En Pointe 09 - May 30
Sharing Dance Day and the Rise of Jera Wolfe
On May 29th, tens of thousands of Canadian youth participated in Sharing Dance Day, an event created by Canada’s National Ballet School in partnership with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (RWB) School and Physical and Health Education Canada. Sharing Dance Day encourages Canadians of all ages and abilities to engage with dance artistically, and reap the physical, social, emotional, and cultural benefits that it provides. As a community initiative designed to make dance accessible to all people, Sharing Dance Day selects a different Canadian artist each year to share their choreography with the country. This year’s Sharing Dance Day featured choreography from the exceptionally talented RWB School alumni member, Jera Wolfe, and participants learned a portion of Jera’s latest full ballet Arise, which debuted on the NBS stage in 2019
The full piece features 110 dancers and begins with a lead dancer attempting to reach the light at the top of a wall. At first, the dancer is unable to climb the structure, but after undertaking a beautiful and expressive journey, wherein they encounter many others who help them to develop the skills necessary to climb, they are able to scale the wall and reach their goal. It’s a powerful piece that speaks to the challenges we all have to face, and how, by supporting and caring for one another, we are able to face these challenges. For Jera, the inspiration for Arise came from his own experience as a dancer, and in many ways, it is his autobiography.
Jera’s first exposure to dance was breakdancing in his hometown of Kelowna. His mother recognized his interest in dance and encouraged him to take classes in Hip Hop. From there, Jera moved into Jazz and began to take an interest in more classical forms of dance. When he was 14, Jera took his first ballet program at what is now called the Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity, and quickly fell in love with the artform.
“I liked the structure and the etiquette,” says Jera, of his first exposure to ballet. “I loved the rhythm; it was almost meditative, and I was really attracted to the strong sense of professional work ethic in the classical world,” he added.
When he returned to Kelowna, Jera wanted to continue developing his ballet skills. With the support of his teachers and family, Jera began applying to schools around the country, including the NBS, but only found success when he was accepted into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s (RWB) Summer Session. When he completed that program, Jera was accepted into the Ballet Academic Program, where he stayed for two years, completing level 6 and 7.
Upon his graduation from the RWB School, Jera moved to Toronto where he began looking for employment with his newly developed skills as a ballet dancer. He applied to many companies and programs but was unable to find an employment with his skillset, and after several months, Jera began to lose hope. The wall was just too high.
“In Toronto, I was running out of money and energy,” said Jera. “I wanted to quit, but my family was so supportive, they kept picking me up every time I fell.”
Disillusioned with his prospects in Toronto, Jera returned to Winnipeg. It was there that he reconnected with the RWB School and continued to develop his skills as a dancer through the Aspirant Program. Jera was working harder than ever, and after completing the two-year post-secondary program, he set out once again to find employment.
Having completed his transition from student to professional dancer, Jera now had what he needed to find work as a dancer. After relocating to Germany, Jera found a position where he was able to refine his technique as a dancer and was taught to dance in more ways than he had ever imagined. After a thirteen-month span, Jera was in the best shape of his life, and he returned to Canada with a renewed sense of purpose and drive.
At this point, Jera had the skills and the experience to be an exceptional dancer anywhere in the country, but he decided to return to the place where his love for ballet began, the Banff Center for Arts & Creativity. There, Jera joined the Indigenous Dance Residency as a dancer, and over the next three summers he was asked to create choreography for the program. It was there that Jera learned to understand and appreciate his indigenous heritage, which would provide the inspiration for his later work. Jera soon discovered that he had a natural affinity for choreography and he would soon find his first professional work in that field.
In August 2015, the Director of the Indigenous Dance Residency, Sandra Laronde, approached the Jera to assist with the creation of a brand-new work. The work would be a collaborative effort through Red Sky Performance, of which Laronde was also Executive & Artistic Director. It was Jera’s first time co-choreographing and working together with other artists, he helped create; Backbone, a powerful expression of nature’s “spine” interpreted in motion. The piece was ultimately nominated for three Dora Mavor Moore Awards by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts and helped to skyrocket Jera’s reputation as a choreographer.
Jera would continue working with Red Sky Performance for several years, but in 2016, Jera happened to once again reconnect with the RWB School during their annual RWB Audition Tour in Kelowna. When Jera explained that he had been working as a choreographer, members of the Artistic Faculty encouraged him to send in samples of his choreography. Once he did, Jera was quickly approached by Arlene Minkhorst, the former RWB School Director, to create a new piece with the school. What came next was Reminiscence, a wholly original created exclusively by Jera.
“That was a big moment because that felt like my first true work,” Jera recalled. “There’s something really special about choreographing your own work. From making the steps to picking the costumes and the lighting, then watching it develop in rehearsals. It was beautiful. I loved it.”
Reminiscence explored the relationship between mature artists and younger dancers, demonstrating how they teach one another and grow together. It premiered in the May 2017 performance of Spotlight, the RWB School’s annual Professional Division showcase, to rave reviews and cemented Jera as one of Canada’s most talented young choreographers. Minkhorst knew that Jera’s talents were exemplary and began sharing videos of Reminiscence with Mavis Staines, the Artistic Director and CEO of the NBS.
Staines, who has been described as “a brilliant mind and an exceptional leader in rallying the dance world community” by the Director of the RWB School, Stéphane Léonard, immediately recognized Jera’s abilities as a choreographer. She then contacted Jera to create an original piece for the NBS. He accepted the offer and took off Toronto to begin work on the piece that would eventually become Arise.
When Jera arrived at the NBS, he was struck by the importance of the moment. Twelve years earlier he failed to meet the school’s entrance requirements, and now, after completing his own journey, and with the support of those closest to him, Jera wasn’t only in the classes, he was teaching them. He had finally achieved his dream of being a successful dancer, he had reached the top of the wall.
After everything, Jera is thankful for how his story turned out.
“It made me grateful for my failures, because they taught me so much,” he said. “If I didn’t go through what I did, I would never be where I am.”
That journey is what Jera hoped to capture in Arise, and now what he hopes to share with the thousands of young people across the country who took part in Sharing Dance Day.
“If I can inspire just one student to pursue their dreams the same way I’m doing it now,” Jera says, “then I would feel truly successful.”
Jera’s work as a choreographer is widely considered to be inspired. Since completing his work on Arise ,Jera continued to create powerful, moving pieces, including a number of contributions to the RWB Aspirant program, Solace for RWB’s On The Edge in 2018, and last season’s incredible Ballet & the Band performance, Bare. Also, in 2019, Jera’s work returned to the Dora Mavor Moore Awards where he took home the award for Outstanding Original Choreography for a piece called Trace.