Dancing far beyond labels at the Vancouver International Dance Festival

At 14, the Vancouver International Dance Festival maintains an eclectic mashup of classical, butoh, flamenco, and modern.

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      Given that they’re known for delivering intense performances while clad in loincloths and white body paint, it might make sense for Vancouver International Dance Festival organizers Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi to build their annual event around butoh—but that’s a tactic they tried, and abandoned, long ago.

      On the occasion of the VIDF’s 14th anniversary, Bourget recalls the Kokoro Dance couple’s initial foray into festival-making with a mixture of amusement and nostalgia. “The original, original festival was in 1998,” she says, on the line from the Mount Pleasant apartment she shares with her dance and life partner. “We just presented two butoh artists at the Firehall, and we called it the Vancouver Butoh Festival. But we soon realized that that might be a little bit boxy, like we would get in this never-ending cycle and only be able to do that. Even though the growth of butoh has been amazing, we didn’t want to get into that. Labels, while they’re convenient for some people, tend to limit the impetus you have as an artist.

      “And,” she adds, “we love all sorts of dance.”

      That was obvious as soon as Bourget and Hirabayashi retooled their butoh fest as the VIDF in 2000. Programming with an eye toward inclusivity and a nod to their own eclectic interests—Bourget trained as a ballerina; Hirabayashi is an enthusiastic amateur musician—they curate an event that is rooted in modern dance, but that is open to all kinds of variations. This year, for instance, that’s reflected in the presence of Vancouver’s classically oriented Goh Ballet—but the troupe will be mixing things up with the martial-arts-inspired Guangdong Modern Dance Company, from China. Butoh, as always, will be featured, but when Los Angeles–based Michael Sakamoto gives a free show, he’ll partner with hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris in an unprecedented fusion of styles. And although Montreal provocateur Benoît Lachambre has had to cancel his Par B.L.eux company’s appearance due to his broken arm, other sound-and-movement presentations include the avant-flamenco stylings of Spain’s Israel Galván, and a rare opportunity to see Japanese jazz pianist Aki Takase in a duo with dancer Yui Kawaguchi.

      As programmers, Bourget and Hirabayashi are taking a big-tent approach. And if this means that the VIDF is held together primarily by their own excellent instincts, they’re fine with that. “When we started,” Bourget recalls, “we weren’t getting to see the kind of work we were hearing about, and we thought the city was ready for that kind of exposure.” Judging by the explosive growth of the Vancouver dance scene in the years since they started, they were right—although that doesn’t mean that running the event is easy.

      “I won’t lie: it’s a struggle,” Bourget admits. “There’s all sorts of other festivals now. It’s not exactly competition, but there’s a lot of sharing of the audience—and Vancouver has other things that distract people from going to the theatre. They go sailing, they go skiing, they go mountain-climbing; they do all sorts of things here. So it’s been a challenge, but we’re still alive after 14 years.”

      The festival is also planning to stay alive. Although both Bourget and Hirabayashi perform with uncommon vigour, they’re now senior artists—and Hirabayashi is technically a senior citizen, eligible for a federal pension. There will come a time when they’ll step away from the VIDF’s helm, but they intend to leave the event in good aesthetic and administrative shape, as their “legacy gift” to the city where they met. And that, for now, means continuing to recruit new dance audiences, most notably through free performances, often in scenic outdoor locations.

      “It’s wonderful to come across something that you didn’t know was there,” Bourget says of the site-specific performances that Kokoro Dance will give at the Woodward’s Atrium on Sunday (March 9) and the Roundhouse Turntable Plaza on March 16. “And you can feel like a pied piper: when you begin to perform in a public space, you can feel the people coming. It pulls them in, you know? I don’t know that it will ever translate into people actually buying a ticket, but dance is really our life and we want to bring it to everyone.”

      The Vancouver International Dance Festival runs at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, the Vancouver Playhouse, and other locations from Friday (March 7) to March 29.