One of the main goals that I have as director of FoD is to build a strong sense of community between the dance groups at U of T, because I think the best way to build support for the dance community is to reach out to people who already share the same passion.
Are you a dancer or part of a dance group? Looking for a place to promote your work, perhaps an opportunity to network with other dancers? Submit your dance piece of any genre and style to the U of T Festival of Dance for a chance to shine, to connect, to celebrate the diversity of the University of Toronto’s dance community. They are accepting audition applications for this year’s festival until February 15.
In this Q & A with the festival’s director, Melanie Mastronardi, who is a dancer but also a PhD candidate at University of Toronto’s chemistry department, she shares with us her experience building a strong dance communities and developing new audiences.
Melanie, tell us about yourself. What is your background in dance and how did you come to be involved with the Festival of Dance (FoD) at the University of Toronto?
I trained as a competitive rhythmic gymnast for most of my childhood, and at the age of 14 I decided to start dancing, like my best friend did. Looking back, it’s funny that dance has ended up being such an important part of my life, because I sort of fell into it and never intended to pursue it after high school. I changed my mind after starring in a high school musical, and after graduation I danced for Norwegian Cruise Lines for a year.
At the time, it seemed important to take the opportunity to dance professionally while I was still young and before I would have to give it up to pursue a post-secondary education, but I had no idea how many opportunities I’d have to perform and grow as a dancer in university. Over the last seven years, I have competed against other universities in two competitive dance teams (one of which I coached for two years), and choreographed and performed in several musical productions in Ottawa and Toronto.
I was first introduced to the Festival of Dance (FoD) when I performed in the 2011 show as a member of the U of T Varsity Blues dance team, but it wasn’t until after performing in Hart House Theatre’s production of Cabaret that I decided I wanted to get more involved in the theatre and applied to be the 2012 festival director. After a very successful FoD last year, I am thrilled to be back directing again this year.
Tell us about the Festival of Dance. What was the impetus that led to its creation? How has it developed over the years?
The Festival of Dance was created 18 years ago to provide dance groups on campus the opportunity to perform on stage for an audience. At the time most campus dance groups didn’t have a big enough following to put on a show of their own, so Hart House Theatre created FoD so that groups could submit pieces to perform in a collective show. Today, many of these groups have grown significantly and are able to produce their own shows, and as a result FoD has become more of a celebration of the diversity and prosperity of the U of T dance community.
The show runs for two evenings, with each piece being performed once during the two-day festival. Past events have included over 60 different dance pieces, well over 200 performers, and an impressive variety of dance forms including jazz, ballet, ballroom, modern, contact improv, hip hop, musical theatre, Irish, Latin, and Egyptian belly dancing, just to name a few. With such an abundance of dance groups associated with U of T, participation in the festival is a great opportunity for them to promote their own work and ventures, interact with other dancers, and forge collaborations. This year I’m also planning to put together a large group number to close each show with representatives from all participating groups, which I hope will help initiate even more interaction among the different groups.
There seems to be a large mix of dance genres. What kind of performers are you looking for? What kind of audience are you reaching out to?
We definitely see a huge collection of different dance genres in the festival every year, which I think can be attributed to the size of the U of T community and the fact that Toronto is so multicultural. For the festival, we look for performers of all kinds and have only two guidelines for accepting pieces: submissions must contain some form of dance, and the group must have some sort of affiliation with the U of T community. So far we have been very lucky in getting a wide range of talented performers to participate, but we are always looking for new groups to join the festival.
We put on an incredibly diverse show that should appeal to a lot of different audiences. Of course, a large part of the audience is usually composed of family and friends of performers, but it is not a dance recital. As festival director I strive to create an interesting and cohesive show that can be appreciated by both a general audience and dance enthusiasts alike.
What do you see as the main challenges for performers in general and dancers in particular?
One of the biggest challenges that I think performers face is finding a venue at which to perform and an audience to fill the space. For dance groups in particular, unless you are a big group with lots of funding, putting on a show to share your work with others can be a very difficult task. And while dancing for yourself can be very satisfying, being a performer by nature comes with the desire to share your art and to receive feedback.
FoD provides a stage on which groups can showcase their work at no cost to the participants, but even when you have a venue, filling it can be a challenge. We work very hard at promoting the show so that the performers can have a great audience to dance for, but it can be very difficult to get people out to see live theatre and dance performances. One of the main goals that I have as director of FoD is to build a strong sense of community between the dance groups at U of T, because I think the best way to build support for the dance community is to reach out to people who already share the same passion.
Can you share some inspirational highlights in your own personal journey as a dancer thus far?
I have had many wonderful opportunities to perform, but I think one of the most memorable moments of my career was the last time I competed as a soloist. I was finishing my undergrad and needed to prove to myself that I could still keep up with all of the young dancers on our team. I trained hard and was really frustrated when I didn’t place at the first competition of the season.
Then at the final competition, while I was practicing in the wings, a nail jabbed into my foot. I stopped and thought, I haven’t made plans to pursue dance after graduating, and who knows if I’ll get to do this again. So I pulled out the nail, went on stage, and just danced for myself—it may have been the most fun I’ve had on stage. Funny enough, the minute I let go of the need to prove something to myself was when I danced my best and ended up taking home the overall soloist prize.
Another one of my favorite moments was choreographing a production of Hairspray at U of T and playing the role of the villain, Velma von Tussle. I worked on a few numbers with a group of students from varying backgrounds and experience in dance and theatre. When the show opened, I sat in the wings watching them perform on the monitor, and was so proud of what they had accomplished. There were a few times I had tears in my eyes, and then had to go out on stage as Velma and tell them how atrocious I thought their dancing had been! It was definitely a memorable moment.
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
I really wish that someone had told me that I would enjoy dancing so much more if I didn’t take it too seriously. Growing up in a competitive atmosphere as a rhythmic gymnast and later as a dancer, I think I took on the mentality that if I was going to try to be a dancer, I had to be the best. And of course wanting to be the best in your class or to win competitions is a strong motivator for working hard and improving your dance technique, but at the end of the day dancing is an art, and it is far more satisfying to perform because you love it and just enjoy the moment.