A dance festival in its fourth year places a west end community at centre stage.
On any other day, the porches of Seaton Village seem nothing out of the ordinary, serving their community quietly with nary a glance from passersby. But for a few days every summer, and much to the delight of Karen and Allen Kaeja of Kaeja Dance, they become alive with energy, sound and movement.
Porch View Dances, an annual event that is the brainchild of Kaeja, showcases real people dancing in real spaces. Residents, including children, from around the neighbourhood participate in choreographed dance routines held on their very own porches, to the viewing pleasure of spectators who stop by while on a short walking tour of Seaton Village. The tour is guided by Allen Kaeja, Karen Kaeja’s husband and co-artistic director of the dance business. It starts at 84 London Street, making stops at a total of three porches and ending in Vermont Square Park where the dancers lead the community in a follow-the-leader style participatory routine.
Now in its fourth year, Porch View Dances is becoming an event that the residents of the area look forward to as a way to celebrate the summer and to come together. The idea was a result of Karen Kaeja staring out of a window during a meeting and wondering what the people in the opposite house were doing. “I thought what if we brought their story out through dance, on the front porch and the lawn and brought choreographers in to create dances with these people about their lives, pull material from who they are in their life,” she says. “I shared the idea with my staff in the meeting, and then before I knew it we were applying for a grant to do it.” Her favourite part, apart from seeing all the spectators go from witnessing the dances to experiencing it for themselves at Vermont Square Park, is interacting with the families and bringing out their stories.
To the families of Seaton Village, this event gives them a chance to get to know one another, themselves and their loved ones a little bitter. Lori Endes, a longtime resident of the neighbourhood and a participant in this year’s event, believes that Porch View Dances gives the surrounding area a warm village feel because it bonds people together.
“It’s not just a chance for them to come and see a dance performance, it’s a chance for them to do something together with their families,” Endes says. “With Porch View it’s about enjoying the dance pieces without it necessarily being a specific narrative or anything else. And I think it’s making it important for the community in that dance is an inaccessible medium.”
Some residents and previous participants, like Vivien Carrady, think events like these make them grateful to live in a city like Toronto. “You would not find this in London, in Paris, maybe Montreal but even then it’s questionable. I think Toronto is unique in that it’s safe, it’s open, it’s clean,” says Carraday, “Also we have porches in Toronto. And apparently porches are a thing of the past. Porches were intended to bring people together, they’re intended for those kind of casual chit chats at the end of the day, informal. And this is kind of that informality raised a notch. So it’s art and informality all at once.”
But Porch View Dances doesn’t just bring people together, it helps give them a chance to take a break from their busy lives. Many participants, like Endes, chose to perform with their spouses and children as a way to spend more time with them, something the staff of Kaeja Dance didn’t expect. General manager Shana Hillman was pleasantly surprised by the amount of participation and interest. “Four years in, as we talked to people, the thing that really resonates for me is that we’re all busy. There’s a cult of busy. Everyone’s busy. Kids have soccer, cello and mathletes. Just everyone’s overscheduled and it’s a competition of how busy we are,” she says, “But what we hear now from the families who participate is that it was this gift of time with their family to create something beautiful together.”
Apart from the porch performances, a separate event occurs outside the houses, when the spectators walk from one porch to another. This year it’s “The Wedding Brigade”, a procession of 40 women dressed in white wedding gowns led by an accordion playing a celebratory tune, with their hands gesturing to the sky, to their hearts and to the crowd, as they walk through the spectators. This was a very special project for Karen Kaeja and something she was excited to expose the audience to. “It’s about women weaving their way through the audience and in a way it’s like the dance through life, like the dance through love, the dance through longevity of a marriage, of a relationship, the give and take that you need to have, the ebb and flow that you need to do,” she says, “You can’t just barrel through. You’re not going to make it. Or you’re going to make it scarred. Or you’re going to scar someone else.”
Nurtured by Karen Kaeja, Porch View Dances in all its genuinely raw emotion is a remarkable effort to bring together and expose a community to an art form that should be accessible to everyone. It’s also a unique way of telling the story of a culturally historic Toronto neighbourhood.
Porch View Dances runs from August 19-23, 7:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. on August 23) at 84 London Street.