“We had to become a media company overnight when we pivoted to digital programming. We had to learn how to produce TV. My hope is that now we digest and use what we learned in 2021.”

by Emily Trace

Fall For Dance
North Festival:
Ilter Ibrahimof

Ilter Ibrahimof
by Kalya Ramu

In a year when many performing arts companies have struggled to bring fresh content to their audiences, Fall for Dance North distinguished itself with a remote festival that refused to sacrifice the ‘live’ element of dance. In 2020 Artistic Director Ilter Ibrahimof has pivoted the company’s usual programming to include the Nightshift series broadcast from the historic Citadel studio, [in]verse, an album of poetry and music from esteemed dance makers, and an augmented reality installation that allowed visitors to safely view tango and voguing at Harbourfront Centre. 

After navigating a challenging, rigorously engineered Signature Program that live-streamed many of its six world premieres from a series of venues across Canada, Ibrahimof sat down to chat with me about what they learned as a company through the process. He discusses the opportunities to grow artistic reach through digital innovations, bringing previously tabled projects to the forefront, and how he would like FFDN to be a leader in exploring the newly emerging art-form of filming live dance performances.

Now that you’ve navigated through your first digital season with The Signature Program and an augmented reality installation with Harbourfront, how are you reflecting on the festival?

Overall, we were very happy but it served its purpose in a way. This kind of mixed program with diverse dance styles and artists at the top of their game is what we're known for, so even though there were very difficult circumstances I was thrilled that we were able to create a program that represented our mandate. Producing the Signature Program was not an easy journey because pandemic restrictions constantly shifted. But I was just thrilled with the caliber of artists, the diversity, the representation, working with artists across Canada and having wonderful guests speaking and introducing each work.

In a normal year at Fall for Dance North, we have a few programs; this year we were only able to have one Signature Program so we packed everything into it. It was designed almost like a gala rather than a mixed program, which was the right thing to do this year because it created that very special moment to anchor the rest of the festival. All that said, we learned so much. We had to become a media company overnight when we pivoted to digital programming. We had to learn how to produce TV; we had to learn how to produce radio; we had to learn how to produce immersive experiences and augmented reality installations. My hope is that now we digest and use what we learned in 2021.

Do you feel your new skillset as a company will factor in to bringing your programming to a wider audience that can’t be physically present for future shows?

Yes, absolutely. We're very excited about that opportunity. Even when we go back to days where we can host a large audience inside of theatres, we want to keep the high-quality live production element on top to reach an even broader audience and build more national and international partnerships for wider distribution of those livestreams. I think it's an incredible opportunity for all of us in the performing arts field who are really waking up to the possibilities of what digital can do for our organizations.

Speaking of the intersection of cinematography and choreography, I was so impressed by Joshua Beamish’s videographer, Scott Fowler. Filming dance might have been a niche skillset before, so can you see it becoming more in demand?

Josh’s piece was pre-recorded and Scott did an amazing job, for sure. And Scott is a dancer; he was with Ballet BC and now he’s with Netherlands Dance Theatre, so he has a dancer’s eye. What’s different for me when it’s live is creating that sense of depth, of layering, the source of intimacy. I feel like a livestream is even more niche and more new, and that’s something I’d like to explore more. For an audience at home, it’s kind of thrilling to know that it’s happening live at that moment.

I had a board member who was a little sceptical about why we’re going through the trouble of producing a live show under such duress; why not just film everything in advance? But I was really adamant about that live moment because I think when the audience sees it’s actually happening live… it’s a whole different thing. It gives you goosebumps to know those dancers are, at that moment, live on stage and anything can happen. I think that’s very special.

I hope so! I think one of the ways we’re becoming a bigger player in the Canadian scene is our relationships with other presenters around the country that want us to bring our international artists. Being part of the national conversation more and more is something that we’re interested and invested in. Actually presenting in other parts of the country, I’m not sure yet. That’s a big undertaking, though I wouldn’t rule it out. But when it comes to live-streaming, I think what we do in the future is going to be a hybrid of live and digital. With our digital offerings we can have a much bigger footprint, nationally and internationally. For example, next year we’re in touch with a couple of international distributors of the filmed performing arts that could take our collection of shows and live-streams to a much more international market.

FFDN is known for bringing international dance forms to Toronto; it’s where I always discover new forms that fascinate me. But with the new reach, do you see FFDN perhaps growing a national presence or even an international presence?

Experiencing dance as an audience member and critic, I’ve had to learn to accept the intrinsic ephemerality of dance. Traditionally, it ignites like a solar flare and teaches us to feel in the moment, to let it pass; but reviewing the Signature Program, I discovered a new dimension to that experience. I was able to exclaim and gasp where I’d normally shush myself in a theatre—even clapping along with Mafa Makhubalo’s gumboot performance. With more companies becoming capable of digital production and delivery, do you think the definition of dance expands now that ephemerality is no longer a necessary restrictor?

That's a very clever comment and very interesting. I've been talking to my team about how, on the medical side of things, a vaccine is not the ultimate answer here. Dance audiences like yourself, new or seasoned, are realizing new ways to watch and enjoy dance, and they’re building new habits. I think these new habits are, in certain ways, here to stay and we need to respond to that. And I’m excited about that! I think the key thing we learned from the Signature Program and producing other livestreams, like the Nightshift series from the Citadel on Parliament Street (where we moved around the artists with the cameras and really got close to the action) is that a new art form is emerging in terms of filming dance. It’s not a dance film and it’s not archival footage—it’s somewhere in between.

I would like our organization to be a leader in exploring this new art form with new directors and artists who are excited to design shows, pieces and choreographies that are meant to be performed live and also delivered through live-streaming—to see how we can push the artform.

I loved that Jera Wolfe got to work with Third Coast Percussion performing the album that inspired his piece, and wondered if that would have been possible without the challenges you dealt with this year. Were there any elements of the program that came together because of 2020’s obstacles and challenges, rather than in spite of them?

Yes… but I would never want to say “thanks to Covid.” It’s not about that, it’s just a game-changer. What’s difficult is we have all these buildings, these venues, these big institutions and people who work for these big institutions: performers, administrators, technicians, designers who are all having a hard time because their employment had to change. The way they do their job just had to be re-innovated, re-thought, and it’s a hard process—a very hard process.

What we do is very social; we’re used to being in theatres for hours at a time together, creating, designing, chatting backstage, gossiping, planting seeds for future collaborations… this is where it happens. That just hasn’t been possible; I think that’s the difficult part: the transition. But I think we're transitioning to something hopeful, optimistic, and I think there is so much opportunity there for us to really expand our reach, expand how we create, how we present, how we connect our audience with the arts and the people behind the arts.

And because of our digital pivots, I was able to produce so many things that I’d wanted to for a long time but had to stay on the back-burner because our priority was always more traditional in-person festival producing. We’d been thinking about a podcast season for three years now, and in fact, the first episode of Mambo has recordings that we captured three years ago for that project. So when we pivoted in March/April, I said “Now we can do the podcast, because there’s nothing else to do!” We wanted to do a dance film, now we can do the dance film. We wanted to do a new season of Bathtub Bran, and we started to talk to Bran two years ago about this. It wasn’t a Covid project; not many people know, but that’s true.

So yeah, I have a lot of optimism. I think there were lessons to be learned and opportunities to be explored, and I feel like we did that as FFDN and I’m proud of that. Because of that I’m more confident for the future; we’ve started to now plan 2021, and because of 2020 I’m so much more confident.

Yes, now that you’ve moved past a major hurdle and sort of separated yourself from the pack by not relying on archival footage and really pushing into fresh territory, what does 2021 look like for FFDN now that you know you can deliver digital programming and deliver it well?

This is one of the most difficult ones to answer. 2020 was, in a way, very clear: we just couldn’t be in theatres. We had to really think outside the box very differently. When you are looking way into 2022, I think a lot of us are very hopeful that a new normal will emerge in terms of audience engagement. We will be able to be in the theatres though we might continue to do a lot of digital programming, so we’ll come up with a hybrid situation that will make sense to all of us.

But 2021? It’s the one that is, I think, the most questionable. Producing the Signature Program and the Nightshift series and a few other live-streams was great; we tried to monetize them and sell tickets to the Signature Program which was really successful. I feel like audiences are hungry for high-quality, unique, exclusive online experiences and they are open to paying for the experience. So I feel like I want to push this a little bit further and do not just one but a series of high-profile livestreams from the theatres, and if we are able to accommodate a live audience come fall, then we’ll add that to the experience.