Vivine Scarlett receives Lifetime Achievement Award
January 26, 2017
When Vivine Scarlett was looking to get her feet wet in the dance community, Dance Ontario executive director Rosslyn Jacob Edwards and dance curator Mimi Beck were there with words of encouragement and support.
Almost three decades later, they were again standing by her side as she was honoured for artistic brilliance and outstanding contributions to the arts in Canada with the Dance Ontario Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 1994, Scarlett launched Dance Immersion that produces, promotes and supports dancers and dances of the African Diaspora.
“Many years ago, I came to their office with my two kids in tow to ask if they could help me do what I am doing today and they graciously said ‘yes’,” Scarlett recounted. “I asked them to teach me the ways of presenting and help me connect to the dance community and they really took me on. I love them so much and I appreciate their vote of confidence.”
Jacob Edwards, who is also DanceWorks general manager, said Scarlett is a treasure.
“Vivine recognized very early on that opportunities for African-Canadian dancers were limited as the forms they were seeking were not fully represented on the Toronto scene,” she said. “It was the kind of dance you saw only during Caribana and at a few other festivals. She felt very strongly the need to get African-Canadian dancers more recognition as performers and to really work for that community.”
The prestigious award was presented last Sunday night at the Fleck Dance Theatre.
Not surprisingly, Scarlett deflected attention from herself choosing instead to thank the community for its support.
“This is about the community being acknowledged for its work,” she said. “It’s not about Vivine Scarlett. I can only do what I do with the assistance of the work that everybody else is doing in dance. This is an acknowledgment from outside our community of what is going on.”
Asked who she would dedicate the award to if given the opportunity, Jean Sheen and the late Len Gibson names quickly rolled off her tongue.
Sheen received her dance training in her native Trinidad & Tobago and New York and, in 1970, founded Chissamba Chiyuka Arts which was the first Caribbean dance school in the province.
“Jean gave me my first job as a dance professional,” Scarlett recalled. “She saw in me something I didn’t see in myself. She believed in me and encouraged me. It was such a joy to watch how she taught and how she put her productions together. Everything came from her heart. She was more than just instilling the art of dance. She was about love, life, teaching, community and sharing. I love her to death.”
Relaxing in her native Trinidad & Tobago where she spends the winter, Sheen was excited to learn about the recognition.
“Vivine has always had a focus to do dance that spoke to our heritage,” she noted. “For a while, that was not as sexy as people would have liked. In the early days, she didn’t get the grant she was looking for to do what she wanted to. But she worked with what she had and persevered in her bid to set up an all-round dance organization. There couldn’t be a more deserving person for this accolade than her and I am so happy.”
Gibson, who died nine years ago, choreographed and appeared in 1954 in Bamboula, the first musical variety television series produced by CBC from Vancouver and one of the first programs to feature an interracial cast.
He returned to Vancouver in 1995 after closing the Len Gibson Dance Ensemble that was launched in the mid-1960s in Toronto.
“I remember going to watch one of his dance classes and Len telling me ‘you come here to dance and not observe’,” Scarlett recounted. “He brought more than technique to dance. He brought staging, costuming, lighting and all the other elements that you really don’t think about when you are on the dance floor. Len was one of the greats who did much in Canada to open doors for others.”
KasheDance artistic director Kevin Ormsby and Canadian Dance Assembly executive director Kate Cornell nominated Scarlett for the award.
“It was in 1994 that I first fell under the spell of her charismatic and nurturing demeanour,” said Ormsby who is also the Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario (CPAMO) program manager. “Compassionate, gracious and humble, she’s truly deserving of this honour for her distinct contribution to dance in Canada and her role in building a more pluralist and open dance community.”
Cornell said Scarlett’s passion manifests many experiences that have served Canadian artists of African descent with opportunities that have laid a foundation for continued growth and representation.
“She’s an unsung hero and great network connector,” added Cornell.
Migrating from England at a young age with her Jamaican-born parents, Scarlett and her five siblings were raised in Brockville which is nearly 300 kilometres east of Toronto.
“My father (Reg) played the trumpet and me and my siblings had to play a musical instrument,” she pointed out. “I was more of a dancer and shaker and that was where I gravitated to.”
When her parents blocked her request to pursue dance studies at York University, Scarlett didn’t sulk.
“Though it didn’t happen, I committed to pursuing dance because it was deeply ingrained in me,” she said.
Little did Scarlett know at the time that the two-year fashion arts & business program she pursued at Humber College would serve her well when she launched her company.
With the creative juices flowing and not really seeing herself functioning effectively in a 9-5 job, the former Usafari Dance & Drum Ensemble was passionate about providing a platform to showcase the diversity of Black dancers.
“With the ensemble, we did mainly outdoor festivals,” she noted. “We however wanted to move to the next level. No matter how many doors we knocked on, there was someone saying what you did is not contemporary or it doesn’t meet our criteria. Being who I am, that wasn’t an answer I was looking for. In order for us to move forward, we have to do it by ourselves.”
Over the years, Dance Immersion has put on showcase presentations, in-studio presentations held at the end of its workshop series residency, a youth arts program, stories in motion that offers stories, movement and performance for children up to 10 years of age and a multidisciplinary mentorship program.
Funded mainly by Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils and the Department of Canadian Heritage, Dance Immersion has been at its current downtown office space since 2006.
“We don’t have a studio and we are still renting,” she added. “That has got to change.”
A few months after performing in Guinea, Scarlett attended her first International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) annual conference in Durham, North Carolina in 1998.
Started eight years earlier, the association preserves and promotes dance by people of African ancestry or origin, and assists and increases opportunities for artists in advocacy, audience development, education, funding, networking, performance, philosophical dialogue, and touring.
“That was my first trip to Africa and I was still on a high when I attended my first IABD conference,” said Scarlett who was the recipient of a Dora Mavor Moore award in 2002 for her choreographic contributions to the theatre production, ‘The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God’. “Now here I was sitting with people who I had read about and talking dance. They were very much interested in what we were doing in Canada. It was such a fulfilling event for me.”
Buoyed by the experience, Scarlett brought the international conference to Canada for the first time in 2007, the same year she received an Ontario Arts Council 2007 Chalmers Arts Fellowship.
The late Rex Nettleford, who co-founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica in 1962, was invited to be the keynote speaker at the event held for the first time outside the United States.
“I was simply in awe to be in the presence of this learned gentleman,” she said. “I remember him pulling me aside and I was shaking because I thought I had screwed up something and he was not happy. He started off the conversation by saying, ‘These things are very difficult to do’. My reaction was, ‘oh, oh’. He then went on to say, ‘You have done a wonderful job.’ With that coming from him, I was like, ‘Wow’.”
Scarlett brought the conference back to Toronto in 2012 and has attended almost every event in the last 19 years.
“If I am unable to be there, a representative from Dance Immersion will be,” she said.
The Board Member at Large since 2015 is at the 29th annual conference in Dallas that ends on Sunday.