Sarah Choi on Dance, Film, and How Her Life Turned Upside Down Overnight

Posted by Madeleine Till, July 31, 2017
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Sarah Choi is a filmmaker and amateur dancer. Born in Korea, Sarah has lived in several cities across North America but now calls Toronto home. This past June, Sarah partnered with Momentum Dance Toronto to bring the 1st Annual Lights Dance Festival to The Drake Hotel.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

I moved here from New York City last summer, so I’ve been here for about a year now. I was visiting my brother here in Toronto from New York and had booked a commercial last minute. Instead of flying down for the shoot, I booked a bus ticket one-way. At the border they pulled out my work visa (that was valid until 2018) and sent me back to Toronto at 4 o’clock in the morning, stating I wasn’t allowed to re-enter the states. Overnight everything changed for me; I lost not only the commercial gig but my job, my apartment, my networks and the community that I had in New York. The next morning I had to figure out what I was going to do.

It felt like it was time for me to recalibrate what I really wanted to do with my life and it boiled down to storytelling, specifically in terms of the dance films I loved. I’ve always been passionate about dance films, and I’ve always wanted to create my own film festival. So at this point in my life, it was like, “Why not!” I had lost everything, which also meant I could do whatever I wanted.

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What sparked your interest in filmmaking?

I had initially gone to college for biology, and always thought I would get into education, public health, or medicine. My last year at University I received a grant from CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency). The annual grant allowed 12 University students to study development goals and conduct their own research abroad. I used the funds to travel to Bangladesh for four months and do research on maternal and neonatal health (Bangladesh had one of the highest infant mortality rates at the time). My dad gave me a dinky little camcorder to help document my research.

I worked with an editor to put together a 16-minute short documentary that I screened when I got back to my university. It struck me how important and powerful the medium of film is. I had the opportunity to tell the stories of each woman and girl I talked to in rural villages that would have otherwise never been able to relay their stories to my professors and colleagues back home. That was really mind-blowing to me at the time. So I continued to make other short documentaries back in Edmonton, before deciding to attend film school in New York. I moved there with a suitcase and three hundred dollars in my pocket in 2010, and that’s how I got started.

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And you’re a dancer as well?

I don’t call myself a dancer… I love dance and always have (I started doing ballet when I was really young) but it was always more of a hobby for me. I still take classes now and then but... I’m not good! That’s the cool thing about dance films - I feel like I’m dancing when I’m editing and working with the dancers and choreographing together. As I edit and put together this film that narrates itself through choreography, I feel like I’m dancing with the dancers. I’m not a dancer, but it makes me feel like I’m a dancer.

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How did you get started with Lights Dance Festival?

I stayed in New York after completing my program, got a 9 to 5 job and began working full time. I found that it didn’t really align with the documentary lifestyle where you have to apply for major grants and be able to meet your subjects schedules. I decided to sit down and figure out how I could creatively tell stories without interfering with my job and paying for rent. When I re-thought what I was passionate about it was still storytelling. I loved dance, I loved film, so I tried to weave these things together. I started creating dance films after graduating, and when I came to Toronto and was forced to recalibrate my life and boil down what my passions are it was STILL dance films.

It’s not the type of genre that people are immediately familiar with - when I tell people that’s what I do they immediately think of documentaries about dance companies or dancers, and I’m like, “Not quite!” It’s a short film that can be experimental, but contains narrative and still tells stories through dance. I thought it would be a great platform to bridge the gap between a dance team and a filmmaker, and make dance more of an accessible/household platform that people could connect to.

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What were the highlights of the inaugural dance festival at The Drake Hotel?

It’s been really nice to meet new dancers in Toronto and see this thing come together. The films that I streamed and the films I generally make are about second chances and the tenacity that we have as females, so I think it connected with a lot of the female audience that night. The audience seemed genuinely touched by the stories. It was just a really great night to feel like I was part of a community again and to be filled with hope and recognize that it’s not just me out here.

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On that note, do you have any plans set in motion for next year's festival?

This year the inaugural event was just an evening of films and performances, but my intention is to turn it into a day or multi-day festival where filmmakers and dancers can become more equipped and network and be inspired by each other. Next year I’d like to have screenings and performances, but also workshops like injury prevention courses and free community dance classes. I want to make art accessible to everyone.

For more Lights Dance Festival, follow @lightsdancefest on Twitter.
You can also keep up with Sarah on Instagram at @sarahchoifilms.

Posted in: Art

Tags: art  drake