On the National Arts Centre 2017-18 Dance Program

Earlier this month, the National Arts Centre announced its 2017-18 dance season, a program of close to 20 performances from across Canada and abroad. The NAC doesn’t organize its season around a central idea or along a line of inquiry, but it did propose three ways of encountering these works: as Contemporary, Ballet, and Dance-Theatre. For those of us who advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous, non-European and diasporic dance, it is difficult to know how to situate ourselves in relation to these terms.

It would certainly be different if “contemporary” dance was commonly understood – as Indigenous artists and artists of colour insist – as dance that is made now. But most often, “contemporary” is implicitly defined as the lineage of European and white North American theatrical dance, while non-European forms are described as “traditional”, or through terms that reference another geography – neither now nor here.

The NAC has avoided these binaries, at least in their terminology. Nonetheless, the Contemporary programming is filtered almost entirely through white bodies and the aesthetics of white contemporary dance. Of 12 artists/companies, which include six from Canada, there is only one Indigenous choreographer (Montreal-based Daina Ashbee) and one choreographer of colour (Canadian-born/German resident Laurie Young). Of the international companies, four are from Europe; one from the United States. As far as the NAC ventures is the Middle East, through the Israeli dance company L-E-V, which traces its influences back to the Batsheva Dance Company and Martha Graham.

Of course, it is right that Ashbee, of Cree and Dutch descent, and Young, the daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, should see their artistry held in the context of contemporary dance, and not pigeon-holed by their racial or cultural identity. Both Ashbee and Young subvert expectations of who can embody contemporary dance, and what those bodies signify, and how. But with only two non-white choreographers in a season of programming, there is no sense of a reciprocal gesture on the part of the NAC to re-envision dance in Canada. It is also worth noting that both Ashbee and Young are presented on smaller stages: Young in the Arts Court Odd Box which seats 150, and Ashbee in the Nouvelle Scène Studio B, which seats a mere 100.

Similarly, it would be awkward if forms such as bharatanatyam or Peking Opera were set apart from contemporary dance in a “classical” category, and viewed as unchanging repertoire-based forms. But the NAC’s Ballet programming is notable for its implication that a single artistic and cultural art form, with its profound history of dominance and exclusion in the cultural landscape, merits its own category, without any attendant relationships to other classical art forms. And the possibility of ballet that might foreground bodies of colour, or ballet from non-European countries, seems remote.

Then there is the peculiar denominator of Dance-theatre. Why the theatrical traditions of contemporary dance and ballet are not considered forms of dance-theatre, is not clear. But Dance-theatre is the only category in the NAC programming that holds a non-European aesthetic in the form of Taiwan’s Legend Lin Dance, and artistic director’s Lee-Chen Lin’s inquiries into contemplative and ceremonial practices.

In all – 19 artists/companies, of which only 3 are led by non-European or non-white choreographers. Not to mention the scarcity of forms outside the progressions of modern dance; it is refreshing to see Shay Kuebler and the Radical Art System representing evolutions in tap, but those seeking new programming in street dance, flamenco, dance from disability/Deaf cultures etc…will have to wait.

And though it is it not part of the season announcement, it is worth considering the NAC’s associate dance artist position, established in 2007. This has the potential to develop curatorial knowledge and networks across the broader dance community; but in a decade, out of 11 dance artists, 10 are white, with the only person of colour (Wen Wei Wang) also a practitioner in a Western contemporary dance lineage.

I had similar thoughts floating in mind when the NAC announced its 2016/17 season, not long after Matthew Jocelyn had announced the CanStage season and been rightfully and collectively critiqued by the theatre community for its predominantly white programming. The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Nestruck wrote extensively about the CanStage fiasco, but no critics have commented on the fact that, for all its international representation, the NAC’s curatorial aesthetic remains unquestioningly Eurocentric.

In 2017, the absence of Indigenous, Black bodies and bodies of colour is painfully felt. Cathy Levy describes the season as representing “a range of cultural and aesthetic backgrounds…the largest and most extensive [in the French translation of the promotional video, the word is éclectique] program to date…” But that range is still within a specific dance lineage; there is no opportunity to map the vast spectrum of aesthetic and cultural material by Indigenous dance artists and artists of colour. However the NAC may define Contemporary, Ballet and Dance-theatre, bodies and ways of being are excluded from this stage.

None of what I am saying is controversial; these are plain observations of programming, not assumptions about intent. At the same time, I don’t believe that the situation can be reversed simply through assurances of better representation in the future. The questions that need to be answered are more profound:


  • How does the NAC define contemporary dance?


  • How is NAC Dance responding to the calls to action contained in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?


  • How can NAC Dance integrate a consciousness and critique of Eurocentricity in its curatorial practice?


  • How can the NAC support the development of Indigenous dance, dance by artists of colour, and diasporic dance in Canada?


  • How can the NAC support the appreciation of Indigenous dance, dance by artists of colour, and diasporic dance?


  • How can the NAC expand its curatorial networks, deepen its research and development, and connect to vital discourses on contemporary dance?


  • How can we in the community help?


Inclusion and diversity aren’t achieved by establishing new categories, but by cultivating open curiosity, new relationships and conversations.

#contemporary dance#dance in Canada#equity#NAC#NAC Dance#National Arts Centre


  1. Jai Govinda - March 21, 2017 @ 5:55 pm

    Very solid article. I just joined the board of the DANCE CENTRE in Vancouver, and we were AGAIN having that conversation. Went on a Canada Council meeting, same thing…..Programming and grants are mainly offered to the EURO centric “contemporary” dance forms. The rest is tokenism…… It’s such an old story, I cannot believe we still talk about this!

  2. Nathalie Joanisse - March 23, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

    Cet article est très pertinent, surtout en cette année du 150e anniversaire de la confédération canadienne! Ce 150e anniversaire souligne la question suivante: Comment voulons-nous que notre Canada soit? Inclusif? Représentatif de toutes les diversités? Ouvert et respectueux envers les personnes handicapées? Avant-gardiste? Si c’est le cas, les Conseils des arts fédéral et provinciaux de même que les programmateurs de saison de danse et les compagnies de danse ne devraient-elles pas emboîter le pas? N’ont-ils pas une responsabilité sociale de représentativité? N’oublions pas qu’il est toujours nécessaire de prendre des risques pour faire avancer les choses et pour aller au bout de nos rêves.

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