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Stories of daybreak: Silhouettes Dance Company to premiere first-ever virtual show

Former member talks with U of T group on changing rhythms under lockdown
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The student-run dance company embodies ideas of transition, hope, mystery, and more. FLORA TANG/THE VARSITY
The student-run dance company embodies ideas of transition, hope, mystery, and more. FLORA TANG/THE VARSITY

The Silhouettes Dance Company, a performance-based and student-run U of T troupe, will premiere its 18th annual showcase, “Daybreak,” this week. The performance will occur on April 10 at 7:00 pm on the company’s YouTube channel. The show will feature a variety of dance styles, including contemporary, jazz, ballet, hip hop, and tap.  

Daybreak is the moment when the first light appears on the horizon, ending the night. It is a cycle of nature, a moment of awakening, and it also embodies ideas of transition, borderline, hope, mystery,” noted this year’s artistic directors (ADs), Nancy Wu and Justine Gauthier.

“Our 14 pieces this year tell stories of what daybreak feels like and means to us, and we invite you to join us in our live premiere.”

Taking a leap into a virtual dance studio

I was with Silhouettes during the 2018–2019 and 2019–2020 school years. At this time, Olivia Hsuen was one of the ADs, along with Abby Ryding and Cade Greer, in each respective year. 

When the pandemic hit last March, our year-end show — “TERRA: Life on Earth,” scheduled at the Betty Oliphant Theatre — was cancelled. The ADs tried to coordinate the filming of an emergency show, but suddenly, “covid-19 was on our doorsteps and then we had to make what felt like the hardest decision ever: let go of everything,” Hsuen wrote.  

This school year, Wu and Gauthier have been working on Silhouettes’ first ever virtual show while running the company entirely online. Dance usually involves in-person, physical contact and a sufficiently large rehearsal space, so dancing in a virtual studio has posed new challenges. One difficulty, for example, is that rehearsing on Zoom sometimes puts the audio and video out of sync, and timing and musicality are central to dance. 

This quick change of scene is a departure from previous rehearsal spaces: a sunny studio above a bakery in Kensington Market; a Burlesque school overtop of the infamous McDonald’s at Queen Street and Spadina Avenue, open until all hours of the night; and a converted nineteenth century, red-brick, Romanesque church with stained-glass windows in Cabbagetown, to name a few.

Over the summer, the directors ruled out the possibility of a regular in-person theatre performance and of our bi-annual shows in nightclubs, but did not rule out filming pieces in person. Their plan would accommodate best-and worst-case scenarios. Currently, most Silhouettes pieces are being filmed virtually, but some small groups are filming outdoors together as restrictions started to ease.

The choreographers instruct their dancers on how to film at home on their own. They talk about camera orientation and setting — calibrated to indoor or outdoor environments — and what to wear on camera. Each choreographer has been compiling footage and experimenting with different editing techniques to merge the videos together. 

The ADs wrote that, in the choreography, “there are no lifts, no physical contact between the dancers, [and] no formations.” However, they say, “We think everyone was able to think outside the box and find alternative creative ways to fulfill their vision.”

“Daybreak” — the show must go on

Hsuen, who has choreographed two pieces this year, has had to adapt a concept she has been thinking about for years — even before the pandemic. “It looked very different in my head. I imagined a massive group, lots of contact, and a lot of concept-based choreography that relied on people being in one space to make it effective.”

She wrote to The Varsity, “Going to Zoom to choreograph was a big learning curve for me. I tend to like to make choreography that relies on contact or I like to show up in person and kind of mould the dancers like clay.”

Hsuen’s piece, “Awake,” is set to the song “Me and Your Mama” by Childish Gambino. She explains that this song “was crafted with such passion and interesting rhythmic passages [that] it pretty much choreographed itself.” It was also inspired by her grandmother: “The concept of ‘Awake’ is that nature is waking up and thriving, and when I think of nature I think of my grandma and the cherry blossom tree in her backyard. If it was possible to dedicate saving nature to anyone, it would be her.”

Wu and Gauthier highlight that, while every piece has its own unique story, many of the dances in “Daybreak” reflect on the ups and downs of this strange year. 

Wu’s instrumental hip hop piece, called “Thule” — meaning ‘distant place’ — is about the “struggle of trying to shift myself within the confined space that I find myself in.” She explores the distraction in stillness, and conversely, how someone’s mindset stays with them as they move around. “The choreography itself changes from fluid moments to really harsh, rigid moments.” Some of the soundtrack comes from “All We Know” by The Chainsmokers.

Gauthier’s contemporary and modern dance performance, set to the FKA Twigs song “Home With You,” is about missing her friends. “I was reflecting on how much I missed seeing people and being out in the world, and I think the song… really internalizes that need for human companionship that I think a lot of us are missing during this time.”

Building human connection through dance 

Despite the challenges, Gauthier wrote that “those little moments of human connection have really made the whole thing worth it.” The company members have stayed connected, participating in online social events like game nights and movie nights, and holding two open classes. Luckily, they also held an in-person photoshoot in September, before Toronto went back into lockdown.

Wu added that “Everyone got exercise and took time to meet new people… The first years [went] into their first year [in] quarantine and all their classes are online, so they already have a lack of opportunities to meet their peers.”

For Hsuen, joining Silhouettes after being in a rut during her first year meant finding “like-minded people who all came together in one goal.” She reflects, “I’m thankful for the lifelong friends I never thought I’d make, but now can’t imagine life without.”

More information on “Daybreak” will be shared on the Silhouettes Dance Company’s Instagram page, and individual dance videos will be available online following the premiere.