When Artistic Director Ilter Ibrahimof first pitched the idea of Fall for Dance North to presenter Mark Hammond it was unimaginable that dance programming could fill the 3,200 seats at the Sony Centre (now Meridian Hall). Toronto audiences had forgotten what it is to be moved by physical expression. But the FFDN concept - mixed bills that include large-scale international companies for a supremely affordable ticket price, as a way to grow the audience for dance in Toronto - captured Mark’s imagination. He committed the Sony Centre as a co-presenting partner, providing venue, production and marketing support, so long as Ilter could create an organization, formalize a board, generate the funds and program the event.
Ilter quickly gathered his core team. Madeleine Skoggard, then Sony Centre Program Manager, enthusiastically joined Ilter as co-founder and Executive Director, and Michael Caldwell, acclaimed Toronto dance artist and choreographer, came on as Artistic Producer.
Modeled on the New York festival, running at New York City Center since 2004 – and with the blessing of City Center President and CEO Arlene Shuler – Fall for Dance North (FFDN) launched in 2015 on passion and faith.
Aligned with the start of the fall performance season, FFDN aims to whet Toronto’s dance appetite and inspire audiences to seek out more dance throughout the year. Capturing Toronto’s attention as a sold out, three night, gala-style phenomenon in 2015, FFDN grew by its 5th anniversary in 2019 to encompass two venues - Meridian Hall and The Theatre @The Creative School (formerly Ryerson Theatre) - for 6 mainstage performances, with additional public engagement in Union Station’s heritage West Wing.
Audiences returned ecstatic ovations annually for performances by major international companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Grupo Corpo; high profile commissions by Peggy Baker (fractured black) and Rob Binet (Children of Chaos); emerging dancemakers Sandra Laronde and Jera Wolfe (Adizokan), Natasha Bakht (786), Alysa Pires (MAMBO); and unexpected treasures by Wang Ramirez (AP15), Crystal Pite (A Picture of You Falling), Ukrainian Shumka Dancers (Classic Hopak), Charles Moulton (72-Person Ball Passing), Michelle Dorrance (SOUNDspace), Ohad Naharin (Minus 16, Atlanta Ballet), and Compagnie Hervé KOUBI (What the Day Owes to the Night). In just five years, FFDN had restored Toronto’s place on the international dance scene.
Buoyed by the 5th anniversary celebrations and ambitiously working toward future expansion, we were all shocked by the force with which the COVID pandemic slammed the door on our plans. But perhaps it is no coincidence that 2020’s word of the year, “pivot”, is also a dance term. The dance community, including FFDN, stepped into digital creation and offered hope and inspiration, at a time when it was needed most. The FFDN 2020 digital festival, The Flip Side, positioned itself as the cool alternative to a #1 hit, delivering a more personal view of the art form through new, original content and, in particular, highlighting Toronto-based artists. FFDN paid over 80 artists for their work at a time when most performance gigs were lost. We commissioned 6 new pieces for livestream; entered the world of podcasts with Mambo; created original content such as in[verse], poetry readings by internationally renowned dancers with music by Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko, and A Gathering, a new film by dance artist/filmmaker Bobbi Jene Smith with dance students from TMU’s Creative School. FFDN also proactively expanded partnerships with our colleague organizations to share resources and expertise.
By 2021, the adventure and experimentation necessitated by the pandemic’s early days laid the foundation for FFDN’s expanding reach. FFDN harnessed new possibilities for digital content in June 2021 with the film release of TESSEL, a national initiative conceptualized by Dora-nominated choreographer and dancemaker Esie Mensah that features the stories of 14 pioneering Black artists from across Canada and explores the complexities of diverse movement and voice as a form of resilience. As lead commissioners and co-executive producers, FFDN brought together Harbourfront Centre and an unprecedented 19 national co-presenters to support Esie’s curation and creation, giving the film a cross-Canada digital audience.
A new hybrid vision - digital and in-person - began to emerge by fall 2021. The 7th FFDN festival featured five mainstage digital performances that established a cross-Canada and international following - viewers from 32 countries in 2021! And returned to in-person programming by boldly launching an outdoor performance series, Heirloom, beyond the GTA. Acclaimed Canadian film director Barbara Wills Sweete expertly captured the essence of live performance for marquee livestreams. Vikram Dasgupta joined FFDN as Renette and David Berman Filmmaker-in-Residence and brought his exceptional cinematic eye to FFDN’s international 2021 Signature Program, shot on location in India, Cuba and the UK, as well as to our season-opening livestream of Côté Danse’s Dix. John and Claudine Bailey Artists-in-Residence Natasha Powell (Holla Jazz, Toronto) and Kimberley Cooper (Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Calgary) collaborated on a public photo exhibition with augmented reality features that returned FFDN to Union Station and began developing new commissions for in-person performance in 2022. Season Two of Mambo went behind the scenes with festival artists. FFDN helped revitalize Toronto’s streets with free performances of Together Again, a Natasha Powell original developed through FFDN’s continuing partnership with The Creative School at TMU). In all, FFDN created paid work in 2021 for 275 artists and behind the scenes arts workers.
Despite adversity, FFDN never lost the passion and faith that made the first festival a reality. In 2022, we returned to theatres full-scale, presenting the work of John and Claudine Bailey Artists-in-Residence Natasha Powell, Margarita, and Kimberley Cooper, Family of Jazz, together on a double bill tribute to jazz, followed by a big band dance party on the TMU stage under the musical direction of Rubim de Toledo. The three-performance 2022 Signature Programme opened with the long-awaited 2020 FFDN original tap commission by Diane Montgomery, Softly Losing, Softly Gaining, and concluded with Jera Wolfe’s monumental work, Arise, performed by 144 professional students from Canada’s National Ballet School. FFDN launched a new dance short film series, 8-Count, with two in-person screenings followed by free release on our website. The Canada-USA dance collective Indigenous Enterprise brought their contemporary take on traditional Indigenous dances, in full regalia, to the TMU stage and the Canadian Opera Company lunch series at the Four Seasons Centre with Indigenous Liberation. Night Shift, a pre-pandemic off-festival program of original works returned in-person again as part of the festival in partnership with Citadel + Compagnie. FFDN presented the Toronto premiere of the documentary Crystal Pite: Angels’ Atlas in partnership with the National Ballet of Canada.
Outside the festival and in spring 2023, FFDN launched its first commercial audio album with a newly recorded and expanded in[verse], produced by Bright Shiny Things (NYC). FFDN also supported the Toronto premiere of Wen Wei Wang’s Ballet Edmonton presented by DanceWorks. Marquee TV is now the official streaming partner of FFDN with a growing catalog of FFDN creations available on its renowned international streaming service.
As we prepare our 2023 season, we look to the future with optimism and a dedication to further innovation. We have adopted a new Strategic Roadmap that guides FFDN towards our 10th anniversary celebrations in 2024 made stronger by new partnerships, new curatorial voices, and a dance audience that grows with us. We continue to nurture emerging artists, spark new collaborations, commission new work, deepen our education program, and develop our international presenters network. And throughout, we work to demonstrate our foundational belief in the absolute beauty of pluralism in our art form.
Our first festival was praised for its energy: “It felt like the audience’s collective enthusiasm and joy would blow the roof off the Sony Centre.” We have been twice named by the Globe and Mail as a cultural event of the year. And in 2021, a dance critic remarked, “As this festival inevitably always does, it gave us new perspectives and cracked open the world of dance a little more.” Existing to break boundaries and remove barriers, FFDN is proud to be Toronto’s premier professional international dance festival.