A good portion of my dance training involved dance exams. In the case of tap, I even had to memorize step definitions. “Tap: strike the floor with the ball of the foot, releasing it immediately.” Or, “Shuffle: a combination of a brush forward and a brush back, done in one count or less.” So when hip-hop came onto the scene (but we didn’t call it that back then—it was still under jazz), some steps had names, e.g., running man and Roger Rabbit, but many didn’t. It was undefined, and my mind was accustomed to the structured worlds of tap, jazz, and ballet. I didn’t like it. Toronto-based choreographer Kylie Thompson, though, embraced the undefined, and transitioning from a codified background in ballet, jazz, and modern and a few sub-genres was only the beginning.
(Photo of Kylie Thompson above by Alvin Collantes Photography.)
Discovering Hip-Hop & Contemporary
Kylie didn’t discover hip-hop music and dance until she reached high school. Once she entered university, she joined a hop-hop performance team and began her exploration of the art form in more depth. Around the same time, contemporary also drew her attention.
“Around the same time was, from my perspective, when contemporary dance started to become a keyword,” she says. “Because growing up, we never called it contemporary dance. It was always either ballet, jazz, or modern.”
I can empathize. For me, though, I shied away from the unfamiliar in the mid-90s, unaware that dance was undergoing a major shift. Kylie, who’s roughly a generation younger than me, embraced the unfamiliar. She moved to Toronto after graduating in 2010 from university. Since then, she says, “it’s just been a mixture and a mashup of contemporary and hip-hop and also various sub-genres in hip-hop and contemporary as well.”
Choreography = Planning + Collaboration
Kylie turned to choreography about six years ago. For the first three, she typically planned all her choreography before working with dancers, reminiscent of her early dance training. However, nowadays she works within a more collaborative framework.
“I try to do basically half and half in terms of myself giving out the actual physical moves and materials,” she says, “and the other half being I’ll give the dancers a task and have them create their own movement, and then I’ll just guide it and direct it.”
She explains she had some difficulty with the more collaborative process; not because of the logistics of it, but because of wanting to acknowledge where ideas originated from.
“That was a little bit of a moral battle I had in my head,” she says, “and I think a lot of directors feel the same sentiment. But I personally think that it results in a better product because the movement from the dancers is coming from a more genuine place.”
Sharing Hip-Hop Dance With a First Nations People
In February of this year, Kylie spent several days in Wapekeka, a fly-in community high up in Northern Ontario, through Right to Play. An organization that operates around the globe, in Canada it brings activity and sports to remote First Nations communities. The experience was an eye-opener for Kylie, who needed to rely on her improvisation and collaboration skills to help her adjust.
“I have lots of experience teaching youth dance,” she says, “but being an under-privileged community, being that they don’t have regular dance instruction, there were a lot of barriers that I faced and had to adapt on the fly and get creative with my lesson plan.”
Kylie had to change how she taught, and she learned to work with the different barriers that stood between her and the kids: language, culture, even dance. With her training in traditional forms of dance, which usually have very structured classes, she couldn’t come in like “a drill sergeant,” as she says and run class with a metaphorical stick.
Before flying north, Kylie learned from a previous participant that a lot of the kids in this community enjoyed a form of dance called shuffling, which musically fits in with techno and house music.
“Sure enough, when I got there,” she says, “as soon as I mentioned ‘shuffle,’ the kids, they were doing the basic steps, and they wanted to do that.”
In the end, she collaborated with them: working with their music and dance, she mixed in what she enjoyed and wanted to bring to the table.
“Oh, Yes” World Premiere
Kylie Thompson will be premiering her new ensemble piece, Oh, Yes, at dance: made in Canada, a contemporary dance festival curated by Yvonne Ng, Janelle Rainville, and Jeff Morris, that starts this Wednesday, August 14th and runs until Sunday, August 18th. True to her development as an artist, it is part direct choreography and part collaborative effort. The composer of the music is Nigel Edwards aka nomvdslvnd, and the collaborating performers are Mackenzie Carlson, Krista Newey, Alyssa Petrolo, Katherine Semchuk, Kirsten Sullivan.
Kylie has taken the concept of flow—a concept necessary to successful collaboration—and applied it to her own ideas now. This piece sounds like it’s coming directly out of Kylie’s sub-conscious: “I just had this vision of these dancers wearing eclectic, fancy silk, bright-patterned shirts, what you would see in a 70s nightclub. Wearing these shirts and dancing to hip-hop music.”
She describes the vision as feeling quirky: “These characters in these shirts, almost like they were feeling strange in their own skin. Yeah, when I had that vision, I didn’t know who these characters were, but I knew that I saw five of them.”
Kylie Thompson Going With the Flow
From beginning dance in structured styles to exploration with collaboration in her choreography and teaching, to learning to trust her inner vision, even if it doesn’t make sense, Klyie Thompson has truly learned to go wit the flow. You can catch her latest piece, Oh, Yes, at dance: made in Canada on Saturday, August 17 and Sunday, August 18 from 2-3 PM in Toronto. Full details at the dance: made in Canada website.