When we think about the needs for a newcomer to rebuild their sense of belonging, we often think about language, social relationships, or even basic needs such as housing and food. Of course, these are very important aspects to growing their roots again in a new place. Yet, there are other layers of belonging that we usually do not consider, but which can make a huge difference for a newcomer: entertainment, art, and local cultural connections. In Victoria, we connected with Ballet Victoria and Belfry Theatre to understand what the options are for a newcomer to enjoy performing arts and start to feel part of the community.
Paul Destrooper—Artistic and Executive Director & Choreographer at Ballet Victoria—described their current initiatives to demystify the idea of ballet performances not being affordable or “not for everyone.” Thus, Ballet Victoria promotes a session called Tea for Tutu, an event for seniors and children with free performances from their tour Ballet Rocks. Kaylie Conner, a dancer in her first season at Ballet Victoria, emphasized how she appreciates this opportunity to meet and greet the audience after their performances. She added that the dancers are always encouraging people to be more involved with art. Kaylie believes that these sessions are a great opportunity for the audience to connect with the dancers and get to know more about dancing, their training, and how things work in a big production.
Due to the positive results from these intimate performances with the audience, Ballet Victoria promoted a special session for immigrants, newcomers, and refugees. It was an opportunity to enjoy a 30-minute performance from their production currently on tour—Ballet Rocks—followed by a social gathering with cookies and refreshments where the audience could also meet the dancers afterward. Aisha Choumou was one of the attendees at this session. Originally from South Sudan, Aisha has been living in Victoria for three years. Aisha mentioned that she did not know anything about Ballet Victoria before this special event, which she heard about through the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society (VIRCS). She is passionate about dancing, and was really impressed by the performance. Aisha commented she always wanted to learn dancing, but had never found anyone to teach her. She had fun remembering trying to learn to dance with her sister, whom she humorously described as a “crazy dancer.”
Similarly to Aisha, Danyelle Catini mentioned that she has been in love with ballet dancing for a long time. She found that this performance was a perfect opportunity to connect with classical dancing and provide an art and cultural experience for her children—Davi (7), Giovanna (5) and Isabella (4). She was surprised to hear it was a free, family-friendly event allowing her to bring her kids. Her daughter Isabella could not hide her happiness in her pink tutu and taking pictures with the dancers at the end of the event. Danyelle is from Brazil and she has been living in Canada for about two years. It was her first time watching a ballet performance in Victoria. She described her experience as a great chance to meet new people and connect with art. Catini reinforced the importance of entertainment and how having this contact with cultural activities can change the way we experience the challenges they face as newcomers. She explained that these experiences transcend culture:
“[Art] is moving; It is human emotion, and it does not have any barriers.”
On the stage, the dancers relate to their audience in many ways. Isabelle Jutras, who is dancing her first year with Ballet Victoria, moved place to place as a child because her parents are in the military. Isabelle’s mother emigrated from Trinidad, and they have been living in Victoria for only a few months. She explained that dancing is her way to connect with every new city she moves to.
“I go to different schools, meet different people and teachers, but everyone shares the same passion.”
Risa Kobayashi and Yui Watanabe are from Japan and have been dancing with Ballet Victoria for ten and five years, respectively; They are both pursuing their dancing careers. Risa mentioned that one of her favourite moments is to meet with the audience after her performance; she said that it is a good way to socialize and tell a little bit of her story that might inspire some people to start dancing. Davide Lampis also motivates the audience, especially children, to join ballet dancing. He affirms ballet enhances the potential of the brain by developing advanced memory skills, and, of course, also has many benefits for the body. Davide is from Italy and he is in his third season with Ballet Victoria.
“The fact of having the community involved in our shows makes a huge difference for us because we can get feedback from them. Different perspectives by people of all ages and backgrounds.”
Including a more diverse audience in theatre and artistic environments is also a mission that Taiwo Afolabi is committed to. Taiwo is the Artistic and Community Liaison at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, an iconic building that carries the heritage of more than a century. Afolabi, who is originally from Nigeria, has been living in Victoria for four years and he is finishing his doctorate at the University of Victoria, with his research related to refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). Since he assumed his new role at the Belfry Theatre, he started thinking and working strategically about how to open Belfry’s space to more diverse audience including immigrant, newcomer and refugee communities.
Taiwo implemented the online app Canoo into Belfry Theatre’s admissions. The application provides first-year Canadian citizens free access to museums, theaters, and cultural centres. The Belfry Theatre has already reserved 20 seats through the app for their next play, Bang Bang (October 29 – November 24). Taiwo explained that it is all about building a relationship with the community, and he already started to connect with the institutions that support immigrants and refugees to prepare special packages for them to bring new faces to the Belfry Theatre. He said he is open to connecting and discussing new strategies to make the unique theatre experiences more accessible.
The Belfry Theatre is actively committed to bringing in diverse and inclusive content. In February 2020, they are premiering a play called The Ministry of Grace by Tara Beagan, an Indigenous story created by an all-Indigenous cast. There is also the Indigenous Learning Exchange Program, a two-way learning experience between Indigenous artists, craftspeople, administrators and the staff of the Belfry Theatre. The program is being managed by Kristy Charlie, the Indigenous Cultural Advisor. Similar to the Ballet Victoria special sessions, the Belfry Theatre also provides exclusive sessions to integrate the audience with the performers. B4Play is a live talk featuring the artists and experts from the community talking about the upcoming productions. Afterplay is a facilitated discussion after most evening Mainstage performances. Also, TalkBack Thursday—a moment to meet actors post-performance—is an opportunity to ask questions and comment on the play. Taiwo highlighted that those are all great opportunities to include newcomers and for them to practice the language and integrate with the artistic community. The Belfry Theatre also makes performance more access through VocalEye performance, a live description for the blind and partially sighted.
All the effort towards inclusion is appreciated, especially when it connects the community with arts and culture. As Taiwo mentioned, it is all a matter of all of us to work as a team to make cultural centres more accessible. It is the responsibility of all of us to build these bridges towards inclusion. As a company, to sponsor these initiatives; as an institution, to connect with cultural centres to find solutions; as a Canadian citizen, to invite your newcomer friend to these events; as a newcomer, to be involved with all communities, be curious. We all need to act in order to encourage diversity not only at immigrant events and fairs, but in theaters, museums, and art expositions as well. If we want to create a truly diverse community, we need to fill the spaces that are made for the community.