The National Arts Centre at 50: Propelling Canada’s Voices

Life Reflected in Paris © Fred Cattroll

By Christopher Deacon, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre.

One month ago, I was sitting in the darkened hall of La Seine Musicale in Paris, overwhelmed.

On three large screens, Indigenous dancers performed a choreography by the Mohawk dancer and choreographer Santee Smith in the striated landscape of Georgian Bay, captured magnificently by the Toronto filmmaker Barbara Willis Sweete.  On the stage, Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra performed sweeping music by Alberta composer John Estacio, conducted by Alexander Shelley. And in front of the Orchestra stood the Kuna and Rappahannock actor Monique Mojica, speaking the liberating closing words by the Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe.

“Let me find my talk,/ So I can teach you about me.”

These are the final moments of I Lost My Talk, one of four new works that make up the multimedia work Life Reflected. Each tells the story of how an extraordinary Canadian woman – Alice Munro, Roberta Bondar and Rita Joe – and one extraordinary young girl, Amanda Todd, found her voice.

Watching our artists perform brilliantly on the world stage fills your heart with pride. Why was I overwhelmed?  The audience’s reaction: they were blown away. Clearly, these very Canadian stories are also universal.

This year, the National Arts Centre celebrates 50 years of collaboration with brilliant artists and arts organizations throughout the country. Our first three decades were primarily about the work on our stages. Over the last 20 years we extended our national reach and made arts education a priority. But more and more, our focus is new Canadian creation, and helping our artists find their voice on the international stage.

One of the primary ways we do that is through our National Creation Fund, which invests in the development of new works of music, theatre and dance from across the country. Think of it as R&D for the arts. Fund investments provide Canadian artists and arts organizations with the resources they need to pursue their ideas to the fullest. The goal? To help Canadian artists create works that resonate with audiences here and abroad, just as Life Reflected did in Europe.

The results have been extremely promising. Recently, Ghost Opera, a production by Calgary’s The Old Trout Puppet Workshop opened at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to rave reviews, and plans to tour internationally. Introduction à la violence by Montreal’s Marie Brassard awed audiences and critics in Montreal  in May and will tour to Düsseldorf and Gothenburg next year. These are just two of the dozens of works in which we are investing.  

Canada is also being lauded internationally for the creation of the new Indigenous Theatre department at the NAC.  Arts venues in Asia and Australia have invited us to talk to them about how we developed it, and how it will showcase the voices, stories and languages of Indigenous artists on the national – and international – stage.

As a child of Canada in the 1960s, I identify with the ferment that gave rise to the birth of the National Arts Centre. Canada was preoccupied with defining its voice. Fifty years later, our country is stronger, more confident, and recognizes our great good fortune to have not one, but a multitude of voices telling our stories. As I witnessed in Paris, there is tremendous appreciation for those voices on the world stage, and a hunger for more. As we enter our next half-century, the National Arts Centre is devoted to propelling those voices more than ever before.

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