Michael Caldwell

The Art of Wearing Many Hats

Years ago when I worked as a dancer and creative producer I was also working a retail job. One day, my manager at the store took me aside for a talk. She offered me a pay raise, full time position and long term contract. Tempting. However, I told her that I have always been the type of person to do many things at the same time and that I wanted to keep up my work in the creative sector. I collected jobs like others collected stamps. Isn’t that what everyone in the creative sector does at one point or another? And, to be honest retail was not really my dream job and like many other millennials I was raised to “do what I love and the rest will follow”.

However my manager tried to convince me that working for her would be the better choice. I would become more financially secure, have more stability and that I could make life a tad bit easier for myself. Because a life of switching from one thing to another can wear down on you, she said. I kindly declined the offer, quit the job completely and set off on a career of patchwork, albeit extraordinarily satisfying, creative producing. It gives me energy – I tell myself. For how long – I wonder. I never forgot that conversation.

Speaking with Michael Caldwell, dancer, choreographer and curator/presenter brought up these thoughts again. He is a prime example of someone from the Toronto dance scene. In Toronto dancers are administrators, administrators are choreographers and choreographers are dancers. You might say that every artist does multiple things and that every city is home to these ‘creative collectors’ as I like to call them. But in Toronto this is exceptionally prevalent. In Michael’s case there is no doubt that the career combination he has created for himself and the switching between roles not only gives him energy, but strengthens his work. He also made it clear that focusing on the three different roles gave him clarity. And as much as these three roles fed each other, he did not want three to turn into four or five. Three hats are enough. And those hats suit him very well :).

Michael and I talked about a whole pile of things, but mainly about this and about the work he does when wearing his curator/presenter hat at the Fall For Dance North festival. His sharp mind made for a conversation that had me itching to get involved in the Toronto dance scene.

photo: Kristy Kennedy

Christina: What does the TO scene look like now according to you, compared with 10 years ago?
Michael: There is more going on now than there was. There are more dancers in the city, dancers travel more, and more dancers are coming into the city. CADA (Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists) conducted a study and we discovered that there are more self-identified dancers living in Toronto than anywhere else in Canada. I would have to say that the scene is more fluid than 10 years ago. People have being working from a place of scarcity and it is time for a time of abundance. More things are happening.

C: Why is that?
M: For many reasons, I think. Not to get to caught up in current world politics, but I think we artists are all responding to shitty things that are happening in the world in the work we create. There is an artistic drive to communicate our responses to the current of affaires. Practically speaking, now there is less of a stigma around having a joe-job and art job at the same time. Combining jobs is more acceptable and more of the norm, so you don’t just have to be a dancer. A lot of people are a lots of things in this scene. And financially speaking, over the past five years there has been a slow increase of investment from the Toronto Arts Council. The structure of the local industry has also recently shifted, whereby companies that previously received project funding are now receiving operating (longer term) funding. This opened up opportunities for new projects.

C: The Fall For Dance North Festival (FFDN) is a relatively new player in the field in Toronto in connecting the local scene with the international network. What are your ideas on Toronto’s connection to the rest of the world?
M: Previously, we were lacking in the connection points to dance communities in other countries and to other presenters in Ontario. But now I see a shift in mentality. Before it was more “how do we get work out before bringing work in”. Now it’s shifting and people want to bring work in and are open to see how it feeds the local network. I think it’s a really good time for Toronto to expand its international network. In terms of the festival, FFDN has the desire to be a platform for international programmers to see what we are doing. But the challenge is that we are an international festival and balancing that with our desire to present local artists to international programmers. 

C: Fall For Dance North prides itself on presenting world-class performances at an affordable price (all tickets are $15). In a bigger context, do you think ticket prices still hold audiences back from seeing shows?
M: That is always the question. The Toronto Arts Council publishes annual reports where among other things they research the “barriers to entry” for performances. In 2015, 63% of respondents reported that they felt that ticket prices were too high. This was the highest barrier to entry. So there is still work to be done across the board. But steps are being taken, like at Fall For Dance North.

How much is too much? What is a reasonable price? Does price equal value? These questions are not new to anyone selling anything from hotdogs to dance performances. However, even if they are not new questions they are worth reflecting on and being critical of.

I worked for a performance in Rotterdam that was a part of a large festival. Most of the activities in the festival were free and our show cost €5. In Rotterdam €5 is less than what you pay for two coffees. And yet we noticed that the mere fact that visitors needed to buy a ticket for our show whereas for most of the other activities they did not, resulted in fewer people seeing the show. Of course, most of you will think. We should have put our money-making strategy into something else instead of the ticket sales. Lesson learned.

This practical example solidified the theory that economics is about choice making. What can we as a dance sector do to make the choice to come to watch a dance performance as attractive and valuable as possible? How can we lower the barriers to entry – without selling out, becoming commercial, staying true to your artistic statement. If I had the answer, I’d be rich. What I do know is that you must be aware of your context. Whether it be a €5 performance in a relatively free festival or a €50 dance show among other evening activities such as the movies and concerts. The choice that the audience makes to come to your performance should never be taken for granted.

C: Let’s assume that lots of people come to the theatre, oh wait, on that topic – does the dance community in Toronto see each other’s work?
M: Yes, to some extent, but it could be more fluid. That could be improved. However generally speaking, so many systems that we rely on to get audiences into the theatre are out dated. We as an industry are too slow to catch up. We need to put our attention on updating our audience engagement. Posters and flyers aren’t working anymore. New media is. Also, the current systems paying for a ticket, sitting in a theatre and viewing performances is very western. I believe that this construct can be questioned.

C: The cultural economist Arjo Klamer claims, the conversation around an artwork is integral to its value. How do the conversations within the dance community go after performances?
M: That’s a big topic! The way we in Toronto talk about work can sometimes be so precious. There are a lot of structures that we develop to talk around the subjects. It can be helpful, but I think that people just need to see work, and see more work and go to a bar and talk about it. Sometimes we just need to sit down and talk straight about the work and not make too much of a fuss about it.

C: You have a lot of insights into the finances of the arts sector. According to a recent study, Toronto spends the least per capita on arts compared to the 4 other largest cities of Canada. Why is that?
M: First of all, there is lots of lobbying from artists. It is very ongoing. There was a recent commitment of municipal spending of $25/capita, annually. However, Toronto is a massive city with massive issues that other cities don’t have. The city is growing extremely fast but the money has a hard time catching up. Other cities get the money from other places, like Calgary, which gets its arts funding from oil. In Montreal, arts and culture is more a part of the make up of the public life and so there is a higher priority for spending there. Here, most of the municipal budget goes towards police and transit.

C: If the finances have some catching up to do, diversity in the field seems pretty up to snuff to me. How would you define the diversity of dance in Toronto?
M: You can find diversity in dance in Toronto in different styles and forms. We talk about it a lot in the community. It’s in what we see, the bodies, the authentic voices that are speaking, but also in our audiences. In Toronto we have everything from belly dancing, South Asian dance, western contemporary dance. We have an aim to recognise all of those things and more as dance. We have a very open view and mentality. That’s not to say that all the groups relate to each other, and they don’t all interact with one another. But I don’t see that as a problem. I think that the diversity in voices is Toronto’s biggest asset.

Michael’s latest choreographic project “Factory” will premiere as part of the Bright Nights performance series at The Citadel, in Toronto – September 20-23, 2017.

Toronto, 2016

Banner photo credit: Lisa Hebert

Stay tuned, get the latest interviews in your inbox