Note: This article was updated April 13 to reflect the temporary postponement of the workshops.
As an artist used to pushing against the confines of the traditional dance world, Kevin Fraser can’t help but be surprised to find himself serving as an artist in residence at an established institution.
The institution in question is New Westminster’s Massey Theatre, where Fraser and his Immigrant Lessons collective have taken up a new post as dance company in residence.
“Wow,” Fraser says, “I never really knew resources like this actually existed, or could potentially exist, for individuals who create the art that I create and that I like.”
For the Jamaican-born, London, Ontario-raised Fraser, it’s always been clear that the art world’s definition of dance was a limited one.
He has been on both sides of the fence that separates the “establishment” from everyone else. He studied dance at Ryerson University; he’s trained in ballet, modern and jazz. But he has also made annual journeys to New York City to research and train in street dance, and he says his heart will always be with underground artists.
Whenever he’s part of an established company or dance class, he says, he sees the same pattern repeating itself.
“I’ve really noticed the lack of other bodies in the room, different shades in the room, different experiences in the room, different cultures and complexities and intersections,” he says. “I really like to challenge that a little bit.”
In essence, Fraser wants to challenge the institutionalized framework around the creation of artistic work. He questions why opportunities are more readily given to people from within institutions rather than to underground and street artists.
“It’s very much about making sure BIPOC experiences and voices are being heard,” he says, “but there’s also that added layer of having a lot of people that come from very different walks of life and creative mindsets in the room.”
COMPANY IN RESIDENCE
Fraser brings his own experiences as a queer Black artist to his work as the artistic director of Immigrant Lessons. The multidisciplinary art collective – which Fraser describes as a “youth artist incubator” – incorporates dance, theatre, music, fashion, visual media and design.
Fraser and his “kids” – the young artists, aged 17 to 26, who make up the collective – are using their Massey residency as a chance both to create and to connect with the community.
The performers – Sophia Gamboa, Simran Sachar, Sevrin Emnacen-Boyd, Joshua Cameron, Hayden Pereira and Tegvaran Singh – are continuing to create the company’s second full-length work, a theatre-dance piece that will explore issues of culture, individuality and intergenerational trauma.
While in residence at the Massey, they’re also leading a series of free workshops aimed at BIPOC and marginalized youth in the community. Three four-week sessions have launched so far: Grooving Foundations, a foundational hip hop dance class; Salu/Salo, a gathering space for Filipinx youth; and Breaking Lessons and Sessions, for dancers with breaking experience.
This Thursday, April 15, was to mark the launch of the next workshop series, Philosophy & Dance: A Threshold of Indiscernability, but the workshops have been put on a temporary hold in response to the tightening of provincial health restrictions around COVID-19.
Fraser is looking forward to building momentum into the spring. By May, he notes, there will be one workshop every evening through the week, provided the pandemic situation allows.
MENTORSHIPS AND RESOURCES
While he and his artists are being given a chance to teach, they’re also being given a chance to learn through mentorships and meetings arranged by the Massey – including sessions with Black elders and Indigenous elders.
“They’re really trying to make it about community. It’s very community-driven, which is beautiful,” Fraser says. “The community and the mentorships are amazing opportunities.”
To work within the Massey Theatre, with its space, equipment and professionals available to him, has been eye-opening for an artist who’s used to working more on the margins.
“I’m really starting to see the inner workings of what different companies get in terms of resources and support. It’s really cool to see the possibilities and to try to keep conversations going around how to keep those possibilities coming to artists,” Fraser says.
NEW MODEL FOR MASSEY
For Jessica Schneider, executive director of the Massey Theatre, having Immigrant Lessons in residence is just one piece of a larger rethink around how to build community for more artists within the theatre.
“I already knew that we were going to go towards an intergenerational and community-engaged programming model, where artists would be centred,” Schneider says.
The pandemic – and the resulting space it freed up in a theatre that could no longer invite the public in for performances – helped to accelerate the process. Also playing in to the shift was the rising awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need for anti-racism efforts on a global scale.
“It’s not simple, it’s not one-dimensional, and artists are so good at dealing with complexity. We can’t forget that these social dynamics still need to be moved forward,” Schneider says. “Just because we can’t get out of our houses doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be finding ways to figure out how to make change and validate people and acknowledge people.”
She hopes the Immigrant Lessons residency will begin to extend the circles of connection so Black community members can start to participate and connect with one another.
“There’s such a diaspora that it’s not simple work,” she says. “The chance to have a Black space to be in – as a facility, we have that to offer, and we have resources to support the artists to create and connect with our community.”