Karen & Allen Kaeja, 2020 Finalist

Co-Artistic Directors of Kaeja d’Dance for over 30 years, Karen and Allen Kaeja are choreographers, performers and idea originators. They create and tour contemporary dance performances for stage and film throughout the world, as well as collaborate with and celebrate artists and everyday people of all ages and practices. They present local and international dance artists in Toronto through festival platforms, commissions and mentorships. Passionate engagers of professional and community dance art bridging, they create acclaimed performance forums outside of the box, such as Porch View Dances. Kaeja has received 40+ awards & nominations.

We asked Co-Artistic Directors of Kaeja d’Dance Karen and Allen Kaeja to tell us more about their work over the past 30 years and highlight some of the work they've been doing since COVID-19 hit in March.

Original photo courtesy of Aria Evans. Artwork by Amber Williams-King
You have spent a lot of time focusing on bringing dance into communities and involving everyday people. Why is this important to you?

We move with every breath, every second of our lives. Recognizing that the bodies we inhabit are quite literally dancing in miniscule ways all the time, it is wonderful to bring that recognition to people. Coupled with creation we invite everyday people to collaborate in the experience of movement making and performance while we engage in the expression of their personal stories, shared and singular. We witness hearts sing, emotions soar and connections to life, each other and the world around us, running deep. We believe in the power of movement to enrich the lives of everyone who participates, and even more so when they contribute to the creative process. There is a palpable change that is an empowering experience for all who engage and witness. Our voices and beings gain a sense of impact when we share these experiences with those around us. Physicality as simple as walking is a necessity to feeling alive and when shared with one, other or more, magnifies this elusive existence we inhabit, the dance of life.

How have you continued to provide programming and connect with communities while physical distancing?

We have taken what would have been explored in the studio and outdoors, into new ways of continuity, inviting and connecting to people with hope for the future where we will once again connect in each other’s presence. Albeit a very different way of being - isolating, zoom, FT, and phone, we immediately began developing all of our programming to go online. This was not without extremely long hours weaving through multiple possibilities in order to stay true to our intention of a project while negotiating all that comes with changing COVID info updates and restrictions. We have been involved with film for decades and live streaming for the last three years so we had a familiarity with the process, the content and framing. This COVID online transition was an expansive time for us to move performances, workshops and rehearsals onto the various platforms and figure out new ways of connecting and making meaning. It allowed us to engage the richness available in the virtual domain and challenge ourselves to further develop ideas while maintaining sensitivity to the needs of the communities we network with. Our staff team has been instrumental in enabling technical, think tanking, promo and support. The pandemic has been a humbling time to reflect, cope and experiment with how to connect to communities with heartwarming results. For us it has not been easy to stay still and I have mandated myself (Karen) to create opportunity to stop, listen and appreciate, and find the resilience and offerings in nurturing through rest and moving more slowly.

Some of the projects we have done since lockdown with community are:

  • Heart of the Park creation workshops with non-dancers  
  • PVD – this time focusing on our choreographers, we commissioned all 20 of our past TO and Etobicoke choreographers from over the years to celebrate our 9th season. We asked them to bring their inner life out, on their porches with their families and co-habitants during COVID. We also had a mini interview with excerpts of Jim and Owen Adams – our Indigenous family who has been part of PVD for 3 years plus a live flock landing led by dancers in different locations all online! Our PVD film is called Blue Renew.
  • Moving Connections Project: In-Touch (Karen and Beata Rasitsan), a multi-generational film of 150 gestures that we called out to the public for in an open call for gestures of connection and hope in the early days of the pandemic – uncurated. 
  • Allen taught on-line workshops nationally and internationally in dance film and improvisation with Battery Dance in New York and Free Flow and Kaeja
  • Karen is developing an online practice for Moving Connections created by senior participants for everyone to launch in October

Some additional projects we have done since lockdown with other professionals are:

  • Fallow – new solo work created for #NAC CanadaPerforms reflecting our current suspended and slightly a skewed reality (Karen - concept and performer, Allen- cinematographer). Filmed on Saugeen First Nation, Alle has received a CCA digital originals to turn the livestream into a full 4K dance film in September.
  • Karen’s solo backyard rehearsals for Touch X. The pandemic pushed me (Karen) to reimagine the already 5-year process of this work into what can be revealed in 5-7minute miniature soliloquys. Touch X is a community engaged project for HCT that was interrupted on March 16, 2020 when I was about to go into 2 full weeks of creation with 12 professional collaborators and 30 community members.
  • New short film called ‘between sun and sand’ (Karen and Allen take a day to connect along the Saugeen shores).
  • Other on-line creation projects nationally and internationally such as Allen’s commission on Tara Butler adm remount on Rebecca Margolick
  • Karen’s commission from Guetcha Guaritcha – duet for Mateo Galindo Torres and Katherine Semchuk to premiere in January at Citadel’s Bright Nights - livestream + audience

Can you talk about what it was like to be involved in The Stratford Festival’s production of Wendy and Peter Pan? Was this type of theatrical role new to you?

Allen: Choreographing for the SF was definitely a dream beyond a dream. Though I have worked in theatre many times, this experience of creating WPP with Director Keira Loughran, the composer, set, costumes and lighting designers completely shaped, yet expanded my vision for the flight supporting flight aspects of the play. Re-imaging Kaeja Elevations for cable flight blew open my perceptions of where this physicality, developed by Karen and I, could potentially go. Creating for 26 actors and musical theatre performers, was one of the largest casts I’ve worked with. Their openness and willingness to expand their worlds, as well as the inclusion of four of our Kaeja dancers: Mio (my assistant), Mateo, Rodney and Caryn, helped create an atmosphere of dialogue and inclusion. Karen was also Stratford’s first ever Movement Dramaturg, and offered both Keira and I insight, clarity and wisdom, that helped shape the experience of the performers.

Karen: Becoming Stratford’s first movement dramaturg, added a different bent for me. They were unsure what this role meant but understood that the integration of my eye and response to the movement creation and intention for both Allen and the director was crucial. The process was much less hands on and very exclusive to certain aspects of the production. The director was a dream. It was strange to have that very intense process come to a halt.

You both provide training and mentorship to the dance community. Why is this work important?

It’s very important for us to share our learnings. Mentorship was not a commonality in this field as we were emerging onto the scene. Our imagination of what mentorship might have meant for us, has transformed into a wish that will keep on giving. We have developed many ways and means of mentoring. Currently our mentorship projects range from singular relationships like Karen/Jaberi Dance Theatre, to partnering with new Blue Dance for our Creative Risk residency to now an RBC Open Circuit project, conceived by Karen. Providing platforms for future generations knowing they are the future or our community excites us to help artists soar without inhibition. We came on the scene when indies were absolutely unnoticed. Our hope for the artists up and coming today is to enable them to elevate and enrich themselves and the community and see themselves within the context of a whole, as well as for us to help them develop their keen sense of self and their own personalized creative process connecting to the rest of the world.

Kaeja d’Dance has previously been nominated for the TD Arts Diversity Award in 2013 (now the Community Arts Award) and Karen, you were nominated for the Muriel Sherrin Award in 2017. How does it feel to be nominated for a third Toronto Arts Foundation award in 2020?

Karen: It helps me to understand that the work we are passionate about making, has a relationship to people over time, that it has rooted and continues to live in a meaningful place in the cultural climate of Toronto.

Allen: We are absolutely honored to be recognized for the work that we have been engaged in and deeply believe in, for decades. So much of what we’ve done and move forward with, has our community as a whole, in our minds.