Toronto’s Collective of Black Artists finally has a stable home at the new Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre, which opens this week. We got the low-down on how they landed there.
Collective of Black Artists (COBA), a music and education company that takes all their cues from traditional African culture, spent the past two decades kicking around various Toronto neighbourhoods, “getting further and further away from it all,” as co-founder and co-artistic director BaKari I. Lindsay puts it. They’ve finally landed at the new Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre—which opens this week, and is now called Daniels Spectrum—in a space that’s been custom-built for them by Diamond Schmitt Architects, right down to the springiness of the practice-room floors. We got the low-down on how they landed there.
Before moving to Regent Park, COBA spent three and a half years operating out of a humdrum two-storey building at Bloor West and Jane. “At one point, we were on top of a Subway, and the bread smell was coming up,” says Nicole Griffith-Reid, COBA’s executive director. “And you know, I’m sure the tenants underneath us didn’t appreciate the constant drumming, and we would also have 15 dancers jumping at one time. Not necessarily the best way to keep good relations.”
The other problem with the Bloor West Village for a Collective of Black Artists? Not a whole lot of black people. “In terms of the cultural diversity, [moving to Regent Park] brings us closer to students of African descent,” says Griffith-Reid. A lot closer: There are 18 times more people who self-identify as having African backgrounds living in Regent Park than there are in the Bloor West Village.
When, in fall 2010, an acoustician measured how loud COBA could get in their Bloor West space, it hit approximately 103 decibels, louder than the average motorcycle. “The sound output was astounding,” says Diamond Schmitt project architect Jennifer Mallard. Keeping that kind of noise from travelling throughout the building is even more important now that COBA’s neighbours include something other than a Subway franchise. (They’re one of seven groups moving into the new centre, and they’re right beside its main 400-seat performance space.) To do that, each of the group’s three practice rooms was designed as “a box within a box,” which means they’re lifted off of and held away from the building’s concrete frame, ensuring that the sound is muted on all sides by an inch or two of air.
For one practice room, COBA asked for a semi-sprung floor, which has a bit of give. For the other two, they asked for fully sprung floors, which have a lot more. “For all dance, sprung floors are key for joint preservation,” explains Lindsay. “The whole nature of dance is repetition, constant repetition, and if you don’t have a surface that supports the natural mobility of the body, after a while, repetitive strain will kill you.” Pair that with a dance company whose repertoire includes work that’s not just fast, but aggressive, and, Lindsay jokes, “we would be losing dancers left, right, and centre.”
It’s harder than it looks. “There’s no easy African dance,” says Lindsay. “If the steps are easy, then the rhythm is difficult to comprehend. And if the rhythm is easy to understand, then the movements are complicated.”
“The whole experience is really surreal,” says Lindsay. “When we founded the company, we had said by our 20th year, we would have our own space—it was one of our long-term goals. It’s kind of freaky. Somehow, I can’t believe this is happening. When we have meetings about tile colours and drapes and bathroom fittings, I keep thinking, ‘Wow.’”
The Daniels Spectrum open house is from noon to 4 p.m. on Sept. 22. 585 Dundas St. E. regentparkarts.ca.