All posts by Jaren Kerr

Managing Editor 2016-2017 Associate Features Editor 2015-2016

Outside the circle

February 12, 2017 was a Sunday. The roads were treacherous and the sidewalk was slippery. There was a snowstorm; the kind that encourages most people to stay in their homes, but that didn’t stop over 100 people from visiting U of T to talk about anything other than God.

The first gathering — service, meeting, it’s still not decided what to call it — of the Toronto chapter of the Oasis network was held in the Koffler House Multi-Faith Centre. The Oasis network, established in the US, provides a community similar to that of a church or a mosque for the non-religious, the secular, the skeptical, and the curious.

“Whether you are continuing within religion, or if you don’t identify with a religion, or if you don’t follow any religion or belief structure, it’s irrelevant. What we’re coming together to do is to focus on our core values and build our community,” explained Eve Casavant, one of the chapter’s organizers.

The core values Casavant references are authoritative: people are more important than beliefs; reality is known through reason; meaning comes from making a difference; human hands solve human problems; and people must be accepting to be accepted.

These values drew many to fill the Multi-Faith Centre, a room with wood-panelled walls and a ceiling that looks like marble. Minutes before the meeting, a bluegrass musician played his banjo, mothers helped young children into seats, and people pecked on an array of snacks at the back of the room. The audience demographic was skewed towards those white and older, but people of several races and ages were also in the crowd.

The banjo stopped playing, and the meeting began. A large projector displayed the Oasis logo.

Gretta Vosper is another organizer who helped bring Oasis to Toronto. The spectacled woman with short grey hair addressed the group; she explained why she was there, thanked the volunteers who made the event possible, and expressed the importance of the newfound community.

“People came from up to three hours away in one of the worst snowstorms of the year to come and talk about how isolated they felt, because whether they were members of a church, or they couldn’t find a church to go to, they were constantly outside the circle of belief. You are all outside that circle in one way or another,” said Vosper, who understands being outside of the circle very well.

An atheist church minister

Vosper is a minister at the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

Vosper became the subject of national headlines after she publicly identified herself as an atheist, despite her position with the Church. She does not believe in a literal interpretation of God.

“My beliefs were formed in the United Church. So, when I was in Sunday school, I was taught about a God that was really love,” explained Vosper. “It wasn’t a being that I needed to obey or that was watching me all the time. The God that I was taught about was about what we needed to live out in the world.”

These beliefs continued to manifest during her years at Queen’s Theological College. “We were invited to explore the Bible as it were written by humans, for humans, for very human reasons, to explore the variety of ways that people had struggled with the concept of God and articulated that,” she said. “And liberal theologians for decades and decades have been talking about God as a human concept or a construct of some kind of or another.”

Initially, Vosper called herself a ‘non-theist’ but took on the atheist label in 2013. At the time, she wanted to become more explicit about her beliefs and join in solidarity with persecuted atheists in other countries.

“We’re taught to speak about what we believe in in softer terms. In my first book, I refer to myself as a non-theist. In my second book, I realized that non-theist didn’t really cut it because some people called themselves non-theist even though they had a supernatural idea,” said Vosper.

“The short of it is, when authors started getting killed by machetes in Bangladesh because they were being called atheists, I had to take a look at my beliefs and said, ‘Well, my beliefs are consistent with atheistic beliefs, so in order to express solidarity, I’m gonna take that label,’” she said.

Vosper’s church, West Hill United Church in Scarborough, is also quite secular. She speaks every Sunday — a commitment that mostly prevents her from taking part in Oasis meetings — and calls her talks ‘perspectives’, rather than ‘sermons’.

“You don’t hear us read from the Bible very often,” said Vosper. “You don’t hear me talk about Jesus as a moral standard and you don’t hear the word God shared regularly, but we still talk about values, a commitment to live.”

It is unclear how many clergy within the United Church have similar views, but Vosper claims that such interpretations of God and the Bible are common.

“If you go into any United Church congregation and many other liberal denominations… in Canada, and you listened to a service, you would hear language that [refers] to a pre-Copernican order of the universe, with heaven and earth and hell,” she explained.

Vosper continued, “You would hear about the divine Son of God through whom we are saved. You would hear about a God who was a supernatural God, who listens to our prayers and acts on our behalf, but then if you sit down on Tuesday morning and had coffee with the person who led that service and asked them if they actually believed in all of those things, I think you would get a very, very different answer.”

Vosper’s position as minister despite her atheistic views, proved to be quite controversial in the United Church. A review committee within the Toronto Conference of the United Church recommended defrocking Vosper in a report released September 2016, stating, “In our opinion, she is not suitable to continue in ordained ministry because she does not believe in God, Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.”

The findings were subsequently presented to the sub-executive committee of the Toronto Conference, who asked the United Church’s general council to conduct a hearing about defrocking Vosper and placing her on the church’s Discontinued Service List. It is unclear when the general council will make its final decision.

Setting the stage for Oasis

Vosper’s involvement with Oasis began in 2015, at which point she was already looking into creating a community like West Hill in the downtown core.

“We have a lot of people who travel a lot of distance to come to West Hill, so in 2014, we wanted to start a community on the west side of the city and we did that. They meet monthly. In 2015, we wanted to start in the community in the core of the city, but we realized that we needed to have more than monthly gatherings,” Vosper explained.

Much like a church, Oasis meets on Sunday mornings, despite attempts from organizers to meet at a different time.

“The first time we started talking about when it would be, people said, ‘Anything but Sunday morning! I just want to sleep in and have my coffee.’” Vosper explained. “But as we started talking about time, it became apparent that if you want to have children involved, you can’t do anything in the evening. That took all the evenings out. The only mornings are Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings. Well, nobody wanted it to be Saturday morning. So, it ended up on Sunday morning.”

Vosper said that she was looking for an organizational model that wouldn’t focus on a single leader. Her search led her to Oasis, a pre-existing network of secular congregations located in several US cities.

Vosper expects religious discussions at Oasis to be “limited” and notes that it will not be an “atheist” community. “There may be groups that form that want to have conversations about religion,” she said. “There may be groups that form for people who have left a fundamentalist religion and they’re trying to recover from the realities of that.”

Raihan Abir, an atheist writer from Bangladesh, fits this description. Although he wore a smile for most of the day, he had many difficult stories to tell.

Abir came to Canada as an asylum seeker in 2015 and is now a permanent resident, living with his wife and daughter in Toronto. His journey to Canada was necessitated by his beliefs, which put his life at risk in Bangladesh. Atheist thinkers like Abir are common targets for violent religious extremists.

“Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, they established themselves in 2012 with the hope in mind that they would convert the whole Indian subcontinent including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, this whole region,” Abir explained. “To do that, Al Qaeda’s strategy is [that] they will attack people who are generally seen as a taboo, like, they will attack atheists, gays. They will attack any secular activist.”

Abir continued, “[Al-Qaeda’s] greatest enemy is the United States. It’s not right now, but when they started, their greatest enemy was the United States. So they think [of us] as Western agents who are polluting Islam. So they think of us as anti-Islamic spies from the West. And with that accusation, they killed us.”

Many of Abir’s friends and colleagues were killed by Al-Qaeda for blogging about atheism. Abir himself was attacked. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was largely indifferent to such attacks, criticizing atheists for writing “pornography.” The Islamic State (IS) would join Al-Qaeda in Bangladesh soon after.

“IS started their operation in 2014 in Bangladesh because they started out around that time in Syria as well,” said Abir. “And they also wanted to make the whole Indian subcontinent as an Islamic state. Same as Al Qaeda. And they have India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, that region, the whole region.”

The two groups share the same mission but employ different tactics.

“IS wasn’t actually making any list of atheist bloggers. They still hate us, but they’re kind of [an] authoritarian movement,” he continued. “On the other hand Al-Qaeda is a populist movement. So that’s the difference between them. So the government is  very hard on IS, but very soft on Al-Qaeda.”

Abir grew up in a Muslim family, but found other worldviews and perspectives online.

“When I first started blogging in 2007, in a post people were mocking Allah. And I thought ‘Whoa, you can mock Allah?’” Abir said. “So literally I thought that you can’t mock Allah before something bad will happen… So many religions had that capability of making people think this way. But when you just say, ‘Well, we didn’t come from Adam and Eve,’ many people say ‘Really?’… I try to do that, feeling that it’s my responsibility.”

Abir is a fan of ‘New Atheists’ like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, all of whom have gained massive followings for criticizing and advocating against religious ideas and supernatural beliefs.

On its online FAQ page, Oasis notes that it is not a place to “denigrate” religion. “I have an incredible amount of respect for many religious people,” said Vosper. “If someone is going to use their [religious] beliefs to get in the way of someone else’s human rights, then I’m going to get in the way of them, opposing them.”

In time, Oasis may provide a platform for Abir’s ideas to challenge Vosper’s and vice versa, but the first gathering had little to do with religion. Rick Miller, a playwright who resembles famous American preacher and televangelist Joel Osteen, delivered a talk called “The Architecture of Creativity.” He has taught a class at U of T based on this concept.

“If we can get our butts out of bed on a Sunday morning, it’s always valuable to see yourself amongst a community of people who don’t so much share similar beliefs but [are] at least on a journey of trying to expand and understand each other a little bit better and that’s what I feel here,” said Miller. “These are inquisitive people. They’re not just here accepting anything by rote.”

Digging for gold

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he University of Toronto   is a world-class institution with illustrious alumni, outstanding faculty, and state-of-the-art facilities. Naturally, the university is associated with many recognizable names. This includes names like Peter Munk, a U of T alumnus who founded Barrick Gold in 1983; it is currently the world’s largest gold mining company.

Flush with wealth, Munk is an active philanthropist. His funds helped build the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto General Hospital in 1997, and he has donated millions to Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, an engineering school in Israel. He has also been generous to the Conservative Party of Canada, by donating over the designated limit on three occasions.

Those at U of T probably know him best for the Munk School of Global Affairs, which houses programs and classes for students engaging in international studies.

For some, Munk’s involvement in the university represents encroaching corporatization and is accompanied by the sketchy reputation of Barrick Gold. They raise questions about how academic integrity is maintained at U of T, in light of sizable donations by controversial public figures.

Principles and policies

In U of T’s mission and purpose statement, the university commits to “the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice” and vows to “protect its integrity, autonomy and academic freedom.” When it comes to donations, the university administration states that they would refuse any gift that subverts these values.

According to Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice president and provost, “gifts will never compromise academic freedom or freedom of speech, and their use will always be driven by the University’s mission and academic priorities. All donor agreements – including that for the Munk School of Global Affairs – unequivocally state that the donor supports the University’s academic plans and aspirations, not the other way around.”

Similar statements about the Munk School have been made in the past by former provost Cheryl Misak and former president David Naylor; Naylor was on Barrick Gold’s board of directors from April 2014 to May 2015 but has since returned to U of T since then.

While this policy seems to address concerns the U of T community might have about Munk’s philanthropy, there remains something particularly concerning to some about Barrick Gold, which makes even an indirect association with the company a stain on U of T’s integrity.

Foul play

As a whole, the mining industry is known for being socially and environmentally destructive — Barrick Gold is not immune to this. The company recently admitted to spilling 1 million litres of cyanide in the San Juan province of Argentina, after initially reporting a spill of 15,000 litres. The incident contaminated five Argentine rivers.

In 2013, Barrick Gold was fined $16 million USD for violating its environmental permit in Chile by polluting glaciers and the water supply. The company’s blasting activities caused cracks in the homes of many people living in a Zambian village.

Mallika Makkar/The Varsity
Mallika Makkar/The Varsity

Multiple gang rapes have been committed on Barrick Gold mining sites by police officers and security guards. In Tanzania, the company paid damages to the victims. In Papua New Guinea, over 200 women have been sexually assaulted over the past two decades; 11 of them have received compensation through an out-of-court settlement, on the condition that they never seek damages again. Another 120 victims received much smaller compensations. Munk excused the Papua New Guinea cases in 2011, calling gang rape “a cultural habit” of the country. Several local men and boys have also been shot and killed on the mining site there.

Barrick Gold often sets up mining sites on the lands of Indigenous people, who have little economic or political power to challenge the damage inflicted upon their communities. It is estimated that 50 per cent of mining operations occur on native lands.

Sydney Lang, a fourth-year student who became an organizer with the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), cannot see past these injustices when she considers Munk’s presence at U of T.

“For me, there is no way that this could not compromise the university’s integrity as an institution, not to mention one that prides itself on equity, justice, and protecting human rights,” says Lang.

While the actions of Barrick Gold have caused concern, interactions between the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation and the university seem to suggest a less-than-perfect separation of donor and academics. The 2009 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the foundation and U of T’s Governing Council seems to afford the foundation some academic sway.

The first recital of the agreement is that international studies should be a “top academic priority” at U of T and that the Munk School should aim to be a leader in the field. A clause is included where both parties agree that there will be an “Additional Gift” of $15,000,000 if the recital is met, but the criteria for meeting this is not set out in the document. The MOA also stipulates that both parties agree to the university’s institutional purpose, and that the donor “enthusiastically supports U of T’s vision for the school.”

This may not be an unusual practice. It is common, for instance, for scholarship donors to set guidelines dictating who qualifies to receive their gift, based on factors ranging from race to area of study.

President of the Peter and Melanie Munk Charitable Foundation, Rudyard Griffiths, did not respond to request for comment.

Munk’s actions at the university combined with Barrick Gold’s in Latin America have ignited an initiative among students and professors at U of T called ‘Munk OUT of U of T.’ Their aim is to remove the influence of Barrick Gold— and those associated with it — from the university. 

“It makes it seem that this incredibly rich person is totally benevolent. We’re supposed to thank him for all this stuff. The university does that… It helps, in my opinion, massage massive profits and inequalities by giving it the sheen of philanthropy and charity at the university,” says Faculty of Medicine professor Paul Hamel, who, along with chemistry professor John Valleau, wrote “The Perils of Philanthropy: The Case of the Munk School,” an article decrying the magnate’s influence on campus.

Public perception

Lang alleges that Barrick Gold uses strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) as a means to silence and defame their dissenters. SLAPPs are meant to threaten critics of the company with a financial burden; students and professors have reported being on the receiving end of these tactics.

Jan,* a professor that is affiliated with the Munk School, says that neither Munk nor Barrick Gold directly interfere with academic activities, and that scholars do not avoid speaking about issues in mining.

The company, however, continues to cast a shadow over the school and remains an indirect influence. “We have had speakers directly address these topics without issue. There is no doubt though that the linkage has a more informal chilling effect on programming — particularly to the extent that researchers who focus on the extractive industry are very unlikely to apply to programs located at the Munk School, an outcome to be expected,” explains Jan.

There is no doubt though that the linkage has a more informal chilling effect on programming — particularly to the extent that researchers who focus on the extractive industry are very unlikely to apply to programs located at the Munk School, an outcome to be expected.”

This same shadow has affected other academic choices within the school. “I was granted a work-study job through the Latin American studies department in 2011, which at the time, was associated with the Munk [School] for Global Affairs. I noticed that my pay cheque was stamped by the Munk [School]. I was curious about who this Peter Munk guy was, and when I found out that I was being paid with dirty money, it literally made me sick. I quit the job and left the program,” says Kelsey Ross, student and member of MISN.

Mallika Makkar/The Varsity
Mallika Makkar/The Varsity

The Latin American studies program is now housed in the Jackman Humanities Building, a move which Hamel says occurred after they encountered trouble inviting speakers to address topics involving Canadian companies.

As a student, Lang also experiences Munk’s influence on a indirect level. “For me, as an equity studies student, I have often discussed mining injustices in class. From conversations with students in the program, the problem is that even if students do oppose what they are learning at the Munk School, job insecurities… push students into complicity. Students depend on the professors who teach them… to write them references; they depend on the connections they make there to get them a job.”

Mining, Canada, and U of T

Barrick Gold is not the only mining company with influence at U of T. Goldcorp, a gold producer headquartered in Vancouver, recently donated $4 million to the university to fund The Innovation Centre for the Canadian Mining Industry.

About 70 per cent of mining activity in Latin America involves Canadian companies, and Goldcorp and Barrick Gold are among the top seven leading Canadian mining companies in the region.

Like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp has been subject to numerous allegations of environmental and human rights abuses. According to The Guardian, Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine in Guatemala has received complaints from the local Mam and Sipakapense communities regarding “intimidation, threats, social division, violence, bribery and corruption of local authorities, destruction and contamination of water sources, livestock dying, houses shaking, cracked walls, the criminalization of protest, forest cleared, and appalling health impacts such as malnutrition and skin diseases.”

The Innovation Centre for the Canadian Mining Industry will also be supported by gold investor Pierre Lassonde, who donated $5 million to the project.

The Lassonde Institute of Mining at U of T is supported by the businessman and, according to its website, “aims to attract and train future leaders in mining research and use its researchers’ expertise to benefit the mining industry.”

“This program is presented as a vocational partnership between the resource sector and the University of Toronto,” Ross says. “What is of ‘benefit’ to this industry, however, relies on colonial imperatives. Housing such an institute implies U of T’s tacit acceptance of human rights and environmental abuses committed by mining companies.”

“By having a whole bunch of people provide accolades to this person giving all this money, I think what it does is it distracts from the deleterious effects of the global corporate mining interests… it puts these people on a pedestal who should otherwise be taken to task for accumulating such spectacular wealth,” says Hamel.

“By having a whole bunch of people provide accolades to this person giving all this money, I think what it does is it distracts from the deleterious effects of the global corporate mining interests.”

Approaching funding

As funding from the Ontario government has continuously dropped, universities such as U of T rely on private sources of revenue. Based on data from 2013–2014, U of T had the lowest share of the province’s operating grant.

The grants make up 20 per cent of the university’s revenue, with the remaining 80 per cent coming from outside the province, which includes students’ tuitions and money from the federal government.

Currently, about 1 per cent of a university’s average operating budget comes from donations.

It may be time, however, for public institutions such as U of T to consider the consequences of accepting donations from private companies or individuals more carefully.

“These considerations are sometimes ones that develop over time in relation to changing social mores and the emergence of new information. We saw this with Harvard’s recent decision to drop an official shield which borrowed from the crest of a slaveholding family, and I think we are seeing it with the University of Toronto’s deliberations around divesting from the fossil fuel industry,” says Jan.

Mallika Makkar/The Varsity
Mallika Makkar/The Varsity

For Hamel, the way forward means creating a system where donors give money to the university and do not tell the university where that money should go; donors, Hamel says, need to trust the academic missions of universities.

“It’s organized in such a way that incentivizes people with money to give money to things that they want to do, the places that have access to that kind of donor will prosper, which distorts massively the university,” says Hamel. “So you can imagine over at Rotman they have access to lots of capital… [while] sociology, the history of Latin America… philosophy, history of science, they don’t really have access to those sort of things, so those programs are always being squeezed all the time, while other ones prosper.”

“I think that it’s healthy for students, faculty and the administration to engage in open debate on these issues, and for funding decisions to be revisited over time so that institutions keep pace with social progress,”adds Jan.

Some members of the U of T community are clearly unafraid to speak out against perceived injustice, and the institution is not spared their critiques. While U of T relies on philanthropy to maintain its budget, students and professors have proven that those donations — which run counter to their beliefs about what an academic institution should be — will continue to be opposed, questioned, and resisted.

What it means to move

They stand, feet flexed and arms raised.

“Seven, eight.”

Notes emanate from the piano in the corner and, as if woken from a trance, 15 dancers spring into motion in near unison. As they moved though crouches and dips and extensions of arms and legs, their instructor floats around the room, watching. She pauses to adjust hips and straighten backs, asking one to “release” and “stabilize”.

Then the music and the movements stop. The instructor brings the dancers’ attention forward as she explains the  importance of “catching the moment,” and compares a challenging move to hugging a puppy. He face is animated and lit with infectious enthusiasm. The dancers drink in each word that echoes through the sunlit studio before the count begins and they break into motion once more.

At the turn of the twentieth century, an alternative style of dance emerged, and challenged the rigid structure and limitations of classical ballet. Born from a rejection of the strict confines of ballet, modern dance allows dancers and choreographers to express themselves, fully embracing creativity and freedom of motion.

Watching the distinct styles of ballet and modern dance performed in tandem provides a striking comparison. Ballet dancers point their feet, modern dancers flex theirs. Ballet dancers wear their hair tightly pulled back, modern dance has no such requirement. The prototypical ballet dancer is tall and thin, while modern dancers come in all shapes and sizes. The versatility of modern dance is for some its greatest charm, though technique is still integral.

Technique is where the dance instructor’s role comes in. Helen Jones is a small, slight woman with grey hair. Born in Wales, she began dancing when she was four years old and has never stopped. She is a U of T alumni, with a degree in psychology and a diploma from OISE, and is a member of York University’s dance faculty and senior faculty at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre.

Though her time is primarily consumed by teaching, she still performs occasionally. Jones’ colourful career as a dancer has taken her from Brussels to Broadway. She summarizes her experience as a dancer is simple terms, saying that in her experience, her “job as a dancer was to do the hard and thoughtful work to bring a concept to life for the audience.” Jones’ students unanimously cite her when asked about their dance inspirations, not only because of her illustrious career, but also her continued involvement in the industry. “She’s still doing so much now,” says student Sarah Johnsen.

Mastering the art of modern dance is, for many, a lifelong pursuit — and to her students, Jones has achieved this goal.

“[When] it’s Helen, it’s this goddess doing it and when you do it, you just look stupid,” says student Paige Sayles.

When discussing innovators in the genre, names like José Limón and Lester Horton have an irrefutable place at the forefront of the conversation. Among Jones’ students, however, one name stands out — Martha Graham. According to Johnsen, Graham “made the impossible, possible,” while other students describing her as the Picasso of modern dance. Graham’s dance company is the oldest in America and she was the first dancer to perform at the White House.

Jones too cited Graham as one of her core inspirations, perhaps since she spent part of her career dancing for Graham’s company. The fundamental movement of Graham’s modern style is the contraction, inspired by feelings when laughing and crying. The contraction has the power to represent euphoria, sadness, and the spectrum of emotions in between.

Kerrie Hartmann, a self-proclaimed ballet purist, admits that she hated modern at first, but has since come around. “I really am loving modern and starting to realize the value of it, and I think all classically trained dancers should take modern as a way to break that mold of always being in first position with your arms held,” she says.

Modern dance also breaks away from the slippers and more ornate costumes usually worn during ballet. Most modern costumes are fairly plain, either form fitting attire or long skirts for women, with dancers usually barefoot.

“I think Martha Graham just wanted people to focus on the dancing instead of being distracted by costumes or colours,” proposes Marquisha Sparkes, who is relatively new to dance. Her classmate, Sayles, explains that “[Modern] is very vulnerable movement, so you have to show off the body instead of being covered by, say, a tutu.” Capturing emotion is the crux of dance. “Movement cannot be devoid of meaning because we as humans are hard-wired to the very nuanced vocabulary of body language. Some gestures of course are very blatant, but we train for a vast and often subtle range,” explains Jones.

Some movements come with intended emotions — when they do, the dancer simply harnesses that emotion in their movement. For moments without an ascribed feeling, dancers must look into themselves for the emotional meaning behind their movements.

“If we aren’t told what the meaning is, then we embody our own story and we take out a character because we’re all performers, so we just envision one,” explains Sayles.

Makayla Ruffle-McDonald, another student, believes that feeling enhances her performance. “If I don’t know the intention of a movement and I do it, it’s kind of one dimensional, but once I learn about what the feeling is supposed to be, I feel like I can add so much more to it.”

Practicing the art of conveying emotion is as integral as the physical technique. The discussion over, Jones calls her students back to their positions. Some work barefoot, others opt for socks with the heels exposed. Jones counts them in and the pianist brings music to the studio.

The students begin to move through contractions and spirals, culminating in a high release. They speed across the room seemingly effortlessly, transitioning into “sparklers” — a jump with arms and legs extended. They land in union with a resounding thump — Jones calls out for them to embody the light footedness of matadors, and the subsequent landings are far softer.

“The whole technique [of modern] is based on using your core, and that’s something that a dancer isn’t used to. You have to literally fall over, but hold yourself. Sometimes, you have to relax all your muscles and contract them at the same time… It’s like [trying] to shift your bones to make yourself go the opposite way,” says Christopher Gallina, a hip-hop convert to modern. All the dancers I spoke to agreed that, in many ways, modern is a contradiction, but a wonderful one at that.

Like all storytelling, modern dance opens itself to interpretation from the audience, and every storyteller will tell the tale slightly differently. Every dancer is unique, so every movement will have a distinct quality that adds a particular accent to the story. As the dancers break out of unison the impact of the diversity of motion becomes clear: each has their own nuanced style, bringing an emotion to the movement that transcends the physical performance.