REASON TO LOVE OTTAWA #35: Because Cathy Levy gets it — and brings the best to the NAC

REASON TO LOVE OTTAWA #35: Because Cathy Levy gets it — and brings the best to the NAC

Cathy Levy, dance producer at the National Arts Centre. Photography by Brigitte Bouvier

Because CATHY LEVY gets it — and brings the best to the NAC

Ever been to a dance show? Ever thought, partway through, that you just don’t understand what’s unfolding on stage?

“Dance is a hard medium because it’s often not linear,” says Cathy Levy, dance producer at the National Arts Centre. “People might think, I don’t get it.” Levy, who has been putting together the programs for the NAC for 10 years, has a few tips for the bewildered audience member: Be open to your own reactions. Don’t look for a story. And, perhaps most importantly, do not let that confused feeling deter you from looking for things you do like.

Despite the challenges of the medium, Levy’s job sounds pretty sweet: travelling the world to take in dance shows, mingling with choreographers (not to mention chiselled dancers), choosing her favourites, and bringing them to Ottawa audiences. “I feel blessed that my work is such an expression of who I am,” says Levy, whose dance background includes classes in creative movement (“It was a fantastic anchor for me”) and a degree in kinesiology from the University of Waterloo.

“As I grew older and found out more about the field, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I loved dance but knew I wasn’t the performer type.” Instead, she acts as a filter for local audiences: attending live performances, watching dance videos, considering her audience and venue, and bringing the very best companies in the world to perform here. She secured the only 2006 date for the Kirov Ballet’s Swan Lake in Canada (the company returned this past February for La Bayadère). And the inclusion of acclaimed German choreographer Pina Bausch in the 2004 and 2007 programs — both Canadian exclusives — was seen as a coup that put Ottawa on the dance map.

While Levy admits she personally likes productions that are “new and idiosyncratic,” she knows the calendar has to include a mix of classic and contemporary dance styles. And she is very aware that not everything works on the NAC stages. “Raucous” shows, for example, work better in a late-night venue than a main stage, she explains. And a series such as the Canada Dance Festival, where Levy served as director for 10 years, is another creature altogether, because there’s an expectation that audiences will take in a bit of everything and the performances are shorter. “You have to understand your audience,” Levy says, “and how to push them toward wanting more.”

The toughest nuts to crack are the classic ballet fans, but Levy is confident they’re making strides. She has to tread carefully, though. For example, when Alain Platel’s Les Ballets C. de la B. came to town last October, Levy and her team voiced loudly and clearly that the piece — which saw nine dancers perform “small mouth quivers, teeth chattering, silly walks” on an empty stage with basic lighting — is not actually ballet.

Categories change, definitions morph, audience members walk out: it’s all part of the job for Levy, who brings the world of movement to Ottawa and lets us decide for ourselves.

Read all 44 of Ottawa Magazine’s “Reasons to Love Ottawa” in the March/April edition. On newsstands now.