Dances for a Small Stage celebrates a big 10 years
To understand how popular Dances for a Small Stage has become over 10 years, you need only look outside its doors a few hours before showtime. There, perched on the steps inside the Grandview Legion, you’ll find people taking part in their own preshow traditions while lining up early.
“I have these picnic ladies—I call them that—who show up at 5:30 and sit on the stairs and have a picnic,” says tireless MovEnt artistic producer Julie-anne Saroyan, who’s speaking to the Straight from a small town outside of Vienna, where she’s wearing her other hat: as stage manager for Crystal Pite’s touring Kidd Pivot troupe. “Then there’s this other set of ladies that show up at the same time, usually on a different night, and they have a knitting circle.
“They maybe go to one or two dance shows but always to Dances for a Small Stage. That’s why we’ve survived: the loyal audience, the people who come and pay their 20 bucks every time. Some have been coming since the first show.”
Those deep roots in the community have helped the series to last a decade, but also to grow and evolve. Over the years, artists from Margie Gillis to Emily Molnar to Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg have seen their works grace the tiny platform—one that has always, crucially, been set in a licensed lounge. (Saroyan jokingly says that the reason more men attend her shows than other dance events is the beer.)
Looking back, Saroyan says she never could have imagined, when she first launched Small Stage with local dance artist Day Helesic, that it would continue so long. Inspired by a similar club night in Toronto, the duo launched in 2002 on a tiny platform at the storied Royal Hotel on Granville Street, and featured names like Pite and Cori Caulfield.
“I still can’t believe that it’s taken off like it has. When Day and I started it in 2002, we thought, ‘We have to create something that is not normal, that is not going into a theatre,’ ” Saroyan recalls. “It felt like there wasn’t enough going on in the city at that time. And now, of course, the city is so vibrant, and I’m proud to say that Dances for a Small Stage was part of that.”
The upcoming show, presented as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, will mark not only Small Stage’s 10th anniversary, but also its 25th incarnation. And these days, the mixed program always carries a new twist: now running the series on her own, Saroyan gives participating artists a theme to create around. For the next production, that means the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.
“I felt it provided another boundary for them, and I was also interested in seeing what the response to my challenge was,” Saroyan says of installing the theme idea. “For this one, I think I chose the Brothers Grimm because I’ve been touring a lot in Germany and I get fascinated by these timeless tales—there’s over 200 of them!”
Showing the loyalty of the artists who have taken part in Small Stage over the years, several big names are returning for the anniversary show. Among them is Noam Gagnon, of Compagnie Vision Selective, who was one half of the Holy Body Tattoo duo that took to the tiny platform for the very first edition at the Royal.
“When we were touring exhaustively with Holy Body Tattoo and the pressure was going higher and higher, it was really liberating,” he tells the Straight over the phone, adding this will be his fifth time taking part. “It’s a great opportunity, because it’s low pressure in a cabaret style. Everything is pared down to the minimum: there’s just one spotlight at the front of the stage—you can’t hide. And when you hit the floor it resonates!”
Gagnon will be taking an excerpt from his show Thank You, You’re Not Welcome (it debuts at next month’s Chutzpah Festival), and pulling it out of context to experiment with it. The piece has a definite fairy-tale feel. “It’s an opportunity to play with the pieces and reorganize them,” Gagnon says.
The evening will also span everything from a flamenco take on the Snow White character to a hip-hop version of “Hansel and Gretel”.
But it turns out the theme didn’t come quite so easily to contemporary-dance artist Josh Beamish, another repeat visitor to Small Stage, who credits the event with providing his local debut in the contemporary community. Beamish’s Move: the company has gone on to big things, including recent high-profile shows in China, but he is leaving town out of frustration with the lack of funding, especially from the province, for his troupe. He’s looking at opportunities in New York, and says this could be his last show here for a long time. So he struggled to find the right Grimm’s tale to capture his mindset—though he says he enjoyed the challenge.
“I was really unsure of how I was going to approach it,” Beamish says from Montreal, where he’s about to reset his recent work Red Nocturnal at a ballet school. “Then I went on a website with all Grimm’s tales and came upon one called ‘The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was’. It’s a loaded title, one that expresses the full range of what that story could consist of, so it was very open. I wanted to do a pure movement piece, especially if others are doing a lot of character work.
“And it ends up that it really reads to my entire journey here [in Vancouver]. I haven’t been afraid of anyone, and I’ve gone from youth theatre to performing in one of the world’s biggest opera houses,” he says, referring to a recent show in Shanghai.
For Beamish, the chance to perform at Small Stage is almost as important as being on those bigger world stages. “There’s nothing else that compares to this,” he says, adding: “It’s a little window into the work of artists that people wouldn’t usually see. It forces a true community upon our community.”
Dances for a Small Stage is at the Grandview Legion from Wednesday to next Friday (February 1 to 3).