboratively built document, community agreements have the ability to flip this equation and fundamentally shift the distribution of power. Creating an agreement allows a group to explicitly – and contractually – answer the question, “How do we want to operate in this space?” Its strength comes from everyone involved agreeing to what is included and seeing their needs reflected.

During our #UrgentExchange conversation on the topic, facilitator Sedina Fiati outlined three key questions to scaffold a community agreement:

  1. How do we want to be treated?

  2. How will we deal with conflict?

  3. What accessibility needs do we have?
 


The second question is crucial – it builds in an accountability structure. Who can performers go to if someone causes them harm, particularly if it’s the choreographer/director at fault? Should a “mediator” be named to resolve intractable conflicts? While a safer, more joyful creative space may be the goal, ensuring the rules of that environment are enforced is vital to its sustainability.
 


Participants were urged to consider accessibility in a broad way, and to ask themselves what would allow all participants to not only function, but to thrive. This approach considers physical barriers like venue accessibility, and less visible obstacles like access to childcare, knowing when performers will be paid, or the use of video and other memory aids in rehearsal.
 


Specificity in detailing how a group wants to be treated is crucial, yet what became clear in responding to question one is how rarely we’re asked to articulate our needs in a work setting. Common responses expressed a desire to be treated “with respect” and “with dignity”. The next level of conversation prompted us to describe exactly what those conditions look like. For some, it meant that “the physical and emotional health of each person is valued,” that “there’s permission to fail, slow down, and divert,” and that “my opinions will be listened to”.

While community agreements are a practical tool to create a safer work environment, perhaps their greatest strength is in providing the space to question our needs and envision what a fairer, more equitable process of creation looks like. The possibility of better creative spaces exists; we can start by rewriting the terms of engaging with one another.

Resource Nikki Shaffeeullah discusses Container Building at #UrgentExchange in January 2018

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Nickeshia Garrick responds to GENDER, facilitated by Sze-Yang Ade-Lam

I'd like to preface this by saying that #UrgentExchange organized by Generator is a necessary start to the thoughts and conversations needed to inform change within the Dance and Arts community. If we are fighting for equity, accessibility and fair representation for those on varying spectrums (QTBIPOC, BIPOC, NB, People with Disabilities etc...) within the Toronto Arts Community, it starts with these discussions in hopes of bringing about action.

The topics being discussed for the event were Gender, Race, Social Location, Community Agreements and Accessibility, all being facilitated/witnessed on separate tables. Those attending had approximately 20-25 minutes at each table before they had to move on to the next one. I personally would have preferred us all being able to sit together and openly discuss the topics as a large group, as what was being said wasn't mutually exclusive. The set up for me resembled speed dating, being pressed to quickly get your points in before the timer went out, which can be increasingly difficult when delving into these topics, especially for individuals on varying points of the intellectual spectrum.

Being a witness for the event also allowed me access to the thoughts and suggestions of those who participated. The topics discussed were necessary, but folx were looking for more prevalent and urgent topics such as the #metoo movement, intersectionality, meritocracy, ableism etc... Other main points were, how do we get these conversations in the dominant arts institutions within Toronto? If we're fighting for institutions to update their methods of hiring, teaching/training and offering programs that are more accessible, how do we get them to change? How often will #UrgentExchange be held, and will we discuss what actions to take?

With the advent of revolutionary movements such as #BLM and #timesup, action has been made to change the mentality of corporations. The arts community in Toronto should be under the same scrutiny to change their ways as well.  

Ultimately, #UrgentExchange was a night to stir things up and get people thinking about the major issues. Hopefully these talks will continue, in hopes of reaching the dominant Arts companies in Toronto so that our thoughts and concerns do not fall on deaf ears.

→ Resources Working with Trans, GNB and GNC Artists, on ArtistProducerResource.com, “Finding Our Way in a World of Gender Fluidity” on Howlround

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Fabien Maltais-Bayda on THE PROCESS & OPEN TABLE

The topic of December 17th’s #UrgentExchange was abuse in our dance communities, and more specifically, how to stop it. It’s a subject both pressing and challenging, not only because systemic abuse is a complicated matter rooted in longstanding power dynamics, but also because stopping it remains a hefty task requiring no small feat of endurance.

It was interesting to note that quite little of what I witnessed at #Urgent Exchange addressed abuse directly. This may be due to the evening’s structure, with participants rotating through sub-categorized tables: community agreements, gender, race, social location, and an open table that convened a conversation on abilities during one of the event’s multiple sessions. Significant topics in themselves, these themes tended to become the focus of discussion at the tables I observed. Yet beyond mere logistics, the event’s tendency to coalesce around topics alternate to the tagline may have had much to do with the main issue at hand. Abuse and exploitation are rarely simple questions of bad or inconsiderate behaviour. Rather, they are inherently tied to power – its imbalances and hierarchies – and are always circumscribed by factors like ability, gender, and race. To work at stopping abuse requires, almost as a prerequisite, active engagement with these social formations. It is perhaps unsurprising that, in the context of a single evening, this is about as far as things got.

Each of the conversations I observed held many important moments, but since I was tasked with witnessing the open table, it seems useful to note just a few of the ideas generated around it here. Of course, it’s important to remember just how inaccessible Toronto’s dance infrastructure is. One participant noted that engagement with the city’s contact improvisation community remains nearly impossible for many since events tend to be held at Dovercourt House – a building with many stairs and no good options for getting around them. Another significant point raised in the discussion was that accessibility is never one-size-fits-all – doorways and halls meant to provide access, for example, might be wide enough for some wheelchairs, but not others. The conversation foregrounded that accessibility requires us to consider the diverse needs of individual bodies, and asserted the importance of centering folks with lived experience.

Returning to #UrgentExchange more broadly: without a coherent plan of action generated, without the “stop” of its title put in motion, the evening and its goals might be considered unfulfilled; indeed, some of the community feedback I’ve heard suggests this. But such a feeling is also hardly surprising. Thinking back, I cannot recall even one event meant to tackle an important issue facing our community that did so comprehensively. (And this certainly includes those I’ve organized or coordinated myself.) Issues of systemic abuse, of equity, of access, are immensely complex, and a gathering of two, three, or even four hours will always be unequal to the task of making change. This isn’t to excuse or justify our many shortcomings as organizers and community members – rather, I want to re-assert the constant collective effort that tackling oppressive structures requires. If #UrgentExchange served, primarily, to begin unseaming the sturdy social fabrics of the status quo that allow abuse to continue, it succeeded in something important. Now, I think, it rests on all of us – organizers, participants, witnesses – to pull the threads further, and to build actions out from these moments of reflection.

→ Resources on Accessibility ArtistProducerResource.com: Audience Accessibility, Artist Accessibility, Writing an accessibility statement for your event or website; HowlRound.com: Article Round-Up

About the Witnesses

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Molly Johnson

Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Molly Johnson makes body-based texts and performance projects exploring alternative ways of being in a capitalist patriarchal society. A Dora Award-winning dance artist, Molly has danced for and with many brilliant humans including Nova Bhattacharya, Susie Burpee, Sabina Perry, Julia Sasso, Riley Sims, and Heidi Strauss. She has spent a decade performing in public spaces with Dusk Dances, toured internationally with Montréal’s Danièle Desnoyers/Le Carré des Lombes, and was a key collaborator with Marie France Forcier from 2007 to 2016. Her collective and individual work has been presented at PS: We Are All Here, SummerWorks, Kinetic Studio, Dancemakers, Mile Zero Dance, and the Halifax Fringe Festival. Based in Toronto, Molly is co-artistic director of hub14 art + performance works and a freelance writer in the space between. thisismollyjohnson.com
Molly was a member of Generator’s 2018 Performance Criticism Training Program.

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Mikaela Demers

Mikaela Demers is an emerging artist and producer originally from Northern Ontario. She has been a member of earthdancers, Lila Ensemble, Parahumans, the Garage, and worked as a performer for Vanessa Jane Kimmons, Allen Kaeja, Love Letters Cabaret, Brian Solomon, Megan English and Fernando Troya. Demers has been a part of numerous collaborative choreographic performances including Celestial Play (2013), checkbox (2015) and most recently maelstrom (2017), a co-choreographed work that toured to Toronto and Thunder Bay. Her current independent creative process is based on the physical study of eye focus and awareness. Demers hosted her first independently produced show the pack: creature in May 2018. She is a member of Branch Collective, and the producer of Branch Intensive, a week-long dance intensive hosted in Sudbury, Ontario. Demers has hosted three rural residencies to date in Sudbury and on Manitoulin Island. Mikaela is part of Generator’s 2018/19 Artist Producer Training Program cohort.

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Kallee Lins

Kallee moved to Toronto in 2012 to meld her love of the performing arts, research, and writing. After completing an MA in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University, and spending a number of years in the PhD in Dance Studies program, she worked as the Marketing and Communications Manager for the Dancer Transition Resource Centre. Today, Kallee is the Manager of Membership & Community at Imagine Canada, an organization working to build a strong, resilient future for all charities and nonprofits. She sits on the Board of Directors of Dusk Dances and Dance Umbrella of Ontario.

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Nickeshia Garrick

Nickeshia Garrick was born in Toronto, Ontario and has been performing since the tender age of six. She received her dance training at the NYIDE (New York Institution of Dance and Education), National Ballet School of Canada, Toronto Dance Theatre and Simon Fraser University.  

Nickeshia holds a BFA from Simon Fraser University (Vancouver), is currently working toward the 2019 Premiere of No Woman’s Land with Roshanak Jaberi and Karen Kaeja, and has recently become a 2018 Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding Ensemble in Pool (no water).

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Fabien Maltais-Bayda

Fabien Maltais-Bayda is a writer, researcher, and arts administrator based in Toronto. He was a Dancemakers Writer-in-Residence in 2016/17, and was shortlisted for the Ontario Association of Art Galleries art writing award in 2017. He writes for Canadian Art, Canadian Theatre Review, The Dance Current, esse, and Momus, and recently published an essay on curation and the dance retrospective, co-written with Joseph P. Henry, in the Berghahn Books volume Curating Live Arts. Fabien currently works as the Administrative Director for the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists - Ontario Chapter.

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