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Volume 25 Issue 9 - July / August 2020

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  • Composer
  • Orchestra
  • Concerts
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  • Musicians
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  • Musical
  • Toronto
  • August
  • Jazz
July/August issue is now available in flipthrough HERE, bringing to a close 25 seasons of doing what we do (and plan to continue doing), and on stands early in the week of July 5. Not the usual bucolic parade of music in the summer sun, but lots, we hope, to pass the time: links to online and virtual music; a full slate of record reviews; plenty new in the Listening Room; and a full slate of stories – the future of opera, the plight of small venues, the challenge facing orchestras, the barriers to resumption of choral life, the challenges of isolation for real-time music; the steps some festivals are taking to keep the spirit and substance of what they do alive. And intersecting with all of it, responses to the urgent call for anti-racist action and systemic change.


MUSIC IN THE DANCE OF LIFE Responding to a changing world SOPHIE GIRAUD/NETFLIX BY JENNIFER PARR From the upcoming Netflix drama series Tiny Pretty Things Ihave been friends with Jennifer Nichols since meeting as colleagues working at Opera Atelier more than ten years ago, and I have followed her freelance career with great interest ever since, sometimes reviewing or previewing her shows for The WholeNote: Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with the Toronto Symphony in 2017, for example which she choreographed and performed in, with mezzo Wallis Giunta; or 2019’s Dora-nominated Pandora for FAWN Opera which, again, she both choreographed and danced in. One of the things I love about her work is how she is always looking for new challenges, new ways to push herself and discover more of what is possible in terms of choreography and performing to music. In the May/June issue of The WholeNote, we found ourselves as virtual colleagues again – she wrote a moving guest article about how music is at the heart of all she does: dancing, choreographing, teaching, producing and, as she said to me the other day, even just walking down the street. Now, with the continuing need to physically distance ourselves from each other, thanks to the ongoing world pandemic, even walking down the street is bounded by restrictions; most of her other activities have had to be recalibrated, reinvented, moved online as much as possible, but somehow trying to keep that human connection that is created by dancing with, and in the live presence of, other people. This ability to see the exciting possibilities in new situations is standing her in good stead given that the current crisis has turned the world of artists upside down. I reached out to her to find out how her plans are progressing particularly. She seems to be even busier than before the pandemic hit, I suggested, and she agreed: “I had been hoping for a respite but instead am busier in a really different way, scrambling to build the foundations of a new reality.” A big part of this new reality is having lost the studio she founded: The Extension Room, where she taught her ballet-based fitness program, The Extension Method, and not being able to teach classes in person. In response, with the help of her filmmaker husband she is undertaking the “huge endeavour of setting up a new online platform, dealing with the tech side, while also trying to keep teaching every day. It all just takes more time than you’d think.” She is also trying to stay moving forward with creative projects and grant applications, but like many of us, is finding that it is much harder to “fully go there with the creative side,” to keep inspiration flowing when you can’t meet with fellow artists in person. Since May/June when she wrote her article for The WholeNote, the world has been engulfed in protests against police brutality against Black and Indigenous citizens, and in the resurgence of a revolutionary desire for a better, more equitable society. I asked if this was having an impact on her work as well. “Yes, definitely! First of all, it required me to do a lot of introspective work for my students and teaching business, to dig deep in terms of whether I have gone as far as I could as a studio owner and teacher in that industry, to make sure I’m being as inclusive and welcoming to every community as I can. Ballet itself has a huge history of discrimination, elitism and whitecentred practices, and that means that anybody working in the ballet industry has to take extra steps.” An example: she has always taken great pride in the fact that everyone who takes a class at her studio feels welcome and comfortable, in spite of the fact that ballet in and of itself is intimidating to many people. So, it came as a bit of a surprise in the first week after the initial protests while she was doing what we all were — listening, learning, trying to understand the depth of our complicity in our society’s systemic racism — when one of her students sent her an email saying (paraphrased), “I’m Black and I have been attending your studio for two years, but while I have always felt welcome, and I’ve been really comfortable there, I can count on one hand how many fellow students are Black. As a leader in the industry you have a platform and you need to speak up.” It’s advice, Nichols says, that she takes to heart. But at the same time, she says, she recognizes that “the institution of ballet is what it is and the only way it is going to change is that from a very young age, from tiny tot ballet on, the marketing and messaging must be that this 16 | July and August 2020

is an art form for everyone. The elitism has to be stripped away, and the socio-economic restrictions have to be dealt with as well.” It requires applying a ruthless microscope to her creative work: at her studio, as co-artistic director of Hit and Run Dance (which has always had a diverse casting mandate), and as an independent choreographer. And it’s in the latter capacity that another of her projects, wrapped before the pandemic hit, is about to be launched. While known for her exquisite work in live performance, she has also been building a choreographer’s résumé in television and film, cutting her teeth on the series Reign (the historically anachronistic but addictively watchable teen-oriented series about the young Mary Queen of Scots) and going on to work as a guest choreographer on various other film and TV projects. This fall, a brand new television series based on the best-selling young adult novel Tiny Pretty Things by Sonia Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton will be launched on Netflix with Jennifer as head choreographer and dance consultant. Set in the world of Chicago’s only elite ballet academy, the Archer School, the feeder school for Chicago’s renowned professional ballet company, Tiny Pretty Things charts the rise and fall of the school’s students, young adults of widely varying backgrounds from around the country and beyond. Listening to her speak about her involvement in the series, I was struck by how much it drew on the full spectrum of what she has done to this point in time. Her role was integral to maintaining the integrity of the depiction of not only the dancing in the show, but the psychological reality of the students’ lives at a professional ballet school and what that means for their development, including the loss of the childhood that most children have. It was this insight, in fact, that led to her becoming involved with the project in the first place, beginning with an impromptu meeting, at the suggestion of a friend, with the head writer and showrunner Michael MacLennan (Bomb Girls, The Bletchley Circle). MacLennan had been recruited by producer Jordanna Fraiberg to join her in Mezzo Wallis Giunta (left) and Jennifer Nichols (right) in the TSO’s June 2017 Seven Deadly Sins, by Kurt Weill turning the hit YA book into a series. Not being interested in something that was “all fluff, tutus and tiaras,” he had agreed only if he could explore the darker, grittier aspects of growing up at a ballet school. Once officially part of the team, Jennifer’s job encompassed everything from vetting potential cast members for dance ability, to reading all the scripts with an eye to dancers’ vocabulary and slang, JAG GUNDU July and August 2020 | 17

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