Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet senior leadership gather for a meeting and are presented with a summer project idea from a Member of the Canadian Parliament, Dr. Robert Falcon Oulette: to create a startup company that would engage with the community. Two young dancers, hungry for movement creation and choreography, can feel the mutual interest from across the room; Cameron Fraser-Monroe remembers "Bryce Taylor, my soon-to-be co-director, was sitting close to me in this meeting, and a side-eye was all it took…" This simple side-eye was the beginning of what turned into six weeks of sixteen performances, five original works, and six dancers sharing art with the community: The Royal Winnipeg Ballet Summer Dance Collective (RWBSDC). As a dancer involved in this project, I realized just how much goes into building a dance company, which was more than I had initially expected. Starting a company can seem like a daunting task, but hopefully by sharing each step of our journey, we can provide you with valuable information and inspiration to take your own creative leap of faith.
Starting a company can be a similar process to producing a dance show for the first time. With this, a concept or idea is typically established before moving forward in the creation process. In Bryce and Cameron’s case, the concept of the RWBSDC came from Robert Falcon Oulette, who wanted an artistic project that would engage with new communities in Winnipeg. Coming from a ballet school background, Bryce and Cameron wanted to explore outside of classical dance, and saw this project as the perfect opportunity to do so. Their primary focus of the RWBSDC was to create new movement and to present audiences around Winnipeg with work they weren't used to seeing. "Bryce and I created the company primarily as young choreographers wanting to create… We did not have a "look" per se, more an idea about movement."
After they had agreed on the company’s motivation, they were ready to move forward and build a budget. A few common resources for funding are grants for startups or crowdfunding platforms. For their company, Bryce and Cameron focused on grants. With each grant application, Bryce and Cameron were required to "describe in detail each position as well as [their] company and oversight plan". What significantly helped this portion of the application process was having the submissions go through the RWB (there was not enough time to apply as a charitable non-profit) and having the support from staff members like Kate Fennel and Chris Turyk. Two valuable lessons came out of this process; one was to not rely on one grant alone. Being prepared to apply for multiple grants was crucial -- you are never guaranteed to receive all grants you've applied for. Although Bryce and Cameron did not receive all the funding they had hoped for, we were extremely fortunate to have the RWB Summer Dance Collective made possible by the government of Canada and the 2019 Canada Summer Jobs Program. Secondly and in hindsight, they found that preparing for the grant deadlines farther in advance would have been more beneficial, as Bryce and Cameron had a tight one-week deadline to complete the applications. Most of the grants that could have contributed to this project were due months before the idea for this company was even born and took eight to nine months to process; but luckily, there was still enough funding to have the project move forward.
The success of our company was measured not only by the work we put into it, but by how much we believed in it.
Although money was essential to create this company, Bryce and Cameron needed to find dancers to bring the concept to life. They decided to have six dancers, including themselves, with the thought that this would be the easiest number to create group pieces on. We quickly learned the easiest way to find dancers was by asking the people we knew who were available, since even after Bryce and Cameron had advertised around the city that they were holding a live audition, only the people they had asked personally showed up. When selecting dancers, they stressed they thought it was most important to "find people who are enthusiastic and want the idea to succeed as much as you [do]". This was due to the fact that this was their first time starting a company, and there was going to be a lot of work and creative processes involved. They needed company members who shared their passion and were willing to put in the work to produce a great final product. Cameron explained his realization of this from previous experiences. "In the end, a lot of casting came down to interest. After having worked for Red Sky Performance in Toronto, I was well aware of how big of an impact one person's attitude can have on the group, so we prioritized hiring people who wanted to be there for the company."
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We were extremely fortunate to not have to search for studio space and be able to use the facilities of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, as our company was operating under their name. It certainly helped to have this connection -- this sort of support is rare for a new dance company to have. Although we did not gain the experience of finding our own space to work in, it provided us with valuable information to pass on. One thing we took away was to use any down periods to our advantage. In our case, there was space for us to rehearse since our season was during a transitional period at the end of June between the end of the Ballet Academic school year and the start of the Summer Session at the beginning of July. This being said, we now know for the future it would be beneficial to research various studio spaces, their schedules, and rental fees, far enough in advance.
Now for one of the most important steps along the journey: seeking out venues where Bryce and Cameron could present all of their work. While searching for show venues, one statement proved true for us “…don’t be afraid to think outside the box!” Some of our stages included a square piece of linoleum taped down to the ground or a small stage inside of a church. With venues, it was helpful again to, use any connections we knew within our dance community; every performance we did was made possible through a connection that either Bryce or Cameron had, and this cannot be stressed enough. "All of our performances were through people we know, but I don't know of any part of the dance world that isn't based entirely on connections." Another great advantage of having these connections were that they led to finding collaborators. All of our collaborative projects felt more meaningful; it was a great way to support other artists, create something new, and gain inspiration. We took every chance for collaboration we could get. To give a few examples; one of the co-directors of the RWBSDC, Bryce Taylor, knew a dancer in Winnipeg named Genie Boss, who was holding a dance battle on Canada Day at a location called The Forks. Genie generously allowed us to perform a piece choreographed by Bryce in between the dance battles, which was for an entirely different audience than we had danced for before. We also had the chance to collaborate with our friend Lana Winterhalt, a talented singer who we met while working at the RWB student residence. Together with her band, we created a music video for their song "In the Dark", for which our resident choreographer, Erin Atkinson, created a piece for. If you are curious about what was created through this collaboration, you can check out the final product. Apart from performance-based collaborators, two photographers, Bonnie Holmes and Michael Osikoya, from Visual Soul Studios kindly offered to have photo sessions with us as well.
Besides at show venues, we wanted to connect to our community on social media. There were several options to spread the word, but the RWBSDC focused on advertising primarily through Instagram. With the help of the marketing staff from RWB, which we were extremely grateful for, our company manager Clare Fleming, who created our Instagram page with a specific look. Our tactic was to first go back to our initial step in the whole startup company creation process, which was establishing our company’s mission/vision. With that mission in mind, we thought of how our vision could be reflected through our posts. Next, we found that choosing a color scheme or aesthetic that we could stick to was beneficial, so the page would pop, remain consistent to a unique brand image, and be more visually appealing. Our company was young and wanted to promote creativity and dancing for the sake of it, so Clare went with a fun, colorful theme. From our experience, using the Instagram story function always worked in our advantage to show any rehearsal footage or tease upcoming events.
This was both Bryce and Cameron's first time figuring out how to start a company. Now that they have had time to reflect on the whole experience, they have gained enough insight to know what they could improve on and what went well: "More money makes everything better right?" I think most dancers could agree with this statement. Dancing isn't cheap, and any extra funds you can come up with will only help the company as a whole. Being on a tight budget pushed us to get creative at times, but also made us realize what more we could do if we had applied for grants earlier in the year. "…in retrospect it was a good idea to have a partner, personally I would have been in over my head with this project without Cameron's expertise." There are a lot of responsibilities within the role of director, beyond giving dancers constructive-criticism, that are difficult to navigate without any experience. Being that this was Bryce and Cameron’s first time around, they were grateful to have each other's support. Similar to having a partner, Cameron explained "I would say my best piece of advice is to get a mentor who can be there for you for everything small to big. We had Chris Turyk, who at the time was the RWB's Director of Company Operations, and he was invaluable. Picking someone who isn't necessarily like you, or who has the skills you lack is a good idea. It can be isolating to be the leader of any group, so if you can't find a mentor, find someone you can speak candidly with." Building a startup company from scratch was exciting but also daunting, so having a mentor who provided insightful advice, or just to debrief with, made a huge difference.
Picking someone who isn't necessarily like you, or who has the skills you lack is a good idea.
In the end, we found that the success of our company was measured not only by the work we put into it, but by how much we believed in it. Although we were young, we were able to reach our goals of engaging with the community, creating new work, and working with inspiring collaborators, all because we were confident that we could succeed in starting a company. There were stressful moments along the way, like tight deadlines, or having to use a tiny square of Marley as a stage, outdoors, on the slanted ground... But these moments are what stood out the most, and when we, together as a group, came up with ways to overcome these obstacles, it felt the most fulfilling. If, by the end of reading our story, you are still wondering whether or not you should start a dance company, I hope to finally persuade you by leaving you with this: the experiences, memories, and most importantly, the people you get to share this with, are truly invaluable.
main photo © Michael Osikoya