Seen and Heard

February 6 through 8, at Dance Victoria Studios, we threw open the doors and “pulled back the curtain.” A number of visiting and local dance artists presented works in progress to anyone who wanted to come including a number of dance presenters from across the country that were here expressly to see this work. People crowded into each studio – sometimes as many as 70 on chairs, on the floor and standing at the back. Each showing included a conversation with the artist who talked about their practice and  process. Afterwards, the audience was invited to make comment on the work.

We asked dance writer, Robin J. Miller to write about her impressions. Here they are:

Seeing an artist’s work in progress always gives me a bit of thrill. I find it exciting to get a glimpse of what the artist is thinking, how a work is shaping up, and then – a month or a year or two down the road – seeing that work in its final form. I love seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t, how an idea or a character has developed or a narrative has grown, what it looks like complete, with carefully thought-out set, lighting, costumes.

And if it’s a great success, I feel I can even take some of the credit ­– because an in-progress showing is not just a privilege for the audience to see, it’s a vital part of an artist’s work. You can’t really be sure what works and what doesn’t until you set it down in front of a bunch of people and get a sense of what they think and feel.

Over three days in February, Dance Victoria offered five free in-studio showings of work being developed by a range of dance artists, in varying stages of their careers, from Victoria, Vancouver and Toronto. They were attended by an invited group of dance presenters from across the country, including Mimi Beck of DanceWorks in Toronto, Heather Moore from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Brian Webb, of Brian Webb Dance in Edmonton, and Casey Prescott of the Banff Centre – people, in other words, who have seen a lot of dance and really know their stuff. The presenters were joined by anywhere from 30 to 70 others for each showing, local dancers and choreographers as well as those simply with an interest in what’s going on.

I unfortunately had to miss one showing, by local choreographer and dance teacher Constance Cooke, but here are a few of the things I saw and heard at the four I did attend.

Thursday, February 6, Noon

Through Dance Victoria’s LOLA Project, every year a professional dance artist from Vancouver is paired with local dancers as a mentor in the development of new work. This year’s mentor, Lee Su-Feh of Battery Opera, told us she chose to work with two very different emerging Victoria-based artists Andrew Barrett and Alex Thompson because they were both asking interesting questions about “who they are.”

She also asked us to think about the images and sensations that stay with us after we see each piece, so we can talk about them with the artists at the end. “Close your eyes and check in with your experience,” she said. “It’s important for an artist to know what stays with you.”

Alex Thompson’s piece, danced by the choreographer herself and two other young female dancers, turned out to be about pure movement; Andrew Barrett’s solo, on the other hand, was more performance art – a story about a Fox God. In the discussion afterward, it was fascinating to hear what the audience felt, with the artists there to explain what they intended: sometimes the two were the same, sometimes not. The visiting dance presenters in the audience took each piece very seriously, and gave generously of their thoughts and advice.

Thursday, February 6, 2:00 pm

Josh Martin of Vancouver’s 605 Collective introduced his solo piece, Leftovers, by explaining how the piece would normally be lit. In the studio, it was just minimal overhead lighting, so no atmosphere, with the dancer very exposed.

It was fabulous to see this exceptional dancer in such close quarters: every movement, every breath, every bead of sweat visible. He does stop-action better than anyone I’ve ever seen, so that, while it remains urban and hip and robotic, it’s also revealingly human at the same time. Turns out that the piece is called Leftovers because his movements were created for “other people’s work,” but still have a place in his body’s memory. Josh described it as sort of a reverse locked-in syndrome: no mind, just body – “it’s the body’s turn to decide.”

Josh listened carefully and intelligently to what the audience had to say about what they felt and what they responded to, where the piece lagged a little and where it could be smoothed out. Generally, what the audience saw as an issue, he did too, and he explained how he was trying to work on the transitions from one segment to another.

Friday, February 7, 2:00 pm

This afternoon was Toronto choreographer Heidi Strauss and her company, adelheid. Called elsewhere, the piece will be presented at DanceWorks in Toronto and at other locations across Canada in 2014/2015. While Heidi started working out the ideas for this piece more than two-and-a-half years ago, she and her five dancers have worked on it only sporadically over that time, as they have had the time and space. Through Dance Victoria’s artist-in-residence program, they spent the two weeks right before this performance working on it here – and adding music for the first time.

Heidi anticipates that elsewhere will be about 60 minutes long in its final form; here, she presented four short sections only, in no particular order. In fact, the section we saw at the end may very well end up being the opening – she hasn’t decided yet (the whole tone of the piece will change depending on what she decides). She said that the piece is about “the forces that are acting on us all the time,” and that “we carry a lot inside of ourselves.” Our reactions are built on those forces, that history, and it will determine how we, as individuals, grow together.

The movement vocabulary the choreographer has developed for this work is very distinct, very precise. The second section she showed, a duet between the two men of the company (Luke Garwood and Brendan Wyatt), was built on a sort of call and response: one dancer moved, the other responded; they were constantly listening and watching for how they could or should move next, together or apart.

Saturday, February 8, 3:00 pm

First up on the final afternoon of the 2014 Night Moves studio showings was Vancouver’s Wen Wei Wang, who, like Heidi Strauss, spent the past two weeks in residence here. Wen Wei used his time to develop the music and video for a co-production he is working on with Beijing Modern Dance Company called Made in China. When finished, the piece will tour both Canada and China.

Wen Wei and his two collaborators – Sammy Chien on media and musician

Qiu Xa He (a third collaborator, a dancer, was a little too preoccupied having a baby to make it to this showing) – were in place as we filed in to our seats, making music and talking about their journeys from China to Canada. The three are equals and the piece flows back and forth between them, but most often in what we saw, Wen Wei was the focus. Pictures from his earliest days as a dancer appeared behind him on the screen and he re-created the dance he made up as a very young boy after seeing his first ballet – he didn’t care that the part, complete with a wedding veil, was for a girl.

Very different and yet still dealing with much the same theme, in the last showing of the series, Vancouver dancer/choreographer Daelik presented an excerpt that started with him, surrounded on three sides by the audience, being interrogated by an unseen yet authoritative electronic voice about who he is and what he does. To answer, Daelik must go up on his toes to speak toward a mic on the ceiling. He is intensely vulnerable in this position. Finally, the voice asks him why he dances. To answer, he must move.

Daelik explained that this piece is his response to winning the 2012 Chrystal Dance Prize, awarded by Dance Victoria annually in honour of Dr. Betty “Chrystal” Kleiman. She wanted to give dance artists from western Canada the opportunity to work with the best professionals in the world. Daelik chose to work with French choreographer Fabrice Ramalingom; the two spent two weeks together in Victoria last April and will work further on it over time. It’s the kind of exploration Dr. Kleiman would have applauded.