Dance Aesthetics: Nine Views from Vancouver Edited by Kaija Pepper
Contents Introduction by Mirna Zagar
Part One: Six Artistsâ€™ Statements Peter Bingham
Part Two: Three Essays Defining Moments and Inspiring Artists by Susan Elliott
The Power of Presence: Real Versus Mediatized Dance by Rob Kitsos
Women in White, or My 1st Flash and My Giselle by Kaija Pepper
Introduction Dance Aesthetics: Nine Views from Vancouver offers a glimpse into the thoughts of a diverse group of dance professionals on the art form they are all intimately involved with in one way or another. Their individual backgrounds and perspectives on making and experiencing dance differ significantly, but what they have in common is a serious, lifelong pursuit of this demanding art. Together their views open up a rich variety of ideas about what dance is – what goes into the making of it, what we understand it to be. Exploring the parameters of dance is something we do here at The Dance Centre on a regular basis through our residency and DanceLab projects. In fact, several of the artists in these pages have been part of these programs. But whether formally or informally, artists are always challenging themselves by asking questions about their practice, the art form itself and the relationship of both to the wider world. In this way, they strive to harness a forward momentum that will raise the stakes of their respective artistic journeys as they move toward creation and bring their dance, or their words about dance, to the observer/receiver/audience. The scope of this publication is a modest one that brings to the reader nine testimonies on a theme of dance. The first six are artist statements that describe and analyse some of the elements driving the choreographers in their creative process. The style, ideas, history and motivation of each artist vary, although certain themes run through several of the statements, such as improvisation, relationship to tradition and the need to engage the community. Also, despite the unique vision feeding each statement, the same deep desire and strong passion to craft meaningful dance connect them. In the second half, three longer essays give the reader a glimpse into some aspect of dance from the point of view of a dancer, an educator and a critic. In their own way, each writer indirectly reflects on the relationship between dance and life, either the life of the individual or of society at large, and shares their appreciation for this complex art form. For all the contributors, art – dance – is fundamental to their existence. For all of us who feel the same sense of relationship to the contemporary art landscape, their personal understanding of movement, their ideas about performance and their generous sharing of their own experiences will resonate. Of course, the nature of artistic discourse is subjective. And it’s about a world of microcosms. Dance Aesthetics: Nine Views from Vancouver shares just a few of the very personal, very intimate worlds that make up the complex fabric of contemporary dance as it is practiced in this lively city on Canada’s west coast. Mirna Zagar, Executive Director The Dance Centre, November 2011
Part One: Six Artists’ Statements PETER BINGHAM
Beyond the pure exhilaration of dancing, the force that compels me in this life is “relationship”: to people, to my body as a creative instrument, to gravity, to rhythm, to space, and on and on. Given this, it makes sense I would be so taken with contact improvisation, an open-ended physical relationship of one body to another. Contact helped develop and continues to feed my dance aesthetic. It has revealed many ideas about moving in new ways and the fruit of this research is there for me to twist and bend, to stretch and form. In my choreographic process, the goal is to mine the moments and discoveries that happen through the simple task of physical exploration with dancers. The thing that thrills me is discovery itself: that ah-ha moment that may reveal a concept or metaphor. The dancers and I have conversations, we dance, we try things out, we have more conversations, we repeat this process over and over. Eventually I see the content emerging from the body’s expression, both mine and theirs. I trust this process completely. I am intrigued by the possibility of occupying and manipulating the whole of the stage, which includes collaboration with light and sound designers. I am also interested in the status of space and the power of placement. What are the differing emotional implications of dance in the foreground, middle and background? How can I shift focus – for example, from the power of the centre to the emotions of the periphery – and how will this be interpreted by the dancers and felt by the viewer? Can I create a dance in which the performers are seen at one point as individuals developing relationships and at another point as neutral bodies creating shifting human landscapes? The strength of the individual versus the passive power of gathering in numbers, movement versus still presence – these are two more ideas I enjoy exploring. My task is to make not only a choreography for the dancers, but also for the space. Dancing for me started with a love for and relationship with the broader practice of improvisation as an art form. That is where I began over 35 years ago. As a young dancer, I had a passion for creating conscientiously in the moment, developing “a piece” spontaneously and sharing that process with an audience. In group improvisations with other performers, including lighting designers and musicians, we create together in the moment. In these improvisations, I
believe it is the people that are the content: therefore the name of the group, for example The Echo Case (1993-2008), is also the title of the work, and that doesn’t change. About fifteen years ago, I began to explore the idea of blending choreography and improvisation in the same work. By including developed, or structured, improvisations, I broadened the strokes with which I create and expanded the potential of what I can say. Rather than setting all the steps, I work with the dancers on ideas they can use in performance at certain points within the choreography as an impetus for dancing. This process shapes the dancing quite clearly and makes room for deeper development and inhabitation of each work, resulting in a different kind of energy in the dancer and a more concise interpretation of the dance. The ideas we play with come from many perspectives – some emotional, others spatial and some purely physical. We might begin by using our senses to explore mindfulness: for instance, keeping our attention in the back space or observing how it is possible to rely on peripheral vision to take in information. These are all techniques I focus on myself when I am improvising in performance, which I continue to do. They are the ways that I stay engaged in the art of dancing. Peter Bingham, the artistic director of EDAM Dance, has created nearly 100 pieces and performed in numerous improvisation ensembles. His work has been presented across Canada, in the United States and abroad. Peter is proud to have collaborated with many gifted artists throughout his career.
Growing up in a small community on the northwest coast of British Columbia, near traditional Gitxsan territory, I was immersed from a young age in the practice of songs and dances that had been passed down for countless generations. It was through this experience that I entered into a relationship with my ancestral memories. Today, as a traditional Gitxsan dancer, a practice which interweaves many artistic disciplines, I have found a means to make a tangible connection with my ancestral lineage. Dance has become a place from which the embodied process of immersion into my First Nations teachings can form. I work as an artistic director, dancer, choreographer and singer for the Dancers of Damelahamid, but within the cultural context of my Gitxsan ancestry there is no distinction between these roles, there is just my service to the practice. Since the beginning of our history, Gitxsan song and dance have been performed in the feast hall and played an integral part in defining art and culture. It is inherently political, a practice that encompasses so much that it was banned by our federal government for several decades, though it was still privately maintained. Damelahamid is the original city where our first ancestors were placed on earth. The dance group emerged in the 1960s out of an urgency to ensure that the knowledge of our grandparents was not lost, and to uphold the ancient cultural wealth of our family’s lineage. Over the forty years that followed, the initiatives of Ken and Margaret Harris – my parents and also the group’s founders – sustained the Dancers of Damelahamid, particularly in extensive work in song restoration. Also during this time, a changed society created the context for the dances to survive through a new role in a different venue: dance as a performance for public audiences in theatres, rather than as private expression within our feast halls. The work that I do is to ensure the continuation of what I know to be of such great importance to my parents and grandparents, and now to me. The first full-length works I choreographed and produced – Setting the Path (2004), Sharing the Spirit (2007) and Visitors Who Never Left (2009) – carried forward the traditional dances. It wasn’t until the most recent productions – Dancing our Stories (2010) and Spirit and Tradition (2010) – that my practice moved to the creation of new dance pieces, although still based on our traditional forms. It is at this point that our family’s dances were transformed, so that the practice of the company is no longer only in a space of revitalization but has the foundation to begin to re-emerge, relevant, tangible and responsive to 4
current contexts and influences and to the non-static quality of indigenous dance. It is piece by piece that we move forward. I treasure dance as the most significant inheritance I have from my ancestors and it will be a life journey to strive to develop the art form to its potential. The work immerses all those who experience it, both the artists and the audience, in the healing which breathes through song and dance. For me dance, song and story have provided a protective environment to address the limitations placed on our indigenous peoples and to create a healing space. Our bodies, our thoughts, our emotional attachments and our prayers are connected through the ceremony of dance. In our performances we are not only turning to our ancestral knowledge for our own reconciliation but we are sharing and supporting others through our art. Margaret Grenier, executive and artistic director for Dancers of Damelahamid, holds an MA in Education from Simon Fraser University, where she has taught Foundations in Aboriginal Education, Language and Culture. Since 2008 she has produced the annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival.
In 1995, I went to Yokohama and took a class with Kazuo Ohno, one of the fathers of butoh, who was 88 years old at the time. He talked for an hour about a poem he had read where the devil appeared in the form of the menstrual fluid from a woman. The evil blood flowed from her body in search of beauty which was manifested in the form of a white flower. Good and evil ended up as if back to back, unable to see each other. In the space between them, Ohno related, was the source of love. Then he asked us to get up and dance. His only instructions were to not dance like him and to not use any technique. He put on some music and we struggled to find our own way of expressing the source of love. After a while, he appeared dissatisfied with our efforts and stopped us. Instead of giving physical corrections or having us try specific ways of moving, he talked again about the meaning of the poem and then had us try again. I had been dancing for almost 20 years at that point, but the class was a revelation to me. Ohno was not interested in making us dance like he did. He wanted us to dance like ourselves. He also was teaching us that if we could not make movement meaningful to ourselves, how could we make it meaningful to anybody else? I was not allowed to use someone elseâ€™s vocabulary to express myself or to use technique borrowed from someplace else; I had to find my own original expression. This search for my own meaningful movement expression constitutes my present butoh practice. When I dance now, I have to know what each of my movements mean. It is only then that I will show those movements to my audiences. 5
In the past 34 years, I have performed over 700 times and have choreographed over 75 works. I build my choreography using imagery as the score. For the past 16 years, much of that choreographic development has taken place in the annual Wreck Beach Butoh performance workshops that my partner Barbara Bourget and I do during the two weeks leading up to the lowest tide in summer; the timing is to ensure the two public presentations take place at low tide, the only time there is enough beach. The 70-minute score this past summer was built primarily on a series of 48 classical sculptures, primarily from Rodin, while applying different emotional and physical states to their manifestations and transitions. For example, dancers were asked to travel between one sculptural shape to the next by taking six steps into a driving cold wind with eyes and face stinging from icy rain and sleet. Another instruction was, â€œYou are unable to breathe because the air is so hot. You hold your left ankle and look at your left calf as you struggle to breathe the hot air without burning your lungs.â€? The score becomes an individual and group journey. Each person does the same score, but does it differently according to their own bodies and experiences. We perform in the nude. It is a primal experience that forever changes each performer. Because I also manage Kokoro Dance and produce the Vancouver International Dance Festival, most of my choreographic development takes place in the Tuesday and Thursday morning twohour classes that I teach year round at Harbour Dance Centre. In my classes, I teach dancers that to change time and space for their audiences they have to learn how to change time and space in their own minds and bodies. I call my classes Butoh Zen Jazz dance. It is butoh because I am interested in having each dancer find their own original dance expression; it is Zen because it requires the continual and persistent practice of emptying the mind of useless baggage; it is jazz because it improvisational within a defined context. I teach even when the only student is myself. Jay Hirabayashi is the executive director of Kokoro Dance and the Vancouver International Dance Festival. In 1986, Jay and his wife Barbara Bourget formed Kokoro in order to begin a continuing exploration of butoh and to originate their own expression of this unorthodox dance aesthetic.
I see human beings become beautiful when they dance because they embody the truth about themselves. The embodied truth of a young, highly trained dancer is not the same as that of a 76-year-old woman just learning to dance. Both are components of a larger truth about transformation and dance and its language. It is this larger perspective that I seek. I am concerned with dance as a practice and as a language. The core of my practice is the work in the studio: daily practice, improvisational dance and study and creating choreography. The search for language â€“ communicative form â€“ motivated me to make many works for the proscenium stage. It has also motivated me to enter into different arenas of dance: community engaged work, cross-cultural dialogue, studies in audience/performer relationship and site-specific dance, continuously connecting these diverging streams of exploration to my central concerns.
Dance can resonate metaphorically on many levels. In a performance that followed the path of a buried stream, I explored the land/body metaphor â€“ that what is written on the land is written on our bodies. The professional dancers were a conduit for the spirit of that stream, the community dancers symbolized the banks of the stream and the audience was led to experience the rivers within their own bodies. I have discovered that the act of performing in a designated space can become the metaphor for an arena of conflict and resolution and a medium of dialogue between cultures. I have developed work to function as a ceremony, the company dancers ritually asking permission to enter the traditional territories of each of our First Nations dance partners along the Skeena River and in Haida Gwaii; then we danced together. I have created collaborative street dances that became a metaphoric journey of communication between communities through dance. I have investigated how space itself can be a metaphor. In the intimate spaces of site-specific work, the relationship of audience to performance is different than in a proscenium theatre: sitespecific work brings the audience into the arena to share the space with the performer, sharing the energy field generated by the performance, affected by and affecting the action. This is what I believe: that dance is an embodied art and that the processes of dance transform. Through engaging both community dancers and professional dancers, I have learned that the
medium of the body is also the message. It is a privilege as an artist to work with very different bodies, abilities, training, culture and life experience and to discover with them what the dance is. As one of the community dancers said, “Our clay is lumpy.” I believe it is not whether the clay is smooth or lumpy but the practice itself: the more you practice, the more you dance, the more you are a dancer. In these past few years a basis for a transformative practice has emerged, centered on techniques of dancing from the energy body, the invisible body within the visible body. This practice develops understanding of elements like weight, inner space in relationship to outer form, inner and outer eyes, pathways of energy and rootedness. Basic principles of this practice draw upon years of training in both classical and modern dance and upon the principles of Vijnana yoga and tensegrity anatomy. The creative processes of Collision, my most recent work, were based on this energy body practice. The stakes were very high for the professional dancers, whose choreographic demands included speed, extreme changes in level and slamming the body on concrete. They were required, through their practice, to transform the concrete floor into a sea of energy. I believe they were successful and I experienced awe in what they achieved. There were no injuries in this risky work. The challenges for the community dancers were different. Their task was to transform the space, creating a poetic through-line to the work that held it together. I was very moved by what they achieved. There was something deeply exciting in the process and in the resulting transformation of dancers and space. Different artists, inner and outer, past and present, all colliding: this took me somewhere I had never been. Karen Jamieson’s Sisyphus was recognized by Dance Collection Danse Magazine as one of ten Choreographic Masterworks of the 20th Century. A Chalmers Award recipient, her work has toured nationally and internationally. Karen is artistic director of KJ Dance and has created 85 choreographic works with scores by over 20 Canadian composers in her 40-year career.
I am a dancer, choreographer, dramaturge and teacher. I make dances, I help others make dances. My materials are space, time and the human body. My instrument is my body. My body is a collection of my history, my politics and my desires embedded in a complex organization of bones, tissue and nerves that fills me with wonder, even as it brings me occasionally to the brink of despair with its limitations. I was born in Malaysia, a former British colony with a complicated set of socio-political realities. I grew up part of a Chinese minority, standing in the interstices of numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, histories and imperfect narratives of all of the above. In my teens, I studied dance and theatre with teachers who strove to find a contemporary Asian expression out of the remnants of colonialism and dislocated traditions. I joined a children’s theatre group, Teater Kanakkanak, led by Janet Pillai. My first dance teacher, Marion D’Cruz, taught traditional Malay dance as well as Graham technique. When I lived in Paris, the late Lari Leong, a transplanted Malaysian whose choreography was influenced by Aikido and Zen Buddhism, sparked my interest in martial arts. In 1988, I moved to Vancouver, where my teachers have included Peter Bingham (contact improvisation) and Linda Putnam (theatre). I have also practiced Chinese martial arts for more than 25 years, with an emphasis on internal systems such as Taijiquan. My two major teachers have been Xu Gong Wei and Yang Guo Tai. My work, through my company battery opera performance, interrogates the contemporary body as a site of intersecting and displaced histories and habits. Inherent in this practice is a search for a language – gestural, spoken, spatial – that both embraces and frees us from accepted 8
codes and performance forms. Battery opera grounds its research in the Chinese martial arts, looking to it for lessons in the expression of a body governed by physics as well as by human relationships. By working with the martial arts we join a long tradition of dialogue between martial arts and performance forms – for example, Chinese martial arts and Beijing Opera. In battery opera, however, this dialogue takes place within a contemporary, post-colonial matrix that is cognizant of the interplay between art, power, politics and history. In this context, codified shape and form have given way to more somatic values about how the body engages with space, time and the audience. Contemporary dance practice, for me, is a constant negotiation between function and representation. While dance has its roots in our primal, animist past – think of the shaman dancing to bring rain – most dance performance these days is subservient to the structures and hierarchies that determine the spaces in which it is performed. To me, this space, whether the theatre or television, is an extension of the royal courts that have taken dance from its ritual-based functions and turned it into entertainment for the economically and politically privileged. In this shift, the dancing body is turned from an agent of change to a mere symbol – hero, heroine – for the gratification of the king/ticket holder/consumer. In this shift from shaman to pretend hero, the dancer gives up real power for figurative power. I seek dance that is action, not representation. I am interested in the dancer as activist, not object. Recently, while in one of many existentialist crises over dance, I asked Montréal choreographer Benoît Lachambre, with whom I was collaborating, why he made dances. He said, “It’s political.” By this, I understood him to mean that to dance, and to dance from a body in touch with its senses and its environment, is itself a political act. I believe this to be true. In a world that takes for granted the flat surfaces of our floors and the linear ideology of the free market, to dance is to propose a body capable of negotiating complex curves, both in time and space. In a world that sees dance as a commodity to be bought and sold, I want to propose a human body that dances to be well. To propose that we should all dance to be well. When I say, I will dance for you, I want it to mean, I will dance on your behalf. Su-Feh Lee is artistic director of battery opera performance, a company she co-founded with writer/performer David McIntosh. In 2008, her solo The Whole Beast, and her collaboration with Benoît Lachambre, Body-Scan, premiered at the Festival Les Antipodes. Her latest works, Jung-Ah and Su-Feh and James are collaborations with Jung-Ah Chung and James Gnam, respectively.
When I make a work, there is conflict at the meta-level – within the very subject and structure of the choreography – and at the micro-level – within the body. A vital tension is created when contrasting ideas are set against each other, or through conflicting physical tasks that create states of torque and exertion. It’s not a question of balance. I’m looking for the energy created by tension. The tension between rigour and recklessness, for example, or the need for order set against the need for chaos. The need to respect traditional ways and the need to subvert them. The tension between set choreography and improvisation is a paradigm for all this. In the former there is the pursuit of mastering something that is repeatable, refine-able. As a dancer, I plunge into choreography with an agenda, with the intention to execute something that has an ideal. Pre-determined, deliberate; it comes with instructions. I call upon my training, my experience, my entire dance knowledge. I call upon the history I already have with that particular phrase of movement – countless variations of failures and saves. Striving to achieve the ideals of a piece of choreography enables growth. In other words: practice. Improvisation also requires practice – the ultimate practice of presence and connection. Unlike set choreography, there is nothing up ahead that is expected. As for failure, losing balance is a reason to release into a new idea, rather than a reason to fight for an existing one. Successful improv is subjective, elusive… but I strive for improvisations that are resonant, essential and true. Both choreography and improvisation should look like the dancing is being discovered in the very moment of delivery.
I get nervous when I try to “achieve” set choreography, so it helps if I think of the choreography as an improvisation with really, really tight parameters. This little shift in my thinking can sometimes help me negotiate my fear. On a good day, dancing is a ride, with an enlivening tension between instinct and intellect, and a heightened sense of the present moment. I like to think of my body as my location: when I dance, I am profoundly engaged in being there. Crystal Pite has created works for Netherlands Dance Theatre, Cullberg Ballet, Ballett Frankfurt, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, Ballet British Columbia and the National Ballet of Canada, among others. She is a former dancer with Ballet BC and Ballett Frankfurt. In 2001, she formed Kidd Pivot, and continues to create and perform internationally in her own work. 10
PART TWO: THREE ESSAYS Defining Moments and Inspiring Artists
By Susan Elliott
It was the summer of 1987 and I had just graduated from high school. I was already enrolled at Simon Fraser University, intending to study theatre – but then I took my first modern dance class, from Gisa Cole. I had taken Highland dance and ballet as a child, but it was only now that I found “home,” and that fall I entered the pre-professional training program at Main Dance Place. Under Gisa’s direction, I was exposed to the iconic modern techniques of Cunningham, Limón and Graham, as well as to other styles such as ballet and jazz. Barbara Bourget (coincidentally my cousin) was teaching at Main Dance at that time, and when I finished the program in 1989, she and Jay Hirabayashi asked me to join their butoh-based company, Kokoro. This would mark my first season as a professional company dancer. That summer, we premiered Zero to the Power at the Firehall Arts Centre. It was strenuous and demanding, but then again, what Kokoro piece isn’t? The full-length work began with a tableau of dancers standing motionless for over 20 minutes, like a chorus line frozen on the spot, while the audience entered the theatre. For myself, an eager and slightly hyperactive 19-year-old, this proved to be only the first of many physical challenges I would encounter in my career. Standing absolutely still at the top of a piece while adrenalin and nerves course through your body is one of the most difficult tasks a young dancer can attempt. The piece escalated into a full-throttle onslaught of movement and sweat, culminating in the final section that had us emerging from a pit of mud. I can still hear my Grandmother, who was in the audience, exclaiming for all to hear, “Is that Susie?” while we slipped and slid our way around the stage. In 1990, I joined EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music), and stayed there for several seasons. This was Peter Bingham’s first company of dancers as EDAM’s sole artistic director. In the group were established dancers Katharine Labelle and Sylvain Brochu, as well as newbies, including myself, Elizabeth Burr, Scott Drysdale, Pipo Damiano, and also former EDAM dancers Jaci Metivier and Liam (Mark) Lavelle. Each of them became like family to me, a feature of dancing life that has repeated over and over again and is one of the aspects I love most about my career. One of the first pieces Peter created for the whole company was Plunge, set to the music by Mahler used in the Visconti film Death in Venice. Somehow Peter was able to utilize the diversity of skills his dancers possessed to create harmony, and every time I hear that gorgeous piece of music I am transported back to the world of Plunge. Peter had been my contact improvisation teacher at Main Dance and at first I was both intimidated and inspired by this form of movement. I was smitten by the risky and physically explosive dancing but shy about the more quiet, intimate moments. The practice of contact improvisation engages the dancer fully and on many levels, balancing extreme physicality with minute cellular responses within the body. It requires utter patience and listening to your impulses as well as to your partner’s desire to move (or not). This listening, or tuning in, provides the skills needed to fly safely to virtuosic heights and to be able to experience the joy of jumping through the air with wild abandon and being caught effortlessly by another person. I know that my training in contact has kept my body healthy, flexible and strong for all the other styles of dance I execute. It was during my years at EDAM, when I practiced CI daily, that I found myself learning to trust and recover with ease in my life outside of the studio as well. As the American choreographer Trisha Brown once said, “The body solves problems before the mind knows you had one.” It is that pure instinctual behaviour that allows me to feel most human when dancing.
In 1993 I formed a dance company, Frozen Eye, with my then-partner, Pipo Damiano, whom I’d met at EDAM. Pipo was Frozen Eye’s main choreographic voice and I was the lucky recipient of being a dancer in his work. A French citizen of Italian descent, Pipo was born and raised in North Africa. He learned to dance in Paris and the South of France, and brought with him a distinct approach, a formal “Cunninghamesque” style infused with his quirky, Buster Keaton sense of humour. It wasn’t until 1998 that I turned my attention to choreographing. Up to that point, I had preferred to contribute to the vision of my choreographer by interpreting their voice as best I could. But after spending three months studying dance across Europe on a Canada Council grant, the scope of work I witnessed in that cultural hotbed inspired me to take a chance and let loose a physicality that was personal to me, my own dance. Until then, my only experience creating my own work was dancing for hours as a child in the living room. Although I hadn’t received any formal training in choreography, I did have years of working for some of the best creators in Canada, along with my time spent improvising with EDAM. My first piece was a solo for myself, When a Person Enters a Structure, which premiered in 1998 at EDAM. It was deeply satisfying to create because it forced me to step into the role of primary creator and experience the great joy of seeing a project through from start to finish. It also revealed how difficult the role of the choreographer can be in terms of fulfilling the exacting details of a piece – choosing music, costume and lighting, and of course, creating the movement. The dance was confined to small squares of space defined by light in which I moved at a very fast pace and in all directions. The structure of the dance was always the same but my freedom to choose the movement was improvised, drawing from a specific language or vocabulary of movement, and my task was to try and surprise myself with each movement choice. I was fortunate in being able to perform this solo many times across Canada over a number of years. In 2000, I took over Frozen Eye and changed the name to Anatomica. Pipo had left to pursue a career in massage therapy and I felt the need for a new identity for the company under my direction. The most recent work co-produced by Anatomica was Mal de mer, a site-specific duet I co-choreographed with Tanya Marquardt in summer 2010. On the pier at Crab Park, Tanya and I danced the Sailor’s Hornpipe together, something I had learned in my Highland classes as a child. 12
As a dancer/interpreter I have worked in Vancouver and abroad with so many incredible choreographers: Lee Su-Feh, Chick Snipper, Noam Gagnon and Dana Gingras, to name a few. But there is one in particular with whom I shared a long and deep creative friendship: Lola MacLaughlin. Among the works I was part of are two very special solos created for me: Brussels, which was part of Four Solos/Four Cities (1998), and Princess, the last dance Lola created before her death from cancer in 2009. Lola had the ability to draw from me a layered performance combining emotional, theatrical and physical expression, resulting in dances that touched the viewer. In one section of Brussels, Lola had me dance in a large pile of straw which flew about the stage as I jumped and spun, tossing pieces of straw high above my head and rolling underneath them as they fell like pick-up sticks all around me. The solo beautifully captured the vulnerability and strength of humanity, especially in the final section, when I climbed an oversized stool and then danced six feet off the ground, ready to face the next challenge. Dancing Brussels at the Canada Dance Festival in 2000 is perhaps my most memorable performance to date. It’s not that I recall many details about what happened on stage but afterwards Lola came to me with tears in her eyes. We both knew that something magical had transpired and that the work had become larger than either of us. I have never, before or since, had such outpourings of appreciation and gratitude than from the audience members who witnessed that particular show. As I write this, I am gearing up for time in the studio with Serge Bennathan. His next group work, Elles, will be created with several women dancers from across Canada and is set to premiere at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in March 2012. That process hasn’t started yet, but Serge is one of my favourite choreographers to work with due to his passion, his poetic corporeal language and his enduring commitment to dance. Serge has the unique ability to create powerful visual images that connect with those who dance his work as well as with those who watch it. One of my earliest recollections of being in Serge’s work was a piece called Picnic, commissioned by EDAM in the early 1990s. In it, I had to fling myself over the heads of my fellow dancers, who were kneeling in a line, backs to the audience. As I launched myself from behind them they caught me on their laps, then catapulted me back out and over their heads, as if I was a bone they had just picked clean! Before I venture back into the studio with Serge, I will continue on with my newest creative endeavour, a Professional Culinary Arts Training program. I’ve just completed the four-month Culinary portion and have another four months of Pastry and Baking. I decided to take a break from performing to explore other creative pursuits, hoping to infuse my dancing with completely new information and experiences. I wanted to push myself way out of my comfort zone and culinary school is tough! But what I found is that cooking is much like dancing – it’s about teamwork, timing, discipline, artistry, repetition, patience, adrenalin, process and presentation – all necessary components that I have been practicing throughout my years in dance. Susan Elliott has been a member of the Canadian dance milieu for over 20 years. She was Dance Artist in Residence at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (2000-2004), is the inaugural recipient of the Isadora Award (1999) and was nominated for a Dora Award for outstanding performance in her solo, Falls the Shadow (2006).
The Power of Presence: Real Versus Mediatized Dance
By Rob Kitsos
A potent theme in dance theory is that dance disappears as soon as it has been performed. In some ways, this idea gives the art form a unique, almost romantic cachet, as an inspired personal moment we witness live and can never retrieve. Looked at in another way, this focus on the ethereal might just contribute to the seeming lack of value and to the vulnerability of the profession of dance. Once dance disappears, it becomes inaccessible, which poses a challenge in today’s world because we are accustomed to “experience on demand.” We live in a time when people have instant access to any form of information and entertainment in the palm of their hands. Dance, however, can’t always be packaged to fit our contemporary “mediatized culture.”1 For dance, the choice between media versus live experience has never been more palpable. The Value of Live Performance studies professor André Lepecki addresses the issue of “liveness” in Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. Lepecki references the work of Peggy Phelan, who states that when the dance ends, it “disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control … thus clogging ‘the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital.’”2 Phelan may be right in that there is less opportunity for dance to be re-examined or marketed in the same way as a painting; we can stick a reasonable reproduction of Monet’s water lilies on a coffee cup. How does this affect the impact of dance? Lepecki argues that the idea of dance disappearing in the moment develops “melancholic characteristics” in the viewer, or longing for what has passed, which gives dance a value that only seems to keep it from being circulated. For Lepecki there is an “economy of representation” that fuels its circulation, which “... allows precisely for dance and dances to constantly be recycled, reproduced, packaged, distributed, institutionalized, sold.”3 Lepecki includes many forms of this “circulation” – like codified techniques named after dead masters (Graham, Limón, Cunningham) and the international spreading of 19th-century ballets that helped establish modern nations through the presence and tradition of classical ballet companies. There are economic implications as well. While at the University of Washington in 1996, I was part of the Chamber Dance Company, a professional group composed of graduate students that reproduced historically relevant dances. The Green Table by Kurt Jooss is a well-known dance created between the two world wars that had not been remounted in the United States since the late 1960s, and we wanted to add it to our repertoire. We soon found that to get the rights to perform the dance and have it set on our company would cost some $100,000 (USD). While there may be value or an “economy of representation” within the nature of live dance, there is still the question of what value there is in leaving the comfort of your home and going to a performance. In today’s society free time is fragmented, people want to choose when and what they want to see, and home-based entertainment is much more popular than live performance. There are suggestions of instrumental values received from art, which can offer an escape from the everyday grind, community engagement or an opportunity to engage the imagination. But there is still the pervasive idea that the value of dance is intrinsic – the value is within the aesthetic experience itself, and the core of that experience in dance is live performance. There is a quality in witnessing live bodies that can’t be replaced by media or technology. This quality is a combination of how much the live body communicates even in stillness, and the interconnectedness of audience and performer in a shared space. One popular exercise in training dancers and actors is having a performer just stand in the space for a few minutes without doing anything. What seems so simple and uninteresting at
first always becomes just the opposite. The rest of the class can clearly see numerous layers of expression, history, vulnerability and personality – so much information in another human being suggested with no effort at all. This is unique to live presence and experience within the intimacy of the theatre. Yet the relationship between the performer and spectator can seem cut off by the formal traditions of the theatre. I notice a big difference in the impact of seeing a contemporary dance concert in a small theatre, where I can hear the breathing and closely see the bodies, compared to a large ballet company in a huge theatre, where I feel frustrated by my distance from the performers. I have a hard time staying in my seat in small theatres when I’m inspired to move by the performers. This frustration speaks to my desire for live connection and a need for the physical sensation of moving. Barbara Lindenberg, a recent MFA graduate in Simon Fraser University’s School for the Contemporary Arts, states: “This frustration of desire, this longing, is a unique and desirable feature of live performance. It addresses our desire for desire, our longing for longing.”4 We need live human connection, and although TV can’t satisfy that need, perhaps it does something else. So You Think This is Dance? In the everyday world today it would be hard to have a conversation with anyone about dance without at some point referencing television reality dance shows such as So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD), Dancing with the Stars and America’s Best Dance Crew. Admittedly, I cringe when I run across these programs or hear students talk in detail about the last episode. My entire interest in dance revolves around composition, interdisciplinary collaboration and creating a live experience in the theatre, and these shows reduce dance to a flashy game show on steroids. Yes, the public is watching and talking about dance much more than they used to (each episode of SYTYCD draws eight million viewers), but is this exposure sending them in a constructive direction? Is it increasing the value of dance in society or making it a sport?5 The New York Times has addressed this issue in recent reviews about the shows. In one, choreographer David Parker, who teaches at many professional schools in New York, said that a program like SYTYCD “shuts people down to dance” except as “slick, flashy entertainment.” The article explains that “he also said he was pleased to see that his students were drawing from a wider variety of dancing, sifting an array of cultural influences through their classical training.”6 In an interview with several professional dancers, ranging from members of the New York City Ballet and Mark Morris to tap and hip hop professionals, who all got together to watch an episode of SYTYCD, their assessments articulated the concerns of many artists and educators today. The dancers talked about the “show’s watered-down presentation of the art,” they “cringed at the excessive kicks, splits and spins” and commented that the program “failed to verse viewers in the nuances of dance.”7 The main concern for the group was how the commercial orientation was shifting values and awareness in dance: many young competition dancers have no awareness of well-known dance artists who aren’t on TV and, as one dancer explained, “students at her mother’s studio, where she teaches, would be more excited to have an instructor from the show than a City Ballet principal.”8 In the last three years I have noticed a clear shift in the number of dance students entering the university with a concept of dance built around the competition industry and a flashy aesthetic prompted by the media. In most cases the competition industry gives young people the impression that dances and dancers are to be judged by narrow standards and pitted against one another while the media emphasizes a superficial aesthetic. In many ways the reality shows are a Hollywood version of what many small dance studios revolve around. It’s not so much that these students know less about modern and contemporary dance than other dancers entering college in the past, but the more recent students are less open to ideas that don’t relate to the competition/media world of dance. While this poses challenges to programs such as SFU’s Contemporary Arts, it’s one 15
we should see as a good challenge. Teachers should be able to articulate the difference between being entertained by a three-minute acrobatic dance to a pop song and having the patience to be moved and challenged by a live interaction. Writer Andrew Hewitt references the Victorian era’s leading art critic John Ruskin, who wrote about the rise of popular culture in the 19th century prompted in part by dance moving into vaudeville in America and music hall variety shows in England. Ruskin suggested resisting the creation of a hierarchy between what we think of as high and low art, and instead analyzing these cultures as separate experiences. He refers to popular culture as “an acritical nonreflective amusia”.9 Amusia, or amusement, for Ruskin was a cultural experience in its own right that eluded critical evaluation. What we need to be looking at is the fact that this new popular culture movement in dance reality shows is a perspective that is probably needed. What are the influences that created this pervasive culture and why? Perhaps our increasing dependence on and obsession with technology and media has created an even greater need to connect to other real people – and TV dance shows give us the impression that we are. But the “reality” is that being in the presence of live dance is where we experience the human condition and the choreographic forms that open our minds, refine our perceptions, develop our imagination, educate our emotions and satisfy a deep human need to communicate. Rob Kitsos is a contemporary choreographer and an associate professor in Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. His prior experience includes a faculty position at the University of Washington in Seattle and the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. Rob received his MFA in Dance from the University of Washington in 1997.
Endnotes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, Routledge, 1999: 66. André Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement, Routledge, 2006: 127. Lepecki, 126. Barbara Lindenberg, A Thousand Mountains, Thesis Defense Statement, MFA, Simon Fraser University School for the Contemporary Arts, 2011: 5. Elaine Stuart, “So you think you can judge dance,” New York Times, August 4, 2011, AR7. Claudia La Rocco, “Dance TV Gives Dance a Boost, and That’s Good, Right?” New York Times, June 11, 2010, AR3. Stuart, AR7. Stuart, AR7. Andrew Hewitt, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, Duke University Press, 2005: 50. 16
Women in White, or My 1st Flash and My Giselle
By Kaija Pepper
Prologue A small group of us form a circle in the lobby, sharing impressions about what we’ve just witnessed on stage: how the dancers used their legs, their arms, the way they jumped or turned or partnered each other, their personality and presence. Someone shares a favourite part, when the sound and vision seemed to plug directly into their brain, connecting in an uncanny way to memories and emotions, needs and desires. Briefly, a flurry of disagreement splits us into two camps: those who found a particular moment exciting and seductive versus those who thought it old hat. When the three-minute bell rings, we rush back to our seats for more. The membership of the entr’acte huddle is fluid, depending on who’s bought tickets for which night, and also on what kind of work is on the boards. Typically, the gang at Giselle, one of my favourite Romantic ballets, won’t be the same crowd hanging out at something like Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash, my favourite piece from Ballet British Columbia’s very contemporary last season. I don’t really get this strict division between old and new. As long as a choreographic work has intensely constructed shapes and movement performed by skilled and inspired dancers, I’m more than willing to give it a chance. If it shares some kind of truth – from whatever time and place – I’ll likely be hooked.
Act One I’m not sure when I first encountered Giselle, which seems to have always been part of my life. I have vague impressions of The Royal Ballet’s production from the eighties – my ex-husband and I had a row before the show, so I went alone to Covent Garden – and before that there must have been at least one Giselle in Vancouver at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre when I was an usher. Perhaps I came across pictures of this iconic work, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841, as a young dance student. But it could be I’m getting Giselle mixed up with Joan of Arc, a childhood idol. Both were peasant girls with huge reserves of love: Joan for God; Giselle, for Albrecht. Both were virgins who transcended their earthly woes after death: Joan was burned at the stake for her religious convictions but then became a saint; Giselle loses her mind and kills 17
herself after being betrayed by her lover, but is transformed into a remarkably forgiving wili (a bride-to-be who dies before her wedding day and turns into a ghostly “night-dancer,” according to Slavic legend). Only in 1995, when I saw three National Ballet of Canada performances, can I start to track my encounters more precisely. That’s because there’s a written record: I’d recently become a dance critic. My review for Dance International magazine raves over opening night. The mature Karen Kain, in her mid-forties, turned the lead role into a powerful meditation in space and time, taking the narrative ballet to a distilled, abstract plane. Giselle, like Hamlet, is ripe for interpretation and at the next day’s matinee, twenty-something Chan Hon Goh did almost the exact opposite: she made the young village girl very real and present. After that, I can track two performances by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 2002 and three more by the National in 2007. That’s when I saw Goh again, now so polished it seemed as if Giselle was secretly a member of the upper class, just like Albrecht, a duke pretending to be a peasant. Goh’s glamorous portrayal was my last sighting for several years and I hankered after another. In 2011, I resolved to cross the border, the first time in a decade, for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s new production. Waiting for the bus to Seattle early one June morning with my friend Alice, a light rain spitting down, I marvelled at my keenness. At the theatre, the moment the auditorium darkened and Adolphe Adam’s familiar score began, I settled more deeply into my seat. My notebook was in my lap, but I didn’t write very much. During the scene in which Giselle (Lesley Rausch) plays “He loves me, he loves me not” with a daisy, I think I smiled when Albrecht (Batkhurel Bold) bent over to secretly pick up a dropped petal, which he used to make the game end on the side of seduction. My pen didn’t move at all when Giselle discovers that not only is Albrecht a duke, but he’s already engaged to a woman of the same class. Nor did I write anything when she collapses into madness – her halting, awkward steps during a reprise of the daisy scene music is such a poignant statement of abandonment I felt numb. At intermission, Alice and I huddled together in the McCaw Hall lobby, admiring the way Rausch took us step by step from naivety to disillusion to despair, culminating in the moment Giselle plunges Albrecht’s sword into her heart. Then I criticised Bold for being cool and controlled. “His character is an aristocrat,” countered Alice. “Hmm, yes,” I agreed, adding portentously: “Let’s see how he plays the second act.” The setting is the forest where Giselle is buried – her grave is downstage right – with icyhearted wilis in long white skirts floating around like heavy fog. To prevent the death by drowning they have in store for the remorseful Duke Albrecht, Giselle dances with him till dawn, when the wilis must retreat to their graves. In their lengthy pas de deux, Albrecht’s leaps grow more and more desperate (here’s where Bold comes through with passion), exhaustion threatening as the night wears on. By contrast, the now supernatural Giselle hops tirelessly on the tip of one pink pointe shoe or launches upward in those sighing little Romantic jumps that take feet and ankles of steel for the dancer to pull off. When Albrecht lifts Giselle, she appears as weightless as her tulle skirt, not a real woman but a memory that haunts him. The image is so ethereal, the moments so intensely musical, I’m reminded of a poem I wrote as a teenager about wanting to be a violin note. Pure, transcendent, but not in the way Saint Joan was – I’d begun to doubt the voices she heard, the likelihood of Heaven. What I longed for was connection to a larger reality through the abstraction of perfect sound. My favourite part in the ballet is when the woman – Giselle or the ballerina dancing her – is transformed into this idea of transcendence.
Act Two My poem had been floating around somewhere in my consciousness for a few months, ever since last February when I’d seen Ballet British Columbia in Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash. Elo’s 18-minute ballet, premiered by Nederlands Dans Theater in 2003, is set to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, a madly twisting, turning score. The dance is just as mad – effusive, undulating arms or small, tight gestures so aligned with the music the performers look like kids pretending to be conductors. The relationship between the violin concerto and the choreography built to such intensity it was as if the dancers actually were the music, just like in my poem of transformation from young woman to violin note. In the huddle during intermission, I was eager to share my infatuation, but not everyone felt the same. One modern dance choreographer muttered, “It’s like Walt Disney.” I think he meant it followed the music too closely. Most of us agreed we loved the score. “The Sibelius was wonderful,” I said more than once. I was fixated on the music, having re-discovered the Finnish composer a couple of years ago, after my father died. My dad, like Sibelius and Elo, was a Finn, and he used to listen to Sibelius at night, sitting alone in the dark, whisky in hand. Finlandia, mostly, on an old 78 vinyl record. I’d bought a Sibelius CD just to hear Finlandia again, but it was the violin concerto I kept playing. Aside from evoking a similar musical transformation, Elo’s vision was nothing like the one in Giselle. 1st Flash has no narrative, no characters, no pointe shoes, no tulle. It doesn’t have lyrical steps or graceful port de bras or women in white. Instead, everyone wears shades of grey, and the movement features full-body shudders, fingers crawling spider-like up, then down the side of the torso and backs rounded over like a skier’s start position. A baffling move has one of the women, balanced on a single demi-pointe while she holds her partner’s hand, shake the supporting leg back and forth, as if being unsteady is a dance value, a reasonable response to the pulsing strings. I’m still not sure about that wobbly leg, but when I went back the next night, I liked the piece even more.
All six dancers have such determination as they sail through the brash marching and fluid spins, the women in soft ballet slippers, the men in socks, everyone’s feet lusciously stretched as their legs arc through the air. Occasionally, the men lift the women, a division of labour that makes physical sense because the men are more muscular. Also, the women have bare legs while the men 19
wear trousers, but that’s our zeitgeist: typically, young women’s bodies are more exposed. Most of the time there is equality, everyone dancing the same steps side by side with the same energy and power. Elo’s dancers are independent and frankly athletic, and perhaps it’s his trio of women – Alexis Fletcher, Delphine Leroux and Makaila Wallace on opening night – who should remind me of Joan of Arc. Because far from wafting about the forest in the arms of a man the way Giselle does, hiding her strength under a pretty skirt, Joan rode to battle at the head of an army of men in order to have Charles VII crowned King of France. Finale When a song about Joan of Arc by Leonard Cohen came on the radio the other day, I got all churned up. It was a duet, with Jennifer Warnes as Joan; Cohen, the fire that pursues her as she dreams of a wedding dress “or something white.” I thought of her armour, which was apparently polished until it glowed white in the sunlight, and then of a long, Romantic-era tutu, though of course they weren’t around in the 15th century. Cohen’s “lonesome heroine” is more like the doomed act-two Giselle than the saintly peasant girl of my childhood who had God on her side or the forthright women in Elo’s 1st Flash, but I fell for his Joan all the same. Or maybe it was Leonard Cohen I fell for: his deep rough voice reached right inside my belly, so deep that by the end of the song, even with the flames devouring the wedding dress, Joan, her glory, I felt like throwing myself into the arms of the next dark deceiving Albrecht who passed by. It wouldn’t be the first time: I’ve known Albrecht – or some version of him – almost as long as Giselle or Joan. He lurks somewhere in my head along with those two women in white, all three part of the secret life within and just waiting for songs or ballets to evoke them. No doubt when Giselle next comes to town, I’ll be found in one of the half-time huddles, discussing the nuances of Albrecht’s great desperate jumps, Giselle’s small, steadfast ones. I’ll be there for 1st Flash, as well, should it return. If I had to choose between these very different works, I suppose I’d go for the Elo and its new-millennium partnerships, at least if Albrecht wasn’t around to tempt me. But the two ballets nudge different parts of my psyche and there’s no reason I can’t have Giselle and 1st Flash, too. Kaija Pepper’s fourth book on dance history is the co-edited anthology Renegade Bodies: Canadian Dance in the 1970s (Dance Collection Danse, 2012). She contributes criticism and essays to several publications, including the Globe and Mail, Queen’s Quarterly and thedancecurrent.com, and enjoys teaching Critical Writing in the Arts at Simon Fraser University.
Photos: page 3 Peter Bingham and Chris Aiken in The Tuning Effect, by Chris Randle; page 5 Scott Harris and Margaret Grenier in Ama litxw sim’ Stand fast, by Ana Pedrero, Fotografica; page 6 Jay Hirabayashi in Essence, by Yukiko Onley; page 7 Karen Jamieson in Collision, by Chris Randle; page 9 Su-Feh Lee in The Whole Beast, by Amy Pelletier; page 10 Jermaine Maurice Spivey and Crystal Pite in Dark Matters, by Dean Buscher; page 12 Susan Elliott in Four Solos/Four Cities, by David Cooper; page 17 Chan Hon Goh with Artists of the National Ballet in Giselle, by Cylla von Tiedemann; page 19 Makaila Wallace in 1st Flash, by Michael Slobodian. 20
Scotiabank Dance Centre Level 6, 677 Davie Street Vancouver BC V6B 2G6 T 604.606.6400 F 604.606.6401 email@example.com
ÂŠ 2011 The Dance Centre and the authors The VDC Dance Centre Society (The Dance Centre) is a non-proďŹ t organization and a registered charity.
Published on Nov 14, 2011
Dance Aesthetics: Nine Views from Vancouver features writing by a diverse group of Vancouver dance professionals which offers a glimpse into...