Young Lungs Dance Exchange’s 10th anniversary marks a decade of innovation and independence for Winnipeg creators

Contributed by Jillian Groening                                                                                                                @jill_groening

It’s a difficult feat to find a Winnipeg-based contemporary dance artist whose career has not been touched by the fingerprint of the city’s most vital performance resource hub and dance collective.

From emerging young performers navigating the grant writing system to established creators and respected senior artists alike, Young Lungs Dance Exchange’s (YLDE) presence permeates   through every corner of Winnipeg’s tightly knit dance community. Born out of the need for opportunity for young creators and performers, YLDE was a DIY response to a segregated dance landscape.

Young Lungs Board Meeting 

“It became a sort of survival technique,” dance artist and YLDE founding member Natasha Torres-Garner explains of the collective’s beginning. “It was becoming clear to us that there was less and less work available and we weren’t going to sit and wait for jobs to be offered to us. Coming together as a group made it all possible.”

Inspired by Ottawa’s Grasshoppa Dance Exchange, YLDE members were able to self-produce by learning all aspects and responsibilities of putting on a show, from stage management to promotion to lighting design. 

“Gabriela Rehak told us about how Grasshoppa was serving an independent community in a place where otherwise things weren’t serving independent creators or performers,” dance artist and fellow YLDE founding member Freya Olafson explains. “That model sparked some activity and happening here where there were emerging performance makers who wanted to make work and not necessarily dance or solipsistically dance.”

Having an openness for change means that it can always be evolving to what the community wants and needs.
— YLDE Board Member, Zorya Arrow

The loose artist collective model allowed the group the ability to be anything to anyone, a place of creation and belonging regardless of training level. The notion of change has been an important part of YLDE’s mandate. Responsibilities within the collective, both creative and administrative, are constantly in flux.

“Nothing gets stale and new opinions are always coming in,” YLDE board member Zorya Arrow explains. “Having an openness for change means that it can always be evolving to what the community wants and needs.”

However, sometimes this constant has been a weakness. In the past it has made the collective difficult to define for those not directly involved and the nature of the variety-style shows could be taken as confusing or without direction.

YLDE's first production poster by founding member Freya Olafson

Despite YLDE’s remodelling and re-visioning, Torres-Garner and Joanna Riley have stood as pillars of the collective since the beginning. 

“They keep an overhead watch on vision and values but they are also always very inviting to new ideas and new people,” Arrow says. “That’s what makes it so powerful and successful is having the balance of it all.”

With no one person curating the shows and no singular vision or aesthetic to follow, the group had freedom to exercise their skills as performers as well as creators and often found themselves at a crossroads between dance and theatre.

“The smudging of lines between mediums did cause a bit of tension,” Torres-Garner reflects. “There was some thought that introducing those kinds of relationships would weaken the art form but in the end we were part of a larger movement that is very much in place now, where the word dance isn’t really the best way to identify what we do anymore.”

The groups first production, titled Frozen Not Canned, saw the young dance artists Jennifer Essex, Torres-Garner and Olafson each create a short work and the local band Red Say No played an ambient set. 

“We just fed off each other and would think that we were making magic,” Torres-Garner says with a laugh. “While at times we probably were, at other times we probably were not at all.”

Fast forward ten years and YLDE is presenting their annual Research Series, an event which gives six creators from varying performance backgrounds the opportunity to explore their ideas in-studio before offering a raw look at their discoveries to an audience. The three-night affair of mid-process showings juxtaposes different dance styles and invites the viewers to engage in a post-show chat.

“The Research Series is important in that it allows the creator to take risks and to learn from them while giving the audience a sense of what it means to make work,” YLDE administrator Ian Mozdzen states. “Nothing shown is a finished product so it opens people up to the process of creating.”

The ability to discuss the events unfolding on stage or even in-studio is a rare occasion in a lot of dance work. A focus of YLDE is to present a platform where discussion and critique are approachable and constructive.

“[Discussion] is a skill that is often a bit underdeveloped in our dance training,” Olafson says. “It’s a gift to be in the studio with someone who is very open about what they’re doing and the opportunity to add to that is great for your own learning. It’s great to talk about your experience because experience is also learning so having the challenge of putting it into words is really exciting.”

Olafson will be performing choreographer Treasure Waddell’s improvisation-inspired work during the Research Series as well as presenting her own physical experimentations. It will be her first foray into creating on other bodies after years spent working solely as an independent dance artist.

“The Research Series provides opportunity and entry points for new relationships to emerge and grow,” Olafson reflects. “It’s totally refreshing to learn another persons style and approach to research and ultimately it feels less stressful and less emotionally burdensome, like I’m not hitting my head on any walls.”

Providing the creator with a means of financially consequence-free experimentation while simultaneously opening the flow of discussion and critical thought encourages future dance creation as well as the understanding of contemporary dance, which can sometimes be alienating in it’s abstraction.

“By getting a peek at people’s processes you can see that artists aren’t magicians, they are just people responding to whatever is going on around them,” Torres-Garner says. “That part is so fascinating to see, that we’re all just people being people in the same place at the same time and this is how we’re talking about it, through dance.”

What began out of green ambition, punk sensibilities, and creative necessity ten years ago has now grown to an established, respected and overall important resource for the Winnipeg dance community.

“When it started it really did feel like we were creating a community for ourselves at the time,” Torres-Garner reflects.

That community has now grown, and allowed independent performance artists to grow alongside it.

Don’t miss YLDE’s Research Series December 11-13 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. A series pass is $15 and a single ticket is $10. Coming up in the new year YLDE presents a workshop with dance artist Peter Trosztmer. For more information, please visit www.younglungs.ca