Timea Wharton Suri Will Move You With Dance Immersion As Curator, To Be Executive Director-Toronto

Posted By: Eric Smith In: Dance On: Thursday, June 15, 2023

Timea discusses her journey as a professional dancer to executive leadership at one of the premier performance organizations in Canada.

So how are you doing in Toronto?

Very well, very well…it’s nice and sunny here today.

How long have you been involved with dance and dance Immersion?

I started with lessons when I was four-then continued through undergraduate school majoring in dance at York University.  And during that time of study, I met Ronald Taylor who was running what is now known as Ronald Taylor Dance and through him, I was exposed to Caribbean dance and African Dance bringing in the ballet and modern dance that I had been doing and that’s how I started professionally dancing.  Then rehearsals and shows continued with that and as you probably can tell by my bio I’ve had about every dance job.

So while I was dancing professionally and teaching dance I wanted to have an educational background to support my artistry and pursued a business degree in arts management-which I had always been interested in as well.  And then I was injured, like many dancers, in my late twenties and I had to go through extensive rehabilitation.  The program I used to heal included elements of what I had learned in physiology, of course dance and other types of fitness.  And so I had decided after recovering from that, if I could get better using those techniques I could turn this into a dance fitness studio for folks who want to yes love dance, move around and get fit-so I opened my own studio located downtown Toronto.

In the first studio I had, the building was torn down to build a condo development.  I went through the whole trouble of finding a new place to move the studio to and then after a few years-that building was torn down to build a condo.  And after this-I said I can’t do this right now-starting all over-I just can’t do that again.  So I started traveling and ended up in Trinidad teaching for a stint, and became ill after getting bit by a venomous spider and had to come back home. 

Once I started feeling better and getting my health back I started working with the Toronto Arts Council, doing work to help get funding for dance projects.  Through this experience I thought, well I want to present dance.  That’s when I started working with organizations such as TO Live and curating for Canadian Stage-doing shows together.  And to be honest-presenting dance was something I had done before with organizations like Ronald Taylor Dance and with other smaller teams where we would produce shows-so I had experience doing that before.  At that time it turned into something I wanted to do much more inspired by the idea of getting more people of color getting onto Canadian stages.  So I started doing that work and had always been in touch with dance Immersion throughout this time.  Actually, my first paid performance with Ronald Taylor Dance was through dance Immersion.   

dance Immersion was started by Vivine Scarlett in 1994.  And really, dance Immersion was founded to just that-to get us dancers onto stages.  Yes, to get our own works, not just if we were doing ballet or modern dance, but if we were doing dances of the African Diaspora-onto stages.  And so I’d always known Vivine and dance Immersion.  So as I started getting more into presenting, I kept in touch with Vivine and we did a couple of projects together.   And after some time passed later then, she gave me a call to see if I want to come to join as part of the executive leadership of the organization and would want to know if I would want to come in to take over the reins.  And of course, I was thrilled-but at the time I was working under contract with Toronto Dance Theater.  So we decided to take our time over a few years and when that contract was up I transitioned to dance Immersion and we started putting shows together with me also helping out with the financial aspects.  So, at the end of this calendar year, Vivine will be stepping away and I will be accepting the full role and responsibilities as Executive Director.

How would you describe your vision for what a curator does?

From my perspective, it is staying connected to the artistic dance happenings and then selecting specific artists to work with or those who have finished dance pieces to then connect with audiences.  So I see curators as connectors.  We connect what’s out there with audiences and participants so that the work gets out to communities and can not only be enjoyed but influenced and inspired.

When you say connectors what do you mean by that?  How does that part of it work?

So as connectors, we do it in all different ways for the shows we put together.  These shows are curated by us but they are also produced by us.  The curation is the selection of the artist and the work but the production is reaching out to the venues, pulling together the production crew, picking the dates, and handling the marketing to put it all out there.  So there are shows where we do the whole spectrum of these activities.  Then there are other ones already prepared, being presented across other parts of the country and we bring them here to Toronto.  So it might be a dance piece that’s already been completed from within another city in Canada already been performed and we bring it here on a tour.  Under this scenario, we don’t have input on the artistic development of the piece that’s already done in production but we negotiate with the venue, pay for the venue, put the staging crew together, and as always marketing and promoting the work.  

When you put on these presentations how do people respond?  Do the want to come out and see it?  Is there a large dance scene there in Toronto?

We do have quite a large dance scene here as diverse as the city is.  Of course, there is a lot more work to be done getting all those diverse voices onto stages equally.  We have a world-class ballet company here in the city.  We have a national ballet company representing Canada as a whole.  We have Contemporary dance companies, including African dance companies.  And we have a lot of street and urban dance going on with a lot of Hip Hop, House, and a budding Afro Beats dance scene as well.

We also have a thriving and what we call concert dance scene and dance Immersion is heavily into that.  Because we work with a lot of dancers from the African Diaspora we are connected to the commercial dance scenes like hip-hop and urban.  And of course, there are the social dances so we have a thriving salsa scene here, we have pockets of Lindy hop so yeah we have that wide of a dance spectrum in Toronto.

What are some of the challenges you face when presenting dance diversity on stages there?

So in Canada, across the nation even in Toronto which is so diverse, we still have the population percentages in terms of representation-it’s much different than in the states.  We are a smaller group.  For the longest time-ballet and contemporary dance were considered the most popular in terms of popularity and recognized as the high arts in stature.  It’s considered high arts due to the rigor and high levels of expression.  And for the other forms of dance, there’s just a lack of understanding and looked upon as more social and energetic and less so for the artistry.  

So dance Immersion and others have come along to get it out there.  Our biggest challenge has been access to space.  The lack of space that we have dedicated to our dances is an issue.  Of course, our current and past partnerships have worked out very well.  And we continue to encourage support more from the entire community whether that is working together or building more dance collectives.

Another thing that is big is you folks in the States have a lot of great educational dance institutions.  And we have some, but they are all focused on either ballet or modern dance.  So it’s up to the smaller groups to provide professional levels of training-and this comes and goes, comes and goes which slows momentum-so we really need more of that right now.

With respect to your dance studio, how did you go about addressing some of the challenges dancers may face when performing?

So one of the things we implemented was finishing every class with a deep yoga stretch.  Transformative for me when learning these techniques to be able to develop some of these movements for the whole body.  We also implemented a lot of core strength training as well, for preventing so many back injuries which can occur even for people who just sit at their desks all day and have soreness. 

And the other one, which was also hard to put words to, was the general philosophy we used that helped folks.  For example, when I opened the studio I had a business arrangement with a restaurant chain here called Freshii.  It’s fresh food you can get in quick bowls or wraps that are really healthy.  So from this, I made a lunch class where you can participate and order from Freshii at the studio while there for your 45 minutes class-get ready while Freshii delivered it, and this was even before UBER and UBER Eats. This made people realize I can exercise in the middle of the day, I can dance a little bit in the middle of the day.  I can not only bring that health and fitness in the middle of the day but also bring that joy and mental health benefit to complement a day's work.  With this philosophy in fact, I instituted a morning class-so it wasn’t just about what you could do after work, but what about during and what about before work-there is this time for you there is the time you can do it.  It was just showing people the possibility.

I have also started to mentor a bit.  People don’t know all that you can do in dance.  And it's hard to see, especially as a dancer.  Someone who has been in business or been an administrator can look at my bio and go oh…and see a lot there.  But as a dancer, I make things happen.  And that is exciting.  I am impacting communities all through dance.  So I’ve been speaking more and more about this.  I was just doing, as you could imagine, pivoting and doing.  The younger folk just don’t have access to this information of doing, beyond being the administrator or the dancer.  People need to know there is life for a dancer beyond performing, after being injured, or after moving on from the stages.

Beyond downtown-where are these creative dance performances happening?

Toronto is a huge geographic city which means we have some beautiful neighborhood activities where we have community centers and places like that offering these spaces to dance.  In terms of the theatre kinds of spaces, most of those are downtown.  Because we’re such a large city, for dance Immersion at least, we run programs sometimes in the east of the city center, sometimes in the west, and even in the north.  But with this, we’ve found it is so much easier for people to come to the downtown city center. 

What are some of your favorite neighborhoods?

One is the Saint Clair West area where there are streetcars running through where people come to eat at the very many wonderful restaurants located there, with individually owned shops not a lot of the larger retail chains.  So most of the people shopping there live there.  But it’s so vibrant-you just walk out along the avenue and find anything you need-with people coming in bustling from other areas.

The Scarborough area has some really cool neighborhoods as well, especially north Scarborough with the arts and pubs scene happening.  It’s really community driven and down-to-earth.

Then there’s North York or north center which is now becoming more well known. Where we have the Meridian Arts Center, which has multiple spaces within the venue.  And what I like about that is, it doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of downtown but it has the state of the art facilities, with galleries so that you can program work there.  It is accessible by transit and there’s even parking which you can’t get downtown.  It’s all of those things.  So there are a few spots you can do that are my favorites away from downtown.

And lastly, what are some of your ambitions for dance Immersion going into the future?

So next season is our 30th Anniversary, the 2024 season.  We’ve got planned our usual shows, the legacy series, crunk dance, and contemporary pieces that really delve into our ancestry.  And then, of course, a Gala to celebrate the 30th Anniversary honoring Vivine Scarlett and that will take place in June 2024!