This history of the company is a result of an interview conducted by Kristin Harris for the magazine The Dance Current, in 2003, with Founding Artistic Director, Linda Rimsay. Kittiwake would like to thank Ms. Harris and The Dance Current (March 2003) for permission to reprint this article.
From their home on Water Street in St. John’s, the office and studio of Kittiwake Dance Theatre (KDT) look out upon the heart of one of the oldest and most historic cities in North America. Incorporated in 1987, KDT is Newfoundland’s only semi-professional dance company. As there are no professional dance companies in Newfoundland, this is as close as it gets. Artistic Director Linda Rimsay has been with KDT since its inception. Her work here is truly a labour of love.
Rimsay began her work in Newfoundland’s dance community as soon as she moved to the province in 1978. Rimsay trained as a modern dancer, most notably under Martha Graham, José Limón and Paul Taylor. Her move to Canada, and more specifically to Newfoundland, enabled her to further realize her artistic vision as a choreographer, as well as to become the founding artistic director of KDT. Kittiwake Dance Theatre evolved from the young performers’ group of the now-defunct Newfoundland Dance Theatre (also semi-professional) of which Rimsay was a part. Rimsay felt very strongly about keeping this younger company going, because, in her words, “I felt we had a very nice group of upcoming dancers who had potential.” The dancers chose the name, Kittiwake, after a native Newfoundland bird. And, keeping true to these indigenous roots, the company took flight from there.
While KDT is primarily a modern company, there are currently three artistic associates: Montréaler Martin Vallée and Newfoundlander Jennifer Foley, both former professional dancers and co-directors of Dance Studio East in Conception Bay South (near St. John’s); and Larissa Rog, originally from Estonia and a former dancer with the Russian Theatre of Ballet and the Kirovsky Academic Theatre Opera and Ballet. Each contributes his or her own creative vision and talents as dancers and choreographers. For example, Vallée teaches company ballet classes and has choreographed ballet works for the company.
The mandate of KDT is two-fold: to provide high quality dance performances to local audiences, and to give local dancers and choreographers professional creative opportunities at home. As such, KDT is truly rooted in its community. Rimsay stresses this notion: “The philosophy has been that, while we do have guests come in, this is a home-grown kind of company – and I use that in a complimentary sense. To me, art belongs to a community. It works when people feel a part of it.”
At a KDT performance of NUTCRACKER in December 2002, I was struck by the company’s manifest connection to the community. I immediately recognized senior members of the local Royal Scottish Country Dancing group, who performed during the party scene. Children from many different local dance schools played various parts in the ballet. Newfoundland culture was also well represented through the inclusion of mummers, a reference to the local custom in which people dress up in disguise to make house visits during the Christmas season.
The strong sense of community theatre that prevailed throughout NUTCRACKER is something of which Rimsay is very proud. NUTCRACKER was first staged at the Longshoreman’s Protective Union Hall, a small, 200-seat venue that is central in the St. John’s artistic scene. Due to the growing popularity of the show, Kittiwake Dance Theatre was eventually performing sixteen shows with four casts, a feat that proved exhausting for the company.
To keep up with the demand, the venue changed twice, with the production finally settling at the substantially larger Arts and Culture Centre, which has more than 1,000 seats. Although this venue is far less intimate, Rimsay takes great pains to ensure that the audience feels connected to the show.”If you have no connection to your roots, you will lose it, no matter what else happens. It may be tough, it may be difficult but it still remains.”
Kittiwake Dance Theatre’s annual NUTCRACKER may be the company’s greatest link with the general public. Aside from audience growth, the KDT production has undergone numerous changes throughout its sixteen year history. Initial productions included singing and extensive dialogue throughout the first act. Rimsay eventually decided that the production would benefit from a closer mirroring of the original narrative. In fact, she has created a production that follows the story line more accurately than many other versions of the ballet. “I also then added some things over the years that were indicative of this culture,” she explains, noting the incorporation of the mummers and other particularly English traditions. Rimsay is also inclusive in her casting of the party scene, involving children in wheelchairs as well as autistic and deaf children as a matter of course. “It’s the one production that we really want the community to feel a part of. And it’s been a wonderful experience for us, to see people integrated, and to (watch them) grow in their talent.”
In addition to NUTCRACKER, Kittiwake Dance Theatre offers a number of programs throughout the year. The spring season is often an opportunity for an emerging choreographer to try out a new work on a young, enthusiastic company in a creatively forgiving city. In this context, Rimsay sees KDT as an accessible company for these artists, allowing them to test their creative mettle in a smaller venue, often before setting their piece on a company in a major dance centre. To date, KDT has more than fifty choreographic works under its collective belt. The SummerDance program features performances in the beautiful outdoor setting of Pippy Park in the middle of St. John’s. For this event, anyone and everyone involved in the local dance scene is invited to present pieces for the public.
To further encourage young serious dance students, Kittiwake Dance Theatre created an apprenticeship program to meet the needs of those who wish to pursue dance as a possible career as a performer, teacher, etc. This program -by audition only – featured classes in modern dance, ballet and mime. In addition, the apprentices gained experience in house management, costuming, makeup, prop and set design, street performing, juggling and more.
Admission to the company proper is by audition or invitation. KDT is largely comprised of dancers in their late teens and early twenties; however, Rimsay is proud to point out that age is not a resticting factor. “We have regular dancers who are in university, we have one who is a physician, one who is a school teacher and another who is a dental technician.” The company accepts new dancers based on skill and technical level. While all the dancers have school or jobs outside their dance lives, Rimsay stresses that she does not consider them amateurs. She sees KDT as filling a void for both dancers and Newfoundland’s artistic community by providing a company atmosphere, even as her dancers pursue other things outside dance to make a living.
KDT also provides an apprenticeship program to encourage dancers who need more training before they are ready to become full company members. While Rimsay relies on the core group of dancers to form the basis of all productions, casting is not restricted to company members and KDT often holds open auditions, drawing dancers from the artistic community at large. Kittiwake Dance Theatre is primarily a modern company operating in what Rimsay sees as a “ballet town”. As such, she draws from a pool of dancers who are, for the most part, trained in ballet and may not have a background in modern technique before becoming company members. “I have developed an approach where I am more concerned with their adaptability. The challenge is choreographing to the level of the dancers that you have,” explains Rimsay, who creates and selects performance pieces accordingly.
Newfoundland’s greatest export has often been its people, and the dance world is no exception. Because there is no local professional training program as such, and because performance opportunities are more limited in St. John’s than in hub cities of Canada’s dance scene, out-migration of dancers is a problem. Rimsay feels this loss as she sees talented young dancers leave the province in search of more promising professional dance careers in bigger cities. “In the last five years, we’ve had dancers go to Desrosiers (Dance Theatre), the National Ballet of Canada, Danny Grossman (Dance Company) and so forth and so on. So this is all going out and nothing is coming in.”
This out-migration is another reason that Rimsay feels so passionate about keeping the company alive, to give skilled dancers and choreographers performance opportunities at home. There may be some frustration in training a group of dancers for many years only to see them all disappear at once. However, over time, Rimsay has observed a pleasing trend: “What was nice is that this year we looked at the next group coming up, and their level was much higher than the previous group at the same age. And this is a joy to watch, because you turn around and look behind you, and realize – they’re coming.” It seems that Kittiwake Dance Theatre is, indeed, paving the way for these young, talented dancers to come. And that can only benefit the dance world, locally and abroad.
Kittiwake Director takes flight; on her decision to retire from KDT
On the eve of the 20th run of her dance company’s signature performance, The Nutcracker, Linda Rimsay says it’s nice to stand back and let somebody else lug the heavy props and costumes from her downtown St. John’s studio to the Arts and Culture Centre for a change.
“I can’t lift those things any more like I used to,” Rimsay laughs, sitting amidst a rack of embellished costumes and a street lamp on wheels. Behind her, an open dance space overlooks the harbour. “This is the last year I have to worry about this!”
Her departure from the company she co-founded with teacher Gail Innes 20 years ago is the end of a local dance era. Rimsay has accepted a position with the National Ballet of Canada, where she will teach movement in the school’s outreach program. Her students will range from school children right up to beginner adults.
Originally from Michigan, Rimsay has called Newfoundland home for 28 years. In 1978, her husband, Robert, took a job at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s and the couple subsequently acquired “too much stuff” to move again. She will depart for Toronto in the beginning of the New Year with no regrets, but says there is much she will miss — most notably those who have grown up with and alongside Kittiwake.
“In Nutcracker alone, we estimate that there are probably 2,000 people who have performed in that production over the 20 years,” she says. “Some of them we’ve watched grow up and go from a mouse to Clara to adult. Some of them are even on our board of directors now.”
A not-for-profit dance company, Kittiwake doesn’t train dancers — they hire them. Over 20 years, the focus has been to choreograph, audition for, and perform original work. The company provides workshops for local dancers, residency projects for Kittiwake’s artistic staff and touring dancers, and apprenticeship programs for young dancers who wish to develop their passion into a career.
Unlike most professional companies, Rimsay says, Kittiwake strives to keep things local.
“It allows us to do more indigenous work, which I think is very important. It helps young people understand their culture.”
While many of Kittiwake’s works are based on Newfoundland music and lore, the company also interprets classical works of literature — including Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry — or world events, like the Chinese government’s violent tactics to quell student rioting at Tiananmen Square.
Rimsay says Kittiwake’s mandate has always been to provoke thought and dialogue — and use movement to do it.
“That is what I think is what professional art is about, holding the mirror up for society to see, projecting a point of view, which may or may not have been thought of, getting people to think about issues,” she says.
Rimsay’s new position at the National Ballet will focus less on social commentary and more on using movement as a teaching tool and for physical well-being. As part of the outreach program, Rimsay will visit Toronto schools to show how dance can help teach math and physics and guard against childhood obesity.
It is a continuation of the work she carried out in Newfoundland schools as a volunteer for the National Ballet. Last year Rimsay helped bring workshops to North River, which even involved sessions to properly fit pointe shoes.
Now that Rimsay has comfortably handed the reins to incoming artistic director Martin Vallée of Dance Studio East, she happily offers vivid memories from the last two decades of nurturing the local dance scene.
She recalls doing laundry and scrubbing the floors in a restaurant to help float some of the first shows. One year, during a two-week run of The Nutcracker, the numerous children playing mice characters passed chicken pox along to each other as the evenings progressed.
“I think the last eight shows, without fail, there was a little mouse who would come up to me scratching some part of their body and say, ‘Linda, I’ve got this funny itch right here!’ And I’d look at it and say, ‘Another one!’ Merry Christmas!’”
Rimsay says she will miss everyone she’s come to know in the artistic community. At the same time, she recognizes that teaching students for fun or leading adult evening classes is just what she needs at this juncture in her life.
“I’m not getting any younger. So it’s a way for me to continue my interest, and I’ve always believed the arts belong to the people. You need your professionals, but you have to have those people who still dance in their kitchen.”