Passionate amateurs prepare to dance like everyone's watching
Back in January of this year, when I spent most of my evenings hunkered down on the sofa or lazily surfing the internet, I came across the following Facebook post: Would you like an opportunity to be part of an epic dance piece in Luminato? Why yes, I thought, cramming a handful of potato chips into my mouth and wiping the crumbs from my Snuggie, I would!
It didn’t matter that the last time I pirouetted in a show I was 4 years old, or that the average professional dancer weighs roughly the same as my left thigh: I have always been the first and last person on any wedding or bar mitzvah dance floor, and I was intrigued. I love to dance. And so, apparently, do hundreds of other Torontonians who showed up to audition for Le Grand Continental — a gorgeous mashup of synchronous line dancing and expressive contemporary dance, conceived and choreographed by Montreal’s Sylvain Émard.
Le Grand Continental was first performed in 2009 in Montreal as part of the Festival TransAmériques, and featured some 60 amateur dancers. It was a hit, and has since been staged around the world in 15 unique iterations, which seem to be increasing in size. Toronto’s version, involving hundreds of dancers, will be one of the largest ever performed and will take place four times next weekend in Nathan Phillips Square.
I remember breezing into the first audition, feeling quite confident in my abilities to shake my groove thing. But after watching Émard carefully demonstrate a series of moves, I spent the next hour or so stepping on the woman next to me. This was not interpretive dance at the local club after a few vodka tonics. This was going to involve memory and coordination, focus and hard work (I did see a few discomfited individuals slink away within the first 30 minutes).
After promenading left when all others promenaded right, I thought for sure I had blown it, but a few weeks later I received my invitation to participate. Yay! No more evenings on the sofa for me. I, and hundreds of my fellow enthusiasts, have braved ice storms and heat waves to spend hours at a time in drafty warehouses or humid gymnasiums, learning a series of segments — each with its own feel and personality — that will be stitched seamlessly together to form the 30-minute Le Grand Continental Toronto.
Since the beginning of April, we have we been put through our paces several times a week by very patient rehearsal director Bonnie Kim and a small band of professional dancers. I’m certain that most participants have also spent hours each week going over the moves in their living rooms or back yards (my teenage son looks suitably mortified as I bop about, practising the Boogie or Funky sections in my pyjamas).
So why do it? What exactly is it that has brought together this vast and diverse group of individuals — a kind of microcosm of Toronto, young and old, male and female, every shape and size, from different backgrounds and walks of life? The love of dance, obviously. Also, the fun of getting to perform Émard’s nifty signature moves and be part of Luminato. But for many it goes deeper than that.
Husband and wife Juan Pablo Cruz and Alejandra Adarve recently moved to Canada from Colombia; participating in Le Grand Continental has helped them get a feel for the people of Toronto. Neither of them are professional dancers, but according to Juan: “Back home, most people dance. It’s natural. We’re Latin.”
Alejandra told me that, as a newcomer, being able to perform in the public space in front the Toronto sign will be an emotional experience — “It will make me feel like I belong.”
Dorothy Gordon, 92, has been attending dance classes for the past 68 years — she took up ballet when she was 71. For her it’s about keeping active and forging friendships in the community. And though it has been a challenge for her to remember all the moves, she noted that at this stage of her life, “I’m lucky to remember my own name!”
Sooji Kim is an international student from Korea and her dream, much to her parents’ chagrin, is to pursue a career in theatre. Joining Le Grand Continental will give her a taste of performing for a large audience. Meanwhile, 10-year-old Violet Chee is a “Luminato baby” according to her mom, Dorna, who was attending a play at the inaugural festival in 2007 when her water broke and she had to rush to the hospital. For Violet the big dance event has been a chance to have fun and spend more time with her busy mom, who will be dancing by her side in the show.
I’m guessing that all of us participants are jazzed to be a part of something large and complex and beautiful. But in the end, it’s not about the dancers. This is a performance designed for spectators — a work of public art. So if you’d like to share in the fun and exuberance, come to Nathan Phillips Square and see the whirling, gyrating, joy-filled spectacle that is Le Grand Continental Toronto.
Elyse Friedman is an author and screenwriter. Her most recent novel is The Answer to Everything.
Le Grand Continental is performed, free of charge, on Friday, June 22 at 9:15 p.m., Saturday, June 23 at 4 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., and Sunday, June 24 at 11 a.m. Admission is free.