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Profile: Jeanne Holmes, Artistic Director, Canada Dance Festival

Jeanne Holmes is the Artistic Director of the Canada Dance Festival, as well as a huge advocate for dance and community across Canada. We were very excited to interview her to hear what it is like running a national dance platform, and to talk to her about what dance in Canada means and where it is going. We Skyped Jeanne in her family cabin on Lake Huron, surrounded by a blanket of snow. Jeanne was so charismatic and easy to talk with that it felt as though the interview was done face to face. We are huge fans of all the work she does to support and nurture contemporary dance in this country. Ballet BC is very excited to be performing in Ottawa this June as part of the CDF 2016 line-up.

A: We would love to hear about how you came to be a major producer of contemporary dance in Canada. Did you ever dance yourself?

JH: My mom put me in a ballet class when I was four so that I would be more graceful, then when I was six she moved me into tap so that at least I could make noise. That’s pretty much my experience as a dancer. I came to dance in a very backward way, I went to theatre school, so I have a degree in performance. I use it now to lie to people and tell jokes. The year I graduated I got a job at Harbourfront Centre working in the box office and I started to see shows from the international dance season while I was there. Once upon a time they had the best dance presenting season in the country. My very first dance show ever was Jean-Pierre Pearreault. That was my introduction to contemporary dance.

C: That’s a pretty good introduction.

JH: It was. I worked in the box office and in production for a few years and then the job came up on the performing arts team to work with Cathy Levy. She needed someone to be her administrator. So I kinda flew the desk while Cathy programmed for nine years. I learned about dance through her. She mentored me throughout our time working together. Then when she left to take over the National Arts Centre I took on the programming at Harbourfront. Really my whole experience of dance is through the producing side, not as a participant.

A: But you’re still passionate about it.

JH: It’s kinda crazy actually. It’s a really nice field. We didn’t present any ballet when I was at Harbourfront. My whole learned experience is in contemporary dance. I was very fortunate to have been able to have seen as well as to bring some of the world’s best dance to Toronto. When you have the opportunity to see that much great work it’s really easy to get hooked.

C: What do you think is special about Canadian contemporary dance?

JH: Well, I think what is special about contemporary dance in general is the opportunity to tell specific stories, and to tell them in a visceral way.

Dance is hard because the response that you have as a viewer is a visceral response, and that can make people uncomfortable. That’s what I like best about dance, the kind of discomfort that I get or the way it feels physically when I watch it. You know in North America we can get distanced from our bodies and so watching something that makes you feel that way isn’t always comfortable for some people because it’s not a familiar experience. There is a lot of that in dance that makes it special but specifically in Canada because we are such a big country and we are so spread out, individual parts of the country have individual perspectives. Their work is specific to their region, connected to their local environment, their city perspective. Dance being made in Vancouver is very different than what is being made in Montreal, Toronto, or Halifax.

C: We have heard that you are passionate about community building, which we think is wonderful. How do you go about creating community in the contemporary dance world, or even surrounding a show?

JH: You guys are lucky because I think you live in the city that has done it the right way. From a creation perspective I think everyone feels that Montreal is the heart of the contemporary dance world, but when it comes to creating support and creating a strong sense of community around contemporary dance practice, Vancouver has done it right. When I was working on Dance in Vancouver it amazed me how enthusiastic and supportive people were of each other. It wasn’t always that way. It used to be that dance in Vancouver had a really homogenous feel to it. Everyone was creating in a similar way, using improvisation in the studio, they shared the same dancers, the community was small and all the dancers took class from the same people. This created a sort of sameness to the creations that I saw back then. However, over the last 15 years that has changed a lot. There are now very distinct voices creating in Vancouver.

When you have a healthy creative community, or a seemingly healthy creative community life, from there you can build an audience base, donor base, and supporter base that comes out in ripples. When the heart is strong, it all grows from there.

I have spent a lot of time trying to build that kind of energy, build that kind of community around the festival. It is important to us here at the CDF that artists feel like their work belongs here because when that happens an audience can feel the difference. There can often be a huge disconnect there. The core of any effort has to be the work itself. Then from there you bridge the gaps in audience in different ways. Everyone needs to feel like they belong (artists and audiences) in your theatre, that they are supported and encouraged to succeed. Audiences should feel they are allowed to ask any questions they want, that they can be knowledgeable or newbies and still feel they can appreciate the work.

C: Who would you want to play you in a movie about your life?

JH: People tell me I look like Jennifer Aniston (laughs). I usually tell them that she looks like me.

A: How do you get a sense of who your audience is?

JH: I try to be very present in the theatre. It’s important that I am there and open to answering questions. There has to be an opportunity for the audience to give feedback. Often you get more criticism than positive feedback, but that’s part of it, right? Usually people don’t call to tell you how much they loved the show, they call to tell you how much they hated it and to make you explain why they shouldn’t hate it. Generally speaking, people don’t like dance, and are very clear about saying so. You know, sometimes I read bad books but I’m not going to stop reading because I read a bad novel or stop going to movies because I saw a bad movie. I’ll just avoid Charlie Sheen movies, or whatever it is. But people will make that decision about dance without hesitation. They may have only ever gone to see a classical ballet, or to some weird contemporary thing where people were pretending to be trees, and that is their only experience of dance. They don’t understand it so they don’t like it.

One way I believe we can start to solve the problem of this disconnect is to find ways to create a context for your audience. This is something we focused on at Harbourfront and something that is really important to us at the festival. We want to allow people to have as much information as they need or want so that there is a level of comfort, or even curated discomfort, that will not send someone away from the performance feeling like they never want to come back. We need ambassadors for this art form. People who are going to take their experience back out to their communities. I think social media is helping in that there is now an opportunity for people to talk to their peers about what they like, and also to invite others into the conversation.

C: What are you focusing on with your Ottawa audience? What do they like?

JH: One of the ideas we are trying to mine here in Ottawa is that dance can be anywhere, and everywhere. It can be you performing, or you watching someone perform in a non-traditional venue. We’ve started to offer more interactive performances because Ottawa audiences love to participate. Whether it’s taking class, or being part of a performance, they are ready to be engaged.

For example we did a project for the 2014 festival called “Porch View Dances” where professional choreographers worked with families, they danced on porches or in their front yards, and the audience moved from house to house. The feeling that those families have as performers and their experience of being able to tell a story – their story – through movement is remarkable. It makes them better audience members. It makes them more informed about what they are watching, having been part of the process. I think that is something that is incredibly valuable when it comes to building an audience.

A: Why is commissioning new work important to the CDF?

JH: Investing in the creation and development of new projects is a really important piece to me. To a certain extent I feel the festival has a responsibility to develop new work. As a national platform we should be investing in a community of artists outside of just offering performance opportunities.

The people who I have commissioned in the past are people who I think are exciting, who are telling interesting stories. When people ask me how I choose the works that I present I tell them it’s like any kind of relationship. I want to work with people I like, that I’d like to sit down and have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine with. It’s about finding common ground and enjoying each others company, enjoying each other’s views almost as much as it’s about the work they’re making.

There’s also a lot of instinct involved in that process of commissioning work. You see people who’s work you think is interesting and telling you something that you haven’t see a hundred times. You want to help them grow that voice. You want to be able to be a part of something that is potentially going to change your world, or the audiences world, or the artist’s world in a positive way. For me it’s always going to be about supporting someone who is doing something special, and that you want other people to see. I think that’s the best part of what I get to do – helping to make that happen.

A: What do you think is special about Ballet BC?

JH: Like I said, I am a contemporary dance fan. I like being able to hear the dancers breathe, to feel the texture of a piece while I’m watching it. What I have always loved about Ballet BC is that you live in a lot of different worlds all at once. You’re making work that is fulfilling lot of different kinds of experiences. There is strong technical pointe work, beautifully sculptured pieces, so many different voices on stage. You create work with artists from all over the globe. I especially like that the program that is coming to the festival this year is all works by female choreographers. I think that’s a super interesting conversation.

What Emily has done for Ballet BC is remarkable. The dancers are so strong, and the different artists that are coming in to make work for the company are internationally recognized as being at the top of their fields. They’re not necessarily people that we know in North America, which is also exciting. To get to know someone who is from a completely different dance experience than what we are used to, and to see the work interpreted by you as a company is a gift.

A: What are you obsessed with right now?

JH: Well I have two jobs now. I’m still working at the CDF, but recently I got a job working for the City of Toronto, where I work on “Nuit Blanche” which is an all night contemporary visual art event that the City produces. So I’m a little bit obsessed with a few visual artists right now. We are working with an Italian artist who lives in LA. He paints these murals that are done in the style of renaissance masters, but they are modern images. People with iPads that look like Michelangelo could have painted them on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They are beautifully ancient and corporeal but also so contemporary.

That and Downton Abbey.

~C+A Consulting Artists

Jeanne Holmes, Artistic Director, Canada Dance Festival. Photo by David Hou.