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Fifteen Years of Choreographic Innovation

Montreal Impresario Paul Caskey and Studio 303

I showed my first choreography in Montreal in Vernissage-danse #6, and when we look at the fact that the one coming up is #120, it puts things into perspective for me.
-Paul Caskey, outgoing co-director of Studio 303, January 2005

Without a doubt, 2004 will go down as a tough year for Montreal dance. The Festival de Nouvelle Danse (FIND) folded before the New Year even began; in the fall, the Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault mounted a financially disastrous tour of Joe, one of Quebec's most treasured dance works; and recently La La La Human Steps, one of the city's premier companies, reported serious debt. Yet in the face of all this discouraging news, there is something to cheer: Studio 303, currently celebrating its fifteenth year of operation. For a grassroots organization that supports choreography and performance by the young, the untried and the untested, that's the arts-administrative equivalent of batting a thousand.

If anyone embodies the spirit of what is now a Montreal institution (albeit a cutting-edge one), it is co-artistic director Paul Caskey, who began as a broom-pushing volunteer and became one of Canada's most important impresarios of contemporary dance. Caskey has been with the Montreal performance venue, training centre and art gallery since its founding in 1989, but sadly, he's recently decided that it's time for him to move on. Next month, he begins a new job as artistic director of Halifax's Live Art Dance Productions.

Caskey is confident, though, that the organization he helped steer to success will have a bright future without him. "I feel like my contribution to 303 has reached its zenith. I've done all I can here. I really believe that change is good"-both on a personal level and for the Studio. Caskey leaves behind not a void, but a nurturing space in which young talent will continue to flourish.

Though he points to a funding crisis in the Quebec dance world, Paul Caskey is enthusiastic: "I see a generation [of young choreographers] that has managed to break from the woe of 'We're stopped in the bottleneck: there's no future for us.'"

Paul Caskey came to Montreal in 1989 to finish his degree in Fine and Performing Arts from Simon Fraser University. He was taking dance classes at Les Ateliers de Danse Moderne de Montréal (LADMMI), in the ever buzzing Belgo Building on St. Catherine Street, when he discovered-on the next floor up-the newly formed Studio 303, a communal space established by choreographers Isabelle Van Grimde, Martha Carter and Jo Leslie. Soon he began taking classes there also, as well as performing for Carter and doing whatever odd jobs were needed.

"Nobody was being paid. Everybody was contributing some expertise or energy in exchange for opportunities, [rehearsal] space, access to performance opportunities and the Vernissage-danse series. It was like, 'Here's a space. The doors are open. What do we want to put in it? How do we want this space to breathe and live?'"

Over the years, Caskey worked his way up the ladder, eventually taking over as co-director of the Studio in 1994 alongside Miriam Ginestier. "My 'in' was that I was manually inclined, so I was a good guy to have around. I could push a broom, change a light bulb and do those boy things." Ginestier, on the other hand, had superior organization and office skills. It was, Caskey says with emotion, a "marriage" made in arts-administration heaven. As for working together as presenters of dance, he says, "we don't necessarily always like the same works, but we like the same ideas. That, I think, is how we have been able to challenge and support each other." One thing they have always agreed on is that Studio 303 is not just a dance space, but also a place that encourages interdisciplinary practices. In 1995, Ginestier and Caskey oversaw the founding of Gallery 303, which provides a venue for artists otherwise unable to break into the Montreal fine-arts establishment.

A shared artistic vision is essential if two people are to work well together, but ideas alone can't keep things going for long. "Passion," Caskey argues, "can only provide for so much longevity. At a certain point in time, longevity demands money." To that end, one of his and Ginestier's most important accomplishments during their ten years as co-directors was securing more funding, which allowed Studio 303 to actually pay salaries to some of its staff (if not princely sums) as well as exercise all-around fiscal responsibility.

Besides the Studio's financial survival, another source of pride for Caskey is his role in transforming the space into a multi-use facility. In the early years, lighting consisted of light bulbs pointed at dancers. Now, thanks to Caskey and his team, the Studio has a lighting grid, a sound system and comfortable seating-all of which can be arranged in different configurations as needed. Meanwhile, the intimacy of the Studio, which holds only sixty spectators, is maintained. To attend a performance at Studio 303 is truly to see young talent up close and personal.

"Dance is in a crisis state across Canada ... In Quebec, I think, the crunch is hitting harder than elsewhere because Quebec historically has been on a whole different playing field."

But it is his job as a curator that Caskey is particularly proud of: "Our doors are open to a level of emerging artist that very few doors are open to ... So in that sense, we are the ground-level entry point for young, emerging artists who don't have a snowball's chance of showing in a certain hot place." The overwhelming number of established choreographers in Montreal means there just isn't much room in the city if you're new and young, despite the presence of other venues (such as Tangente). Studio 303 continues to fill this role for novice choreographers.

What really sets Studio 303 apart, though, is the speedy turnaround between proposal and performance. Caskey boasts, "An artist can call up today and say, 'Hey, I've got a work I'd love to show.' And we can say, 'Well, you know, we've actually got a hole available in the March Vernissage. It's six weeks away; we can show your work then,' which is really unheard of anywhere else. People are programming a year, two or three in advance. We are really proud of this fact and feel this is a huge service to artists because it respects their creative energies ... Not everyone can create at a drop of a hat."

Thank goodness there is such a haven. Reflecting on the Montreal dance scene's current woes, Caskey says, "Dance is in a crisis state across Canada, and that comes down to a pure funding issue in many ways ... In Quebec, I think, the crunch is hitting harder than elsewhere because Quebec historically has been on a whole different playing field. Everywhere else is used to the hardships that are happening. For Quebec artists, this is somewhat new."

Provincial funding and logistical support has traditionally come from bodies such as the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec, the Regroupement Québécois de la Danse and the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications, which provide a range of assistance not found in other provinces. Perhaps even more important, though, are Quebec audiences. "The Québécois people really support their culture, and that is just beautiful to witness and be part of."

Dancer Caroline Gravel performs at Studio 303.

Still, Caskey wonders if the expectations of artists and arts organizations in la belle province have an impractical side. He points to the failure of FIND and to the Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault's disastrous Joe tour as examples of organizations operating beyond their means, driven by a "bigger is better" mentality or by a desire to glorify individual artists and events without giving enough thought to practical considerations. It's all well and good to harbour big ambitions, suggests Caskey, but these two organizations ignored financial realities to the point of destroying themselves. "It's hard to point fingers. Couldn't FIND have put together a program that was interesting without exceeding their budget? For a small organization like 303, we've got a budget; we've got to work within our means. We can't go and spend twice what we have."

In the end, the biggest loser of all is the community. In the case of the Fondation, freelance dancers and choreographers have lost an invaluable training and rehearsal space, and Montreal audiences have lost the chance to see the work of one of their greatest choreographers. To ensure that Studio 303 avoids the same fate, Caskey and Ginestier have tried to be realistic when it comes to finances.

"The Québécois people really support their culture, and that is just beautiful to witness and be part of."

As a result, Studio 303 is still standing, as are other dance presenters like Tangente, Danse Danse and L'Agora de la Danse. And an entire generation of Montreal dancers and choreographers has been exposed to a high calibre of international and local dance. According to Caskey, that exposure is beginning to show. He's especially excited by the interdisciplinary works that young choreographers are creating today. "I see a generation that has managed to break from the woe of 'We're stopped in the bottleneck: there's no future for us,'" he says enthusiastically. Artists are now asking through their work, "How can we address that situation and find ways to carry on?"

For Caskey, these new voices are essential to the future of dance in Montreal. And while he has enjoyed being a part of making that happen, he feels it is time for the next generation to take the helm. In Studio 303's case, that means passing the mantle to budding dance impresario Lys Stevens, who (working with the seasoned Ginestier) this year took over as curator of the Vernissage-danse series.

What Caskey doesn't want is for Studio 303 to ossify. He says philosophically, "There are organizations and companies that have been under the same artistic vision for years, and I am afraid that leaves them in a groove from which they cannot, will not, deviate ... They do what they do, and just perpetuate themselves into the history books." Paul Caskey will go down in the history books too, but not for that reason. Montreal will certainly miss this visionary of contemporary dance.

Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.