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  • Small City, Big Talent: Victoria’s Modern Dance Scene

    Robin J. Miller

    Small City, Big Talent by Robin J. Miller chronicles how Victoria grew its vibrant dance culture over four decades. Excerpts below…


    EDITOR’S NOTE: Victoria can count itself very fortunate in having evolved and nurtured a robust, vibrant modern dance scene—and also that a talented local writer spent the considerable time and effort to tell its story.

    Anne Moon, a former entertainment editor of The Toronto Star, writes, “With a hop, a skip and a jeté, Victoria-based dance writer Robin J. Miller covers the extraordinary sweep of dance history in British Columbia’s capital city. Who knew that Mikhail Baryshnikov played a round at the Royal Colwood Golf Club ... that acclaimed choreographer Crystal Pite crafted her first dance at age three ... or that one gifted dancer had to resort to shoplifting to feed her family? But Small City, Big Talent is more than an entertaining tell-all book. It astutely observes how Victoria’s maritime environment inspires the remarkable talent that has emerged on the city’s stages, and it salutes the courageous organizations that have brought dance in all its forms to Victoria.” 

    Here FOCUS presents two short excerpts from the 288-page, photo-filled book. The first, from Chapter 1, recounts how a personal tragedy at age 17 led to the singular career of Victoria’s modern dance legend, Lynda Raino. The second from Chapter 6, describes an equally momentous point in the life of internationally renowned choreographer Crystal Pite, when she left William Forsythes’ Ballett Frankfurt to make a risky return to BC.—LC


    Excerpt from Chapter 1: When Modern Dance Came to Town

    With five children to feed, a full-time music career was out of the question for Dominic [Lynda Raino’s father]. He worked in parts and service at [Vancouver’s] Hayes Truck Factory by day and taught music at night: acoustic and steel guitar, and banjo. He also performed whenever he could and even recorded a little as a jazz musician. “I remember once, it was late night and Mum was listening to CBC on the radio. They were playing a song and the announcer said, ‘this is a really neat piece,’ then listed the musicians, including Don Raino on steel guitar. I thought that was so cool.”

    It wasn’t until Dominic died of a heart attack at age 63, however, in 1965, “on Sunday night after The Ed Sullivan Show,” that Lynda truly understood what he had sacrificed. And it changed the trajectory of her life.


    Propelled into dance

    “I remember very clearly, when Dad died, thinking that it was wrong,” Lynda said. “It was not just. It was not fair that he had to have a day job and a night job just to keep us all alive. He was a musician, but there was so little time left over for his love of music. I also remember very clearly thinking that I have to start what I want to do now. I can’t wait anymore just because we’re poor. I have to start dancing now. He died having to do two jobs and I don’t want to be like that. His death propelled me to go and take my first class.”

    A 17-year-old high school senior at the time, Lynda had excelled in school sports, including gymnastics, but was far more drawn to dance, even though she had seen little outside of the June Taylor Dancers on TV. She decided to try her first class with Paula Ross because she’d walked by the sign for her dance studio on West Hastings. 

    “I got to the studio that first time and I said, ‘I’m here for dance class,’” recalled Lynda. “The woman at the desk said, ‘Yes, okay, where’s your money?’ I didn’t know you had to pay. I said, ‘I didn’t bring money, I just came to dance.’” Luckily, the woman was kind and let Lynda take the class on condition she paid the next week. 

    About halfway into that very first class, “Paula stopped the music and asked me how long I’d been dancing, and I was so confused and so mortified that she’d singled me out, and also that she was asking me a question I didn’t know how to answer. The she asked, ‘Well, how long have you been in class?’ and I looked at the clock and said ‘Thirty minutes.’ I was so, so shy then and I didn’t understand what she wanted. It was only later that I realized she thought I was already a dancer.” 

    Paula had confirmed what Lynda already knew in her heart: “I was absolutely where I should be. I was home in the world I had wanted to be in for my whole life. Here I am, here I am!” 



    Lynda Raino in Nocturne Ritual #1 (1986). Photograph by Evan Mathison.


    Excerpt from Chapter 6: Crystal Pite

    Much as she loved her time working with Forsythe, Crystal said she “always felt that Frankfurt Ballet was not my final destination as a dance artist. I always, from childhood, had the urge to perform in my own work and to have my own company. I also wanted to come home. I really missed the West Coast—it was a powerful pull—and, of course, Jay.” When she told Bill she was leaving, he understood immediately. “He was actually surprised I stayed as long as I did because he knew about Jay and about my pull to home. So he cheered me on and still does cheer me on in my work and the things I make.” 

    Even with Bill’s support, however, leaving the security of a company for the unknown “was challenging, for sure,” said Crystal. “But it felt right. It was also a good time for my body, because I was a bit broken. My back was bad and I needed to find ways to dance that didn’t hurt so much. When you’re making things for yourself you can really work around your own issues, find other pathways. So it was a really important thing for my health as well.” 

    The desire to dance in her own work, Crystal said, originally stemmed from modern dancer Margie Gillis (who was taught and encouraged into the world of solo performance by Lynda Raino: the world of Canadian dance is a small one). “There was a point when I was really inspired and influenced by Margie,” she said. “I saw what she was doing, the synthesis between her as a creator and her as a solo performer. The direct relationship she had with her craft through her body. I was very moved by that. I never had that experience. I choreographed things on myself as a child, but as a professional choreographer, I’d never made anything for myself to dance alone. So my first impulse was to try to do that, solo performance.”

    In the end, however, Crystal never did create a solo evening for herself. Instead, after returning to Vancouver in 2001, at age 30, her career quickly began to run along two different tracks: one track leading to the formation of her own contemporary dance company, Kidd Pivot, with which she continued to perform until 2010, and the other to becoming a choreographer-in-demand at major dance companies around the world.


    Track 1: Kidd Pivot 

    Crystal chose the name of her new company carefully: 

    "Conflict is one of the forces that shapes my choreographic vocabulary. Although in my life I avoid conflict like the plague, in my work it has been vital. I don’t mean conflict in the studio as we create. I’m talking about the conflict that arises when contrasting ideas are set against each other in the very subject of a work: like certainty and doubt, for example. Or conflicting physical tasks within the body that create states of torque and exertion. I find it compelling to see someone striving, performing right on the very edge of their ability. There is conflict inherent in the effort of achieving something that is physically tricky, or really fast, or really tiring, or really complicated.

    "This creative state of conflict is reflected in the name of my dance company, Kidd Pivot. 

    "Pivot, that precise and technical move that changes your direction, your point of view, evokes a sense of skill and rigour. Kidd is for the outlaw, the pirate, the prize fighter. In counterpoint to the rigorous pivot, Kidd stands for recklessness and aggressive freedom. It’s the tension between these elements that I’m striving for in my work.

    "I want to make choreography that is detailed and beautiful but also brave and brutal. It’s not a question of balance. Balance feels peaceful and still. I’m looking for the energy created by tension. The tension between rigour and recklessness, or between instinct and intellect. The need to respect traditional ways and the need to subvert them. This moves me. This feels like a dance I want to do."



    Crystal Pite in a solo she made for Kidd Pivot called Decembering, which she performed in Victoria at Suddenly Dance Theatre’s ROMP! Festival in 2002. When she performed it a few years later at the 2008 Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa, The Dance Current (June 29, 2008) called it “spine-tinglingly brilliant dance theatre.” Photograph courtesy of Crystal Pite. 


    Crystal started small. She had brought Vancouver dancer Cori Caulfield to Frankfurt to work with her on a 25-minute duet called Field: Fiction, about writing and the creative process, which Ballett Frankfurt staged. After she returned to Canada, she was invited to present it at the Canada Dance Festival. The piece, she said, “became a kind of anchor for me, something to build on.” It led to Crystal creating a companion piece called Farther Out. The two works together became the first Kidd Pivot show, called Uncollected Work. She and Cori toured it to Germany and Croatia in 2003, before taking it across Canada, stopping in Montréal, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Whitehorse. From there, Crystal said, “things sort of snowballed and one thing led to another and off I went.” 

    Robin J. Miller is a Victoria-based writer and editor and long-time dance fan. Proceeds from Small City, Big Talent will go to Suddenly Dance Theatre’s Fountain of Youth Program which aims to support dance artists under age 26 for building new and diverse choreographic voices. You can order Small City, Big Talent here.

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