Wanted: master storytellers

by Jini Stolk

This is the right time of year to acknowledge the power and lasting impact of well-told stories.

I was recently electrified by this interview with FrameWorks Institute’s Susan Nall Bales (author of the paradigm-changing, for those who were paying attention, Wanted: Master Storytellers), about how nonprofits frame the issues they’re engaged in. “What’s really important”, she says, “is telling a complete story over time and using that story, that same story, to explain multiple policy objectives. What we are doing wrong is thinking we have to have a different story for every policy ask. What a core story does is to create a way of understanding how an issue works that would then allow you to see why multiple policy prescriptions would address that reality.”

So simple but so true – and so helpful when you’re engaged as I have been in trying to reframe how people think about the role of non-profit organizations in our society, or about the impact and importance of the arts.

The environmental sector, as an example, continues to struggle with how to talk about climate change so it inspires change rather than depresses and overwhelms: warnings of imminent chaos and destruction don’t seem to work. As another example, I wish that Premier Wynne had found a better way to frame Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum before all hell broke loose. Pioneer sex educator Meg Hickling, who championed and delivered sex education in Vancouver 40 years ago, called her topic “body science” and ran into remarkably few problems in convincing parents and schools of its importance. I love this interview with Anna Maria Tremonti of The Current, and I love that Ms. Hickling started her classes by telling the kids that “scientists never say ‘ewwww….gross’; they always say ‘interesting….’”

Tim Jones of Artscape has been honing his story for many years, and I think we can all learn from what he’s been doing. Tim long ago moved from a narrative of needs to one of opportunities. His recent talk with MaRS’ Global Leadership series, called Culture as Urban Acupuncture , told a convincing story about the role artists play in city-building, as change-makers and active network builders. He talked about culture as providing “pinpricks of urbanism that can create big change…,” healing cities, solving problems and transforming challenged neighbourhoods into vibrant and healthy ones – and he called upon the enlightened self-interest of policy-makers, developers and community activists to put culture at the heart of city-building.

It’s a simple, true and powerful story, and judging by Artscape’s success and the number of projects in its pipeline, a very effective one.

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Financial leadership for Executive Directors

by Jini Stolk

Fair is fair. In my last posts I wrote about the Board’s financial responsibilities – so I’d like to say a few words on the Managing or Executive Director’s crucial role in financial strategy and oversight.

The invaluable Nonprofit Quarterly published (on Christmas day four years ago, I just noticed) an exceptionally helpful Executive Director’s Guide to Financial Leadership. It comes squarely down on the ED’s responsibility for developing a business model that sustains financial health while achieving the organization’s mission. This is a much larger role than merely collecting financial data, producing financial reports and solving day-to-day financial issues, and requires an array of executive skills:

  • Strong annual budgeting, aligned to a written annual plan
  • A focus on the net financial result (in other words, the desired balance between income and spending)
  • Diversifying income as appropriate and possible
  • Risk identification and management
  • Anticipating and resolving cash flow issues
  • Planning for and building reserves; and more

This, of course, debunks the mistaken idea that once an Executive Director identifies a financial problem, it’s the board’s role to solve it! That’s too much to expect, and expecting it leads to disappointment and trouble. But knowing how to “help your board to help you” is definitely a core ED skill and responsibility, well-covered in the Guide.

This includes providing thoughtfully prepared and useful financial reports that “communicate information specific to the organization’s size, complexity and program structure in a format that matches the knowledge level and role of the board.” There’s no one-size-fits-all financial reporting format, especially when boards need to be looking at compliance with financial standards, organizational effectiveness, planning and any necessary urgent action.

As with all things governance, financial leadership involves both mutual and separate, but reinforcing, board and staff roles and responsibilities which should be discussed, defined in writing and understood by all.

A reminder: check out the extensive financial resources on the Young Associates website, which contains tips, links and advice on budgeting, accounting, financial management and reporting, tax and legal requirements for arts organizations, and much more.

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Let’s hear it for the drama teachers

by Jini Stolk

This post was written in May 2013 shortly after Justin Trudeau became Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. Why repost it now? Because it’s 2015.

Who knew that being a drama teacher was such a contemptible career choice? Or that choosing to inspire children to express human emotions through the arts makes a person unfit for leadership?

In Canada today, you live and learn.

I am a bit surprised that the response from artists and arts lovers to the recent ads making those points hasn’t been more forceful. Maybe it’s taken us a while to get over our astonishment at the implication that anyone involved in the arts is not strong enough, smart enough, or perceptive enough to make firm and wise political decisions. (And that the people who teach our children to understand themselves and others by means of creative expression aren’t worthy of appreciation and respect.)

Most of us are intimately aware of the profound impact an experience of theatre, dance, painting or music can have on a child’s confidence, perspective and sense of his or her future. We also know (see the Performing Arts Education Overview among many studies) that a childhood experience is the most important determining factor in a lifelong immersion in the arts as a means of self-expression, joy, or understanding.

At the wonderful recent (April 2013) Summit in Edmonton, called to discuss “How do we speak for the arts in Canada today?”, a key theme was the need to have a strong united voice on the essential role of arts education in building the type of compassionate and innovative society we want to live in

I will say more in future about the exciting and hopeful Summit discussions. Incidentally I was happy to reconnect at the Summit’s final reception with director and artistic director Ben Henderson, who is now an Edmonton City Councillor – and an excellent one, according to the locals. (I wonder if that’s because of or despite his impressive achievements in the arts…)

But first: speak out on social media if you feel that teaching drama or any of the arts is one of the most important careers a person can choose in Canada today.

And note this from WolfBrown’s November 20, 2012 issue of On Our Minds: “Having just attended a public event in Chicago key-noted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, soprano Renee Fleming, and others that announced the decision to make the arts a core subject in the school curriculum, I wondered what convinces a mayor to become the public champion of arts education. Turns out Emanuel studied dance very seriously and believes in the importance of the arts in human development. Had the arts been a core subject in the communities where some of our other public officials were educated, one wonders whether we would need to rely on economic impact studies to garner their attention.”


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Boards and finance

by Jini Stolk

Arts board members clearly feel a strong desire for information and training on non-profit financial analysis and oversight. This was one of the most frequently mentioned requests (after, not surprisingly, fundraising) for future sessions following my recent Art of Good Governance sessions with the Toronto Arts Foundation.

The idea of having “fiduciary responsibility” for an arts organization is definitely a bit anxiety-producing in our world of government funding uncertainties, fundraising shortfalls (see above), intermittent cash flow crises, and unpredictable box office returns. Keeping a careful watch on an organization’s financial health and future viability, while assessing and managing risk and planning for success in a rapidly changing environment, requires a cool head and a keen eye. The Toronto Arts Foundation will no doubt be including financial learning opportunities for board members in their Get on Board series, but in the meantime I’ve written about the wonderful financial resources on the Young Associates website. It contains a wealth of tips, links and advice on budgeting, accounting, financial management and reporting, tax and legal requirements for arts organizations, and much more.

For a review of the fundamental differences between non-profit and for-profit financial assumptions, this piece by Clara Miller is thorough and enlightening. “Not only are nonprofit rules that govern money—and therefore business dynamics—different from those in the for-profit sector, they are largely unknown, even among nonprofits and their funders. Or at the very least, they remain unacknowledged and unspoken.” Like what? Oh, for example, that price covers cost and eventually produces profits, or else the business folds. Or that cash is liquid.

She also makes a strong argument for investment in infrastructure for growth – something that consistently shifts to the bottom of the list for many non-profit arts organizations, to the detriment of the sector.

Many of us harbour the mistaken belief that general operating funds and administrative expenses should be kept low and squeezed tight in order to direct all possible funds to expanding programming. This seems to be an increasingly top of mind consideration for donors, but what’s been called the “Non-Profit Starvation Cycle” is counter-productive and limits our ability to truly achieve our missions. “It is unreasonable to expect any business to operate and grow with out-of-date technology, inadequate office space and untrained, underpaid staff. Yet, when donors ask the question about overhead, that is exactly the reality that continues to permeate charitable systems.”

Vu Le of Nonprofit with Balls takes this argument a step further, making a heart-felt pitch for unrestricted funding: “Imagine… what it would be like if a bakery ran with the same funding restrictions as a nonprofit: ‘I need a cake for some gluten-free veterans. I can pay you only 20% of the cost of the cake, and you can only spend my money on eggs, but not butter, and certainly not for the electricity; you have to find someone else to pay for the oven’s electricity. Also, you need to get an accounting firm to figure out where you’re spending my money, but you can’t use my money to pay for that service…’ The amount of time and energy we nonprofits spend trying to figure out which funder is paying for what part of which program under which phase of the moon could be better spent actually helping people, improving outcomes, expanding programs, etc…”

A lot of non-profit managers and board treasurers reading this will be quietly cheering.

Here’s Imagine Canada’s persuasive input into changing the overhead conversation: (Sadly, we have a long way to go. A 2013 Muttart Foundation survey revealed that nearly three-quarters of Canadians believe that charities spend too much on salaries and administration. Another recent survey found that 51% of Canadians believe that between 81% and 99% of money should go ‘to the cause’ with 32% of those surveyed actually believing the number should be 100%.)

And here’s a sobering case study on what can happen when the need to build financial reserves is ignored.

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Provide support, examples and tools

By Jini Stolk

It was a privilege to be part of the Leading a Culture of Accessibility panel at last month’s wildly successful ONN Conference (even though a packed schedule meant I missed enticing overlapping sessions on data strategy, government policy and evaluation.) Liviya Mendelsohn talked about the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre’s inspiring all-in approach to accessibility – including at the Al Green Theatre. And Kathy Laszlo, founder and ED of DANI (Developing and Nurturing Independence) reminded us of how easy it is for people with cognitive or physical disabilities to fall through unacknowledged cracks in the system.

Rose Jacobson and I talked about the Performing Arts Access Program, our wonderful two-year collaboration to help producing teams create performances accessible to Deaf/Hard of hearing and Blind/Low vision audience members – and showcase the results. Our goal was to expand inclusion in the performing arts, creating opportunities for people with disabilities and new audiences for arts organizations. As we said, we provided lots of support, examples of mainstage shows smoothly integrating audio description and ASL/theatrical interpretation, and two detailed Handbooks ( I and II ) that continue to be the best practical guides to audience access available in Canada.

What we didn’t have was enough time to firmly root this change into the thinking and practice of our sector – although there are impressive leaders who continue the work, and a growing number of detailed accessibility pages on theatres’ websites. I’m delighted that Rose (Picasso PRO), has been appointed to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sports’ Culture Strategy Advisory Group. I’m also impressed by Cahoots Theatre’s Deaf Artists & Theatres Toolkit (DATT) project, and by Native Earth Performing Arts’ Making the Arts Accessible project.

Our conference session was enthusiastically received, although attendance was small – just as this post will be read by fewer people than any of the other posts in this newsletter. I’ve gotten used to that pattern but will continue to write about an issue that’s important to the growth of equity and inclusion.

I’ve also become an acolyte of a concept Rose introduced me to: Universal Design, where products and environments are designed, to the greatest extent possible, to be usable by people of all ages and abilities, without the need for adaptation or specialized features. Very 2015.

NOTE: There was some discussion at the panel about whether spaces defined as “accessible” on SpaceFinder Toronto were all truly barrier-free. Remember, washrooms need to be accessible too.

The ONN’s new EnAbling Nonprofits Ontario project will help nonprofits navigate the expectations contained in the Province’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. And don’t forget the services, training and resources available at Accessibility Ontario.

NOW’s listings have the most complete and accurate information on accessible restaurants, bars and clubs in Toronto.

Planat lists accessible restaurants, stores, hotels and theatres in cities throughout Canada.



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Annual performance reviews RIP

by Jini Stolk

Are annual performance reviews headed towards the dustbin of history? Two recent pieces – one written from a non-profit perspective the other from a business p.o.v. – both persuasively argue that annual performance reviews are ineffective, counter-productive and should be laid to rest.

I’m not going to argue. I’ve noted that CEO/ED performance reviews can be unnerving and bad for morale unless they’re carefully structured as positive and productive conversations about mutual goals for the CEO and the board.

Thankfully I’ve never been involved in a system where managers were made to “force-rank (their) people once a year into very rigid performance buckets” offering feedback and (constructive?) criticism months after the fact. That practice seems not to have made its way into the not-for-profit or arts world and it’s no surprise that it’s being scrapped by a growing number of businesses.

Yet, Vu Le of Nonprofit with Balls argues, our own annual performance reviews frequently don’t reflect the challenges and reality of non-profit workplaces (where staff need to be flexible, collaborative, multi-taskers at the same time as they’re hitting every one of their aspirational revenue targets. It’s a lot to ask.

A more forward-looking and (dare I say it) more 2015 approach is to build a “culture of constant, mutual, and holistic feedback based on clear expectations around concrete goals and organizational values.” This feels a lot more like the kind of work place of choice we should all be building.

For the arts and other non-profits, the real challenge remains aligning our behaviour with our values. That’s why it’s essential to articulate our values in our mission statements – so we can keep them alive through behaviour, ongoing constructive feedback, and through organizational policy, procedure and systems, including all our recruitment processes.

Doesn’t it make sense for “adheres to our stated values” to be an important part of how we assess the contribution of staff and board members.


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Not simply to survive

by Jini Stolk

“Our mandate as an arts organization is not simply to survive, but to create. Its function in society is to create. The only thing that justifies the money that we get is putting out work that counts.”

With this profound statement, and a public letter filled with gratitude to the artists, staff and board members he’s worked with over the past 35 years, La La La Human Steps’ founder and choreographer Édouard Lock announced the company’s closing.

La La La’s artistic impact was huge. Its financial model, however, which rested on international partnerships, extensive touring, and an unyielding commitment to new work, hit the wall of economic downturn – and its founder’s unwillingness to restructure or compromise. There were no ifs, ands or buts at the end: “My letter of resignation has been sent to the funders and a resolution dissolving the company has been signed by the board. LHS is no more. It’s time to say goodbye and to give thanks.”

I found this stark message exceedingly touching in its dignity. I also found it to be illuminating of some essential differences between arts organizations and other nonprofits and charities. Could a women’s shelter, a refugee settlement house, a food bank, or a freshwater environmental group ever have closed in this way? The primacy of an arts organization’s artistic vision in its reason for being demands a different understanding of its approach to sustainability.

Perhaps, as Alan Harrison argues, resilience for an arts organization is not the goal: impact is. Many companies of great impact (such as Alameda Theatre, which developed more than 25 works by Latin American writers across Canada before closing last year) have opted to end on an artistic high note. Others, I think you’ll agree, have diminished their early success by hanging on too long.

Andrew Taylor says that sustainability should be seen less as an organizational strategy (focusing on the survival of individual organizations) than an ecological strategy (sustaining our community’s access to a broad range of creative experiences.)

These ideas have fascinating implications for governance in the arts. What exactly are an organization’s and its board’s “legal and moral obligations to its constituencies” if its primary responsibility is to create “work that counts”? There are subtle differences that we have to be aware of here. I would never argue against an arts board’s responsibility to guard its organization’s mission, relevance and financial continuity – but always in service to the art.

Things get more complex, of course, when an arts organization becomes the institutional steward of a building or other assets, employs a significant staff, and contributes in unique ways to its neighbourhood and community.

Many people have noted that arts organizations resemble entrepreneurial enterprises more than typical non-profits – and that one-size-fits-all governance may not be what’s needed when a unique vision is paramount. (It you want to delve deeper into these differences and similarities, you might find these “top 10 startup founder blogs every entrepreneur should follow” interesting.)

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that arts organizations have to carefully consider their real governance needs and obligations – perhaps taking a more creative approach to stewardship than found in most board manuals.

Here’s an example of a non-profit that filed for bankruptcy at the start of this year, but whose beautifully crafted goodbye proudly asserts that its mission is far from ending.



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Crowdfunding redux

by Jini Stolk

It might seem that I’ve been unusually bullish about crowd fundraising. I’ve definitely been fascinated by the ways in which successful crowdfunding is reliant on strong relationships and networks; that when supporters rally to save a company they care about they can achieve surprising turnarounds; and that notable success stories as well as a few failures contain important lessons for anyone venturing down the crowdfunding road.

It’s certainly clear that when crowdfunding is done well it’s a powerful new way to reach out, well beyond the usual suspects, for support – and that the crowd is more willing to take a chance on innovative arts projects – expanding the number, and potentially the type, of projects that have a chance of success.

Imagine Canada has brought up concerns that the plethora of crowdfunding campaigns might be taking a bite out of charitable donations, and is making it hard to differentiate between personal, business, and charitable causes (not to mention a growing number of fraudulent appeals.)

Wild West? Brave New World? Inexorable Wave of the Future? Great Way to Go Around Conventional Funding Bodies or Donors ? Or do you agree with Jonathan Jones in The Guardian that where art is concerned, the crowd is an idiot?

However you lean, you’ll be glad to know that CSI and HiveWire have just published a free, comprehensive guide to crowdfunding success. It covers every aspect of creating, running and completing a successful crowdfunding campaign, based on learnings from 27,000 nonprofit campaigns. It’s a comprehensive, practical guide tailored to nonprofits and charities, but valuable also to social impact projects considering crowdfunding.

This terrific piece by Theatre by the Bay’s Alex Dault in Canadian Theatre Review is more specific to the potential and downside of Indie Theatre crowdfunding campaigns.

Returning once again to the wisdom of Alan Brown. “New technologies are reshaping the giving patterns of ordinary people who understand that they can play a small, meaningful part in changing the world, or at least their own community.”

But Boards and Managing Directors take note! As with so many things, there are CRA implications to consider. Here, forwarded by my legal colleagues at CSI, is a summary of the Canada Revenue Agency’s views on the tax implications of raising money via crowdfunding:

  • Depending on the facts and circumstances, money raised through crowdfunding could represent: a loan; a capital contribution (a form of equity); a gift or a windfall; business income; or a combination of some or all of these.
  • It’s unlikely that crowdfunding will be treated as a loan or as equity since crowdfunding rarely results in the creation of a debt or equity interest in the entity raising the money. (In the event that this does occur, the money raised would not be subject to tax as it would not represent income but rather amounts that would ultimately be returned to the lenders or shareholders.)
  • A crowdfunding initiative might be treated as a gift or a windfall. A gift is defined by the courts as “a voluntary transfer of property to a donee with no right, privilege, material benefit, or advantage conferred in exchange”; a windfall is similar to a gift, but because it requires that the recipient has neither sought nor made an organized effort to receive the payment, crowdfunding will tend to fit more naturally into the category of gift than of windfall. To the extent that money raised through crowdfunding constitutes a gift or a windfall, the amount received will not be taxable.
  • When crowdfunding occurs in the context of a business (whether in the start-up phase as funding for the creation of a new product, service or enterprise, or in the course of operations of an established business), the CRA considers that crowdfunding proceeds constitute business income “unless it can be shown that the crowdfunding arrangement otherwise clearly represents a loan, capital contribution or other form of equity.” In such cases, crowdfunding proceeds would be taxable and subject to GST/HST.




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Top Tips for Creating a New Program

by Jini Stolk

Arts organizations tend to be skilled and inventive creators of programming, requiring the careful weaving of many strands – artistic, financial, contracting, marketing and much more. These 8 Top Tips for Creating a New Program are designed for those moments in an arts or other nonprofit organization when an entirely new initiative is in the works: it could be an unexplored artistic/program direction, or a new approach to education or outreach, or a diversity or access initiative.

These tips are taken from Creating the Program, a Creative Trust/Toronto Arts Foundation Open Source Took Kit, sharing knowledge and learning from the Creative Trust experience with arts management and non-profit leaders.

  1. Make research and consultation your foundation. Expand and add to your own experience and knowledge by learning from others. Ask potential participants what they want and need, and how you fit in. Know the territory; understand the milieu. Look beyond your sector to people who’ve broken through barriers to new ways of thinking and working. Use these people as essential resources; learn from their successes and mistakes. By consulting with others you’ll be inspired, avoid mistakes, and create a program grounded in best ideas and practices.
  1. Create clear and understandable goals. The more work you put into clarifying your vision and goals the more likely you are to achieve them. Anticipated outcomes, business plans, structure and methods should begin with – and circle back to – an inspiring vision statement and clearly articulated goals.
  1. Develop a workable structure. For the program to work it must exist in the real world, so ensure that you have the financial and logistical resources to make the program a success. Develop careful, long-term budgets. Surround yourself with the best board/advisory members and staff possible; understand how decisions are going to made, and develop staff and governance policies and practices that define responsibilities. Think through your needs for space, computer systems, and basic administrative resources.
  1. Plan, plan and plan. It can be a long journey from having an idea to designing and carrying out a program that achieves what you set out to achieve. Design the program around your vision and values, and make sure everyone understands them. Who shares your vision strongly enough to contribute funds? Develop a prospect list and fundraising plan. Discuss and debate every expectation and process, and think through every step along the way; write them down as action plans. Develop timelines and deadlines; stick to them.
  1. Embrace flexibility. Make sure the program is flexible enough to respond to changing circumstances or new understandings of what is needed or will work. Welcome learning. Expect the unexpected; make sure that everyone involved is prepared to revise and adapt even the most well prepared plans.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Create a multi-targeted, multi-strategy communications plan, with careful listening as a key component. Reach out to potential participants, stakeholders – and anyone interested – in as many ways as possible: talk, write, blog, tweet about your program and how it will unfold. Start big and bold: have a launch party. Stay in touch with monthly emails. Ensure that your stakeholders and participants stay connected to what you are doing.
  1. Build in an evaluation and monitoring plan. How will you know if your program is a success without evaluation? Be sure to build evaluation, measurements, feedback and analysis into your plans from the beginning.
  1. Share your knowledge. Now we arrive right back where we started. You have knowledge that you can impart to others. Don’t be territorial or competitive – share your work widely and help your sector grow.

This is the first of a series by Kasia Gladki and Jini Stolk, drawing on the Creative Trust/Toronto Arts Foundation Open Source Tool Kits; all 9 Tool Kits are available here.


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Interesting about the Doras

by Jini Stolk

I missed the Dora Mavor Moore Awards this year, I’m sorry to say, but I wanted to share a few thoughts before the new season takes off.

I did remarkably well last year, seeing a larger number of nominated shows (in each and every category) than I usually rack up. This was mostly because I foreswore procrastination and jumped to buy tickets for productions that sounded interesting or got great reviews.

Looking over the list of nominees one more time, I have to say it was a terrific season: from weird and wonderful new work to startling and and moving interpretations of classic texts; beautifully staged operas and musical theatre; young audience shows that were simply excellent theatre; and exceptional dance from here and around the world. We’re very lucky to be able to see work of this extraordinary calibre in Toronto.

What else did I see? Houses that were full. Shows that were totally sold out, in that I couldn’t get tickets. Shows that were staged in unexpected and exciting venues.Inventive, charming, and appealing marketing from small companies like Against the Grain Theatre and for indie shows like Little Death. The rise of Storefront Theatre!

I also saw Fringe line-ups in July that were long, eager and overwhelmingly filled with younger audiences. I just confirmed that 57% of Fringe attenders are under age 34, and that the Fringe’s sales were higher this year than ever before. Affordable, fun, impromptu theatregoing obviously has a market and a future – as does the full range of performing arts in Toronto, judging by this past stellar season.

Another show I was delighted to see was the PanAm Games opening ceremony, created by Cirque du Soleil and featuring choreography and dancers from my very favorite Toronto Dance Theatre with students from the National Ballet School.

BUT (and here I’m about to criticize another of my favorites, the CBC):

Come on CBC! I know you could have found an announcer for the opening ceremony who didn’t sound slightly stunned that he wasn’t calling a hockey game; perhaps someone who could speak articulately, with knowledge and passion about a cultural event. You might even have tapped Kim Roberts for this task; she did a fabulous job – warm, welcoming, enthusiastic – introducing PANAMANIA acts at the CNE grounds.

And what was with the camera work? I seriously feared that someone had put the opening ceremony cameras on a bungee cord. As soon as I thought we were going to be shown the dancers up close on stage, we were whipped up to bird’s eye level, and then just as I was beginning to see the movement patterns on the ground, we were swooped down for a brief glimpse of the dancers, and then….and so on and so on.

That being said (by a cranky blogger) Christopher House’s choreography and Toronto Dance Theatre’s dancers shone brightly, and I loved the Games almost as much as I loved the 2015 Dora Mavor Moore Awards Season.

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