Interview with Claire Oliver from Danse Danse
Danse Danse has been bringing the best of local and international contemporary dance to audiences in Montreal since 1998. Their commitment to promoting dance and its appreciation has seen Danse Danse’s work grow from showcasing performances, to creating education programs geared to youth and schools, to creating a dedicated audience development department in 2015. We recently spoke with Claire Oliver, audience development officer, about Danse Danse’s work, dance as a common language, and the ways in which diversity shapes an organization.
Could you tell us a bit about Danse Danse and your role at the organization?
Danse Danse is a contemporary dance presenter. In other words, the organization presents shows by local and international contemporary dance companies. For our 22nd season, 12 companies will present a total of 60 shows and two school matinees at the larger Théâtre Maisonneuve (1,400 seats) and the more intimate Cinquième Salle (300 seats) at Place des Arts.
Since its beginnings, Danse Danse’s mission has focused on promoting contemporary dance and audience development. As such, in 2015 it created an audience development department to make performing arts more accessible and make people more aware of them. My colleague Anne-Sophie Viens and myself are developing inclusive projects in schools and communities, and with the new citizens that we’ve been happy to welcome to our shows since 2018!
Montreal is a vibrant city, known for its diversity of cultures, ethnicities, and religions. How has this shaped and impacted Danse Danse?
Montréal is extremely rich in cultural diversity and many of the creators presented by Danse Danse are established in Québec but come from other countries: Algeria, Venezuela, Mexico… Not to mention the dancers. There are a lot of international companies in addition to all the local ones, and the total number of performances makes Danse Danse the leading contemporary dance season in Canada. Since its beginnings, Danse Danse has presented foreign companies from 23 countries and five continents.
As for the audience, a recent study* has shown that our audience is proportionally more culturally diverse than the population of the city of Montréal. Our office team, for its part, has people from Germany, China, France, Lebanon and Québec working together (our potlucks are phenomenal), and everyone contributes their own enriching background to our work, which addresses emotions, expression, and identity.
* 2018 Canada Post profile analysis
How is dance, as a medium, inclusive? How is it accessible?
Dance has been around since…prehistoric times! To celebrate, conduct rituals, socialize… dance has been used as a form of expression on all continents. Also, there’s basically only one tool required: our body. Without words, there’s no language barrier.
In addition, contemporary dance has largely democratized the representation of the human body on stage: it can be tall, small, muscled, thin, it can have physical limitations…
There are dance classes offered for all ages and conditions: for toddlers, seniors, people with reduced mobility. Dance truly is an artistic medium that brings people together. There’s something for everyone, so go ahead, dance!
Tell us a bit about your Get Youth into Dance program, and how it encourages participation and connection
Danse Danse created the Get Youth into Dance program in 2005. The program, which is run with the funds collected during our annual fundraising campaign, gives several hundred youth the chance to see our shows for free every season. Youth centres, schools in underprivileged neighbourhoods and community organizations that work with vulnerable populations can thus bring youths to a Danse Danse show and be greeted by an ambassador that provides information and guidance before, during, and after the show. It creates a special space for expression, listening, and sharing.
To date, over 6,800 youth have had the opportunity to use the program. There are also 930 new citizens who have had the chance to see our shows for free and some have attended a movement workshop with a special guest from the season!
How have initiatives such as the Get Youth into Dance program changed Danse Danse as an organization?
The Get Youth into Dance program also gives youth a voice. We hear that voice and it helps us grow and move forward. The guidance and resources for the program evolve throughout the years. And it has led to several other projects! In fact, it is the key to our cultural actions: the projects we’re creating, the resources we’re developing, and the partnerships we’re building.
The audience development department as such was born out of this desire and need to go further in guiding audiences that are less interested in or aware of our offer and contemporary dance.
Do you notice any difference in how audiences connect to performances when there is an element of mediation? Or any form of intervention to introduce new audiences to dance?
Mediation is a way to create connections between an individual and a piece. When youth participate in a workshop with an artist whom they then get to see on stage, it has an immediate impact: they feel involved, proud, at home in a theatre that they wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to go to. They become stakeholders in the artistic experience.
When ambassadors speak to the youths before the show, their goal is to create connections between them and the piece they will see, to make them want to see the show.
It’s like magic when you see the connection forming: the feeling that art has no boundaries, that it brings people together and immerses them in an intimate and creative experience. It’s experiencing our deepest emotions and letting them soar.
How does Danse Danse encourage inclusivity outside of the theatre?
In addition to presenting shows, Danse Danse organizes dance workshops, backstage visits, and workshops for audience members at the theatre, in studios, or even in schools and community centres. Artistic meetings can happen in places other than the theatre. We can also meet the public wherever it is.
We also have a partnership with an art gallery – Arsenal, Contemporary Art – that provides dance artists with a creative space for a few weeks and ends with a public presentation of the work they have done.
We’re working on multiplying our inclusive projects for the general public: youth, new citizens and seniors (a pilot project is coming soon), so that we can bring the joy of dance to an ever-increasing audience!
Which of your initiatives are you most proud of and why?
That’s a hard one…I feel fulfilled by my work because it relates to people, feelings, sharing. Regardless of the result – discovering a true passion, sharing a pleasant moment, feeling confused or at a loss – all artistic experiences can be constructive and important.
I’m just as proud of the little initiatives as the big ones. In fact, I’m proud to have been given the mandate to create the audience development department and make it grow with my amazing colleague Anne-Sophie Viens. And all that is possible thanks to Danse Danse’s drive and commitment.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.