The art of movement

By Chris Creighton Kelly, July/August 2014

Making Victoria a centre for developing contemporary dance.

It is a gentle gesture, a fluttering. It appears just long enough to be a known presence. And with a delicate but sustained whoosh, it becomes a continuous, curious flapping. Then, quietly, this movement is gone. But its ironic arc of subtlety stays with me.

What accounts for the staying power of that subtlety? I have been wanting to write about contemporary dance for awhile. It is the arts discipline furthest from my own practice (me, a dancer, you are kidding, right?) but I am enchanted, sometimes mesmerized, by it just the same. So the fluttering has arrived a couple of times lately but then, quietly, it is gone. Yet, I feel constantly reminded of its presence. I remember.

I make a mental note to call Stephen White, producer of Dance Victoria. He’ll be able to help me make sense of my inchoate insights.

Not too long later, I am at a performance of The Tempest Replica, a piece choreographed by the brilliant Crystal Pite. We are early so I go to the washroom. Right beside me is Stephen White! It is a pleasure to bump into him. He smilingly agrees to talk later.

The fluttering returns again. How does the “staying subtlety” work? I am chopping vegetables, something I love to do. My almost-17-year-old daughter flits into the kitchen and apropos of nothing asks, “Who is Isadora Duncan?” I fumble about with my answer…mother of modern dance; lefty who was marginalized and kicked out of the US; visionary dancer and choreographer; had both women and men as lovers. The daughter listens, then just as quickly as she had arrived, she flits out. We never speak of Ms Duncan again.

I wonder why she had not simply googled the grand Isadora; isn’t that how we come to know everything these days? Maybe she is checking my qualifications as an arts columnist. In any case, her question makes me realize that the time has come to write my contemporary dance column.

So what is contemporary dance anyway? There are two main schools of thought.

The first declares that today’s dance evolves from the spirit, if not the techniques, of modern dance. That very same Isadora Duncan, followed by many other pioneers—Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, to mention just a few who come to mind—ushered in the 20th century by refuting classical ballet techniques. She declared that they were too rigid. She wanted to free the body to follow its “natural” movements. For Duncan, the solar plexus was the source of human movement.

The second conception states that contemporary dance is a post-modern form. It is a post World War ll phenomenon, influenced by visual arts, theatre, media arts and even literature. Like its sister movements in these other arts disciplines, it attempts to radically break with history, embracing all art forms including the popular ones. At the same time, it rummages around in dance history—ironic pastiche here, cut-and-paste collage there, mixing and matching, for example, African rhythms; video screens; non-narrative movement pieces that are intentionally non-dance; talking dancers and so on and on.

I phone Stephen to ask him to clarify. He is in Vienna now, on a dance tour. He deftly weaves both schools into his answer, “Contemporary dance grew originally from neoclassical ballet…but has definitely been influenced by modern dance, Graham in particular. A good contemporary dancer is likely doing a ballet class on a regular basis to maintain their technique—especially in the lower body, extending the legs and feet to push the energy out through the limbs. The torso is much more expressive than in classical ballet, the arms are freer. And a contemporary choreography is often built through improvisations.” 

Then he adds, “Today, contemporary dance draws from many sources—going back to Graham’s ‘contract and release’ plus African, jazz, and increasingly street or hip hop.” So the answer to contemporary dance is really “all of the above.” There is not much that cannot be incorporated in one way or another.

What about non-Western dance traditions? Stephen answers tactfully: “There is a growing interest in Aborginal dance among dance presenters at the national level. Certainly Red Sky and Kahawi are making progress.” He continues, “Canada being a culturally diverse country, there is also interest in all forms of Indian dance. Second and third generation Indo-Canadians are contemporizing classical dances.”

I recall that in Canada, contemporary dance has often been led internationally by Québecois artists. In the 80s and 90s, the list was impressive—La La La Human Steps, Marie Chouinard, O Vertigo, Carbon 14—to name a few. They emphasized a kind of raw physicality, sometimes coupled with punkish music, sometimes hurling bodies around in a risky fashion.

Does Québec or Canada still have any influence on dance today? Stephen replies, “Québec is still very present on the international stage—especially in Europe where their influence is wide-spread. For the past two decades in Europe the movement has been to minimal, ‘non-dance dance,’ trying to break down ideas about ‘what makes dance,’ pushing the envelope. Deconstruction is king! Not so in Canada where dance still mostly moves. In the west in particular, movement is king!”

In broad terms, the larger art world is working more and more in interdisciplinary ways—crossing previously strict frontiers within various art traditions; finding places where the boundaries of arts disciplines blur and combining art with non-art activities. This is evident in contemporary dance. Stephen puts it this way: “The biggest influences right now are hip-hop or urban dance styles that are virtuosic, athletic, dynamic. Plus theatre, as dancers are interested in spoken word. And also digital technology…it’s so much easier to tour with a computer than loading a truck with costumes and sets!” 

Since 1997 Dance Victoria has consistently presented a solid season of professional dance. Most of us already know this. But I was impressed to find out more about its four-year-old residency program at its Quadra Street Performance Lab. Stephen elaborates, “We have given quite a few choreographers a chance to create. The artists can play a little bit with technology and focus on the work in development, which is then featured during Dance Victoria’s new contemporary dance event—Night Moves in February. It can tour the country and, in some cases, the world. We intend to continue to grow this practice so Victoria becomes a centre for dance creation and development.”

Victoria—an international incubator for contemporary dance! That is an ambitious agenda. I get enlivened, even a little electrified when Victorians speak this way. 

The fluttering returns. And builds to a gesture more than an ironic flutter, more than a curious flapping. Let’s hope this time that it does not go away. 

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Just before printing this edition, it was learned that Stephen White is moving on from Dance Victoria, which he helmed through 13 seasons, more than doubling the size of the audience as well as the operating budget. We wish him—and Dance Victoria without him—the very best.

Speaking of changes, this is my last column for Focus. It has been a consistent pleasure researching, writing and sharing them with my many loyal readers. It is a genuine privilege having such a rewarding connection to a thoughtful, literate arts community. Thank you for all your feedback.

 

Dance Victoria’s impressive lineup for its 2014/15 season, curated by Stephen White, highlights dance companies from Britain, the US, France, as well as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker. It can be found at www.dancevictoria.com.

 

Chris Creighton-Kelly is a Canadian artist and writer who lives in the Victoria area. Along with France Trépanier, he is co-author of Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today. He has recently begun writing a book on the Canadian art system.