Novels about dance can become too sterile: the ones I read as a teen (I don’t recall the series name anymore) always centered around a protagonist who was trying to make it. Fame had the same premise. A Chorus Line. Billy Elliot. Center Stage. One recent exception so far is Off Kilter. I always knew I’d write a novel about dance, but I wanted to write one that didn’t follow that generic plot line. (Though I did write one when I was 16 that will thankfully never see the light of day.) Although Between Worlds is about more than dance, dance plays a central role in Juliana’s life.
How to Write about Dance in Fiction?
So dance is part of Juliana’s life, but using dance in fiction carries a certain challenge: how to describe what the dancer is doing and feeling without boring the audience.
Dance is a visual art form. I’ve written dance reviews, but just talking about steps wouldn’t have any effect on my readers. Instead, I had to talk about the choreography, costumes, lighting, the dancers themselves, because all those elements worked together. With Juliana, though, I don’t have access to all those elements. Does the reader care about the lighting in Juliana’s dance studio? Or does the reader want a detailed description of her dance outfits?
I also need to remember that not all readers are looking for novels about dance. They’re reading the series instead because they like the premise of the series, or because they enjoy the juxtaposition of a historical storyline with a contemporary one. In addition, steps mean nothing to a reader who has never studied dance.
As I debated my dilemma some more, I realized that when I wrote about dancers for other magazines, we never talked about the steps; we talked about what dance felt like to them, or what they loved about dance. If they were older dancers (like, way older), we discussed how they danced now. But it was never, or at least rarely, about the steps.
How to Write about the Dancer in a Novel, Then?
When I was 14, my emotional self wanted to pull me deeper inside my conscious self, but I was scared of forgetting where I was in my dance and of sharing too much of myself on stage. It means that, when writing storylines about dance, I have to stretch past my own experience. When I describe how Juliana gets lost in her dancing, I’m describing a dream, because it’s not something I’ve ever been able to fully realize for myself. (If you’re able to get lost in dance, tell me in the comments section below what that’s like.)
So I needed to find a balance. Too much description about dance, and I risked losing some readers. Too much emphasis on Juliana’s thoughts, and I risked losing yet others. I was confident I could achieve that balance, so the next question came up: what dance form to use?
Writing Involves Rhythm. So Does Dance.
Dance in fiction often focuses on ballet. Dance in movies currently seems to be more hip hop and street than ballet. I wanted something different, but I also had to be comfortable writing about it. So I chose tap. But how could I incorporate it so that readers who’ve never studied it understand what I’m writing?
Aside from being my favourite form of dance, tap also has the bonus of fairly standard vocabulary, and at least to my ears, the terminology often matches the rhythm (or can be made to do so.) In the last scene of The Move, Juliana taps on her new tap board while working through the major changes that happened in her life. The scene was challenging to write, but I think it achieved the balance needed to express a teen dancer and still keep the reader’s interest.
Let me know in the comments section what your thoughts were on that last scene. Be sure to mention if you’ve danced or not.
Have Questions about Writing Novels about Dance?
If you’re happening upon this blog post because you’re doing a project on dance for school, or if you have questions about writing and dance, feel free to leave your questions below. If they’re personal (i.e., you don’t want the world knowing your question and my answer), email me. I’ll certainly do my best to answer.
Have you ever heard of the word “impresario”? That’s someone who organizes and maybe even finances performing arts events, including concerts, plays, ballets, operas, and more. It’s a very risky profession, and likely not one taught in arts management programs. And yet, impresarios are in part responsible for expanding our interests in the arts precisely because they always stand on the cliff of audience expectations. An impresario calculates the risks with bringing in various performers, and if the risk doesn’t pay out, the impresario loses out, often quite a lot. But it’s a risk impresarios like Svetlana Dvoretsky, owner of Show One Productions, are willing to take. Why? Because they love the arts so much.
Who Is Svetlana Dvoretsky?
Her name is likely unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know her: she’s one of the movers and shakers in the Toronto arts scene, and she’s ready to take risks.
Born in Russia, Dvoretsky spent eight years studying piano. It inspired her to make a living in the arts, but not as a performer. Instead, she moved to Canada and eventually—by accident—became an impresario.
Studying piano in Russia means something almost entirely different to studying piano in North America. Dvoretsky’s music education included not only direct piano instruction but also hours devoted to other aspects of music, like music history and conducting. After school, she’d spend four to five hours a day, four days a week at her music school. By the time she emigrated here, she had an appreciation for music that only a few dedicated music students in Canada likely possess.
Arts Culture in Canada
When I speak to people who’ve immigrated here, I often hear a common lament: that arts programming in Canada is weak. My local newspaper backs me up in this impression. Despite my living in an area with almost 500,000 people, the arts section in our local daily is only two pages long, with ads occupying about a quarter of that space, at least once a week. On good days, it’s a few pages long, but with even more ads.
Another example: Canada, to my knowledge, has only one magazine devoted to dance (the other one folded earlier this year). Moreover, if I enter into small talk about something arts related, it’s usually a movie, TV show, or pop artist, and rarely about relatively unknown shows or acts.
So why become an arts impresario? Good question.
Music and Pop Culture
It’s probably easiest to see the development of pop culture through music: the Dave Clark Five has a vastly different sound from Drake. But that could only happen because those artists (and the thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, between them) learned and experimented to develop an audience.
In the world of the performing arts, like dance and theatre, it’s impresarios who help bring this experimentation to the fore to expose these artists to a broader audience than the artists could do by themselves.
Dvoretsky and Experimentation
For Dvoretsky, that experimentation often is bringing Russian artists to Canada. These names in the Russian world are huge, and yet they may be unknown to us, meaning we’re much less likely to go.
But this year, Dvoretsky brought a world-famous name to Toronto: Mikhail Baryshnikov. The show was called Brodsky/Baryshnikov.Which you’d think would have the entire dance world flocking to Toronto.
But Baryshnikov wasn’t here to dance; he was performing poetry by Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, a friend of his, in Russian. Although Baryshnikov was no newbie to acting, he has always first and foremost been known as a dancer.
So, Baryshnikov in a one-man show in Russian about poetry?
Dvoretsky’s risk paid off: according to The Toronto Star, all four shows sold out.
Dvoretsky’s Latest Risk: Clowning
The latest show Dvoretsky is bringing to Toronto is called Slava’s Snowshow. Its package may be unfamiliar and “untrendy” to many viewers: instead of talking actors, the show’s stars are clowns. Instead of a well-known story, none is advertised. And yet, despite these problems, the show has been on the road since 1993 (with breaks in between, of course), spent six years on Broadway, called London’s West End home for a time, and has performed in dozens of countries around the world. It’s won a Drama Desk Award and Laurence Olivier Award and in 2009 was nominated for a Tony Award.
Clowning is an art form that, as I understand it, connects the deepest parts of the performer with their audience. Clowning is perhaps less about putting on a personality, the way stage acting is, and more about bringing out something hidden within you and sharing it with the audience. Some people have fears of clowns, others consider them relics of a bygone era.
But not Dvoretsky.
To present art, you have to be confident in what you’re presenting, and Dvoretsky’s confidence about this show is unshakeable.
“This show makes people kinder, at least for a little while,” she says. “That is guaranteed. Those two hours are guaranteed. The rest is up to the person. It’s an emotional and visual spectacle. It’s really, really amazing.”
And emotional, visual spectacle that guarantees to make you a kinder person, at least for those two hours.
Sounds like the perfect, snowy, winter night, doesn’t it? Only you get to sit in the comfort of a warm theatre, sharing the experience with thousands of others.
Slava’s Snowshow runs December 7 to 16, 2018 in the Bluma Appel Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.
Allard didn’t start learning flamenco dance until she was 19, an age by which many professional dancers start their careers. She moved to Spain when she was 21 and studied flamenco intensively for six years.
What Is Flamenco?
“First and foremost, flamenco is an expression of a people, the southern Spanish Gypsies,” she explains. “It’s a voice of their struggle.”
If you’ve only seen flamenco, whether on television or on stage, you likely think first of the dramatic form of dance, usually done by women draped in elegant dresses with frills. However, Allard explains that it actually started with song.
“It’s songs of pain, but also of joy. So, it’s really a sub-culture that was really, for a long time, put aside, and they were actually for some time not even allowed to sing,” Allard says. “So, the voice comes first, and then the guitar came, the rhythms, the dance.”
When the Body Doesn’t Fit the Type
As an artistic director and choreographer, though, Allard must add her own voice to this old art form, so she began with her body. As a blue-eyed woman who stands 5’9”, she is not physically what the average viewer likely imagines when they think of a flamenco dancer.
“I’m physically not at all Spanish looking or Gypsy looking,” she says. “So, I have to really somehow adapt from the very start of my studies. I had to adapt the movement to my body, which wasn’t short.”
Adapting an art form, though, doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel works and leaving the rest behind. It’s still important to learn the basics.
Always, Always, Always, Start a A
“I trained in traditional flamenco, because it’s the only thing you can train in, and I believe very strongly in knowing your ABCs before actually doing poetry. You can’t start from poetry, you have to know the words,” Allard says.
I feel very strongly about that in any form of art. It’s not to bore you: after all, who gets a high from practicing straight lines and squares of dots when you first begin to draw? Or from doing more pliés in one month of ballet classes than you eat chocolate in a year?
The point is that those basics strengthen you to carry out your art with fewer errors down the road. In the case of drawing, those errors may mean inaccurate lines. In the case of ballet, those errors can be injuries.
The Basic Structure = Your New Language
There’s another reason, though, for focusing on those basic structures, whatever your form: you learn the form’s language, which is what allows you that new channel of expression. Even if you choose to write, you are still learning a new language, because the forms that typically make for strong writing are different than those that work for a wonderful conversationalist.
It’s the language of flamenco that allowed Allard the freedom to begin experimenting. Her company’s name means “the other shore.” Not only is she located in Montreal, Canada, on the other side of the Atlantic from Spain, but she also experiments with flamenco. When you watch this video, can you see the language of flamenco breaking through the fur cap and exposed pregnant belly?
Flamenco for Today
“I see flamenco as a a very contemporary art,” Allard says, “because I see I’m doing this today in 2018, so I don’t think I have to wear a skirt with frills, I don’t think I have to wear a flower in my hair. If I feel like it, I will, but for me that’s not a code I feel I have to respect, if I can use that word. I’m very free that way. If I want to wear trousers, I will.”
Even just by wearing pants, Allard’s choreography changes.
“As women in flamenco would traditionally wear long skirts, it makes movement rounder, and it also makes for a prop because you’re actually touching the skirt and using it in the movement and it gives volume to a movement. When you have pants on, you don’t have that volume, you don’t have round, it’s all angles. When I work with pants on, I go for angles.”
For Allard, flamenco’s core is a raw emotion, one that borders on ugliness. She explains further:
“There’s that very fine line between something that is beautiful and something that is ugly. When you watch a flamenco singer, the expression on the face sometimes is very intense. For somebody it can be very ugly to look at, but I find that very beautiful.”
There is no ideal age to start flamenco. Allard has students well into their senior years who, she feels, have a stronger wisdom about their body than younger students may have. She suggests taking advantage of this wisdom: if you are older, you do what you can, you don’t push.
If starting dance is on your mind, just find an adult class taught by a qualified instructor and sign up. If that’s too much for you, though, maybe get out to see more performances, even ones you’re not sure you’ll like. (Something we discussed in the previous post, with Trevor Copp.)
And if you’re in Toronto from October 2-6, catch Fall for Dance North, where Allard’s company will be performing, be sure to get tickets (only $15 each) and enjoy the rawness and intensity that is traditional flamenco dance.
Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.
The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”
He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”
Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.
Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity
Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.
“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.
I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.
So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.
“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”
Afraid of the Negative?
Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.
(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)
As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.
Neil Gaiman on Arthur
If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’sArthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.
Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.
In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).
(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)
But You Don’t Have to Publish
Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.
And that’s totally fine!
But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.
Vulnerability and Art
Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.
“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.
Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.
And again, that’s okay!
Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.
“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”
Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot
As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.
“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”
Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.
“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).
“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”
Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first forpersonal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.
In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.
“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”
Creativity = Art + Life
For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.
“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”
So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.
That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.
When I turned 40, I suddenly cared about aging. Always active in my younger years through dance, and proudly displaying a photo of me doing the splits still at age 37, turning 40 suddenly made me realize my body was changing. So when I spoke with Bonnie Masina, who started dancing flamenco at age 50, I was all ears.
Flamenco is a passionate, emotional dance form for both men and women and has its own style of musical accompaniment. I’ve seen flamenco dances on and off over the years, thought right now the music for the flamenco routine from Riverdance is playing in my mind.
One thing I’ve noticed is the age range of female flamenco dancers. (I feel like I see more pictures of female dancers because of the beauty of their dresses.) Coming from your standard North American background, seeing an older female dancer is rare.
The Body Changes As You Age
But starting flamenco at age 50 is not something I hear of too often. Granted, Masina did compete in ballroom and Latin dance in her youth, but she says she stopped when she was 20 because of kids and, well, life. Getting back into dance after a 30-year hiatus can’t be easy.
But that’s not as remarkable as the rest of Masina’s story. She worked for decades in IT, eventually reaching IT Manager and working extensive hours, which she describes as 24/7. From all those hours glued to a computer, she’d developed rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders and spinal problems resulted in pain in several of her fingers. Over time, she’d lost the ability to raise her arms past her shoulders and to articulate those three fingers: they started functioning as one because years of bad posture had begun pinching things. (I’m fighting the beginnings of that kind of job-related injury.) In addition, a broken toe had broken through the bottom of her foot and healed that way.
These may sound like minor inconveniences. After all, we’re used to hearing about catastrophic accidents to get our attention. However, this is how aging works: bit by bit, the story of your life grows into your body. But instead of the sexy scar across the adventure-movie star’s face, it’s little aches and pains that start to change how you move. I’m over 10 years younger than Masina, and I’ve already noticed it, too.
Flamenco at Fifty
Masina’s hectic work schedule inspired her to seek out its complete opposite: dance. She sought out something Latin but didn’t want a partner. So flamenco it was. She registered with Carmen Romero’s School of Flamenco Dance Arts in Toronto. Masina learned quickly the need to leave work at work and focus on her dancing.
“If you let the outside world in, you’ll mess up,” she says.
Masina didn’t let her injuries get in the way. When Romero tried to push Masina’s arms up, Romero said, “Oh my gosh, you’re stuck!” Masina recalls. “I wanted to be unstuck and I knew dance and repetitively doing it and trying to do things better would help. I can now pull my arms all the way beside my ears.”
Masina even found a way to deal with her improperly healed foot: orthotics with a hole for her bone and, with Romero’s help, special flamenco shoes with a lower heel.
But unlike those products-for-the-aging commercials that make it seem like aging is a picnic, Masina explains it took her a while to dance properly. “But I was determined I was not going to not dance because of one stupid bone in my foot,” she says.
Over time, Masina sought chiropractic treatment and therapy for her fingers, and with Romero, who’s also a brain-injury therapist, regained almost complete use of those three fingers. She also learned how to balance better so she wouldn’t aggravate her foot.
Age Doesn’t Matter With Flamenco
Flamenco has become a sort of second life for Masina, and she’s adamant that you can start at any age and at any ability level.
“I don’t think it matters what your age is, dance can help you, even if it’s just having fun,” she says. She’s even taught flamenco at a senior’s home. “You can dance in a chair. You don’t have to be all over the dance floor to enjoy dance.”
Picking up dance can be done at any age and at any ability. When my chiropractor told me the pain I’d been experiencing for months in a joint in my toe was osteoarthritic pain, I thought I’d never be able to dance again. Mind you, I don’t dance every year, but the thought of never is a bit much. However, after talking with Masina, I might revisit that.
[grey_box]The Little KW Flamenco Fest takes place this weekend, running July 31-August 2 at various locations. The program includes workshops (disclosure: some are held at my sister’s studio), and they’re open to all.[/grey_box]
With Change on the Horizon, Cadilla Moved Towards It
Life is full of transitions, and I won’t bore you with a list of all the usual ones. But as you explore your creativity, remember that transitions can happen here, too. Bored with painting? Try writing. Need to move more? Try dancing. Need to move less? Try painting. Professional creatives go through transitions, too, and if they’re lucky, it’s by choice. For Alejandro Álvarez Cadilla, creator of the new CBC mini-series mockumentary Off Kilter, that’s what happened.
Reaching Dreams Early
Cadilla had reached the height of his professional dance career, dancing as a principal dancer for Nacho Duarto in Spain.“It was like a dream come true,” Cadilla says of getting that job back in 2004. But three years into his dream job, things began to change. Cadilla started to get a little bored with performing on stage and knew he needed something more fulfilling. Moreover, he knew he’d have to transition eventually—all dancers do—and he didn’t want to wait for his body to give up first.
Just by chance, Cadilla took a script-writing class, where he had to write and film a short autobiographical film on whatever he wanted to. Being a stage professional himself, he filmed a short on stage fright.
“I just had a crappy camcorder and I edited it on iMovie, and it did really well in film festivals,” he says. That’s when he realized he had an eye for framing and a knack for storytelling. “So I really became curious.”
Cadilla continued dancing for another year or two and opted to try acting. But even after completing one year at the Oxford School of Drama, something was still missing.
“As much as I enjoy performing—I’d been performing for so long—it wasn’t that I didn’t find it fulfilling, it’s that I was kind of tired of being on the the receiving end of someone else’s opinion as it pertains to whether I was going to get a job or not.”
The Main Difference for Cadilla Between On Stage and Off Stage
Performers are all subject to the same process: being selected isn’t just based on their ability. As aware as I was of that (and it was part of the reason I didn’t want to even attempt a professional dance career), it stared me in the face a few years ago when I took my son to see the So You Think You Can Dance tour. Suddenly, the camera wasn’t there to “smoothen things out” and each dancer’s true strengths and weaknesses shouted at me like a seller at a market.
“You can’t pitch yourself as an actor or dancer,” Cadilla says, “but it works as a writer because you pitch a project. Everyone’s looking for a good story, so that gave me much more of an outlet.”
The thing with transitions is that they don’t have to be all or nothing, and they weren’t for Cadilla. Although not all of his productions involve dance, Off Kilter is a comedy set in the dance world, and Cadilla draws heavily from his experiences.
Bringing Dance in Front of the Camera
“I wanted anything related to dance, anything that happens in the studio, I wanted it to be something that a real dancer looks at and says, ‘Okay, that’s really what happened. That’s really what they say. That’s really what they do. That’s really the workflow.’”
If all I’d heard about the new series was that it was a dance comedy, I likely wouldn’t have tuned in. Sure, a comedy about the dance world is new, but I find almost all dance shows are about some young dancer trying to make it. For example:
Center Stage: 12 teens enrol in the American Ballet Academy and aspire to future dance careers.
Billy Elliot: a young boy from a mining town tries to get in to the Royal Ballet .
A Chorus Line: lots of dancers audition for a few spots in a show.
There’s Dance Academy, Save the Last Dance (the protagonist wanted to be a professional dancer until things were cut short), Black Swan (she wants the lead in Swan Lake), Dirty Dancing, Flashdance…the list goes on. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s generally the plot line.
Off Kilter is Definitely On Topic
Instead of giving us more of the above but just funny, Cadilla took what he had seen in the dance world and fed it into these eight short episodes. For example, you’ll see an “old” ballerina (she’s only 39) whose body is starting to break down on her, but she has to support a child at home and deal with her ex-husband’s young new girlfriend.
“I enjoyed Black Swan,” Cadilla says, “but I can tell you that there isn’t a single soloist at the American Ballet Theatre that lives at home with her mom in a pink room with teddy bears. Those women are made of hardened steel because at a company like ABT or The National [Ballet of Canada], the workload is so intense.”
And instead of focussing the show on a young dancer, Cadilla turned the lens on to an aging choreographer, played by Cadilla himself, trying to make a comeback after a plagiarism scandal in the 90s.
I found the whole take refreshingly creative.
How Does Cadilla Create?
So let’s bring this post to a close with my favourite question: Does Cadilla have any last thoughts on creativity before we finish our interview?
“One thing that’s really important for me in terms of how I create is that I always take the time to not do anything. The way that I write is that I sit down and just start writing. And I take pauses. I’ll have a cup of coffee, and I’ll think.”
Although Cadilla understands the allure and the need of social media, he’s not big on it himself.
“If we’re constantly looking for that chemical stimuli we get whenever we get a like on something, you’re never going to be able to slow down and let your own creativity develop. Because it’s a slow process. It’s something that takes the time to just sit down and ponder,” he says.
I told him how much I agreed with him. One change I made several years ago was to stop watching TV while in the kitchen, even if I was washing dishes. It lets me mull over problems I’m experiencing in my own creative projects, and, maybe more importantly, lets my brain not think about something for a change.
(I still watch something if I’m ironing, though: that one’s hard to give up.)
As you explore your creative side, don’t be afraid to try different creative outlets. Creativity flows through us from one medium to the next, and Cadilla has embraced that flow fully.
Getting hooked on to a group part way through their career is liking getting sucked into a syndicated novel series like Nancy Drew. You get to discover what came before while you wait for what comes next.
Last night, I got to see two musicians who are now in their 70s, and who hooked me in with their kooky, psychedelic 60s TV show when I was 9 (which was in the 80s): Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz.
A lot of artists don’t make it as far as they have, and if theatre seats in Kitchener are any indication, the theatre didn’t sell out. It was likely about 80% full, mind you, but it didn’t sell out. (The Centre In The Square seats about 2,000.) That’s likely a long way down the audience attendance meter from the 60s, when the Monkees were selling out stadiums.
But is creativity really about that? About always filling out stadiums? Or is it about getting to a point in your life where you can be you, in all your glory and fame. Dolenz’s voice was going: you could hear it. Now, that could be age or the fact that Kitchener was late on the 16-stop tour and his voice was just giving up. I’ll leave any technical critiques to trained singers here. But I still saw Dolenz performing Dolenz so much so that I imagined that curly head he had in the 60s was just hiding under his broad-brimmed cowboy hat, and his voice sounded so much better than when he was young, as though he trusted himself more, despite the limitations.
Nesmith’s sense of humour popped up at the best times, in small doses that made you want more of him. He’s an artist who knows just when to show off and when to pull back, leaving the biggest moment when he shouted out, “Listen to the band!” and the 12-piece band behind him cranked it. Nesmith’s humour even showed in his sparkly shoes that stood on stage in stark contrast to his black outfit. I’d love to see him in a solo concert some day.
When I wrote up some of the marketing material for the concert (the theatre is one of my clients), as soon as I realized they show was being billed as “The Mike and Micky Show,” I did my best to produce advertising the reflected them as individual artists. Maybe I should’ve emphasized The Monkees banner more to fill in those last rows.
But every artist has a unique voice, and I wanted to respect that in these two. Yes, they got a spot in a boy band because they succeeded at Hollywood auditions. But they’re still loved by many because of the individual careers they’ve forged for themselves, the creative paths they set out on, and, one must admit, the teams that support them in their work, both as soloists and as The Monkees.
That means that for my creative work, and for yours, we need to find a space where the basics of our art forms meet the voices that live in our hearts and want to be heard.
It’s another Hollywood cliché (I seem to be taking a lot of digs at Hollywood lately): the loner who wants to risk it all for his (sometimes her) goal, and no matter what anyone says, he (sometimes she) will punch through all that negativity and succeed. But is that what real creativity looks like?
“I do my best work in collaboration,” says risk-taking Toronto-based producer, director, and artistic director Mitchell Cushman.
Cushman is anything by the stereotypical loner who’ll risk it all. When speaking with him on the phone, he sounded…normal. You know, conversational, a little introspective, comfortable talking about work. And then there’s this thing called collaboration—a word usually saved for job descriptions—that he thrives on.
Working With Humans
For Cushman, collaboration is his path to dreaming big. Not big as in lots of money (though maybe he wants that), and not big as in a huge house (but maybe he wants that, too), but big as in big ideas.
No, this wasn’t Goethe’s Faust plays rebooted; it was a site-specific production that was staged in an old three-storey, 20,000-square-foot school building, with different scenes taking place in different rooms throughout the entire space. Audience members could roam about and peer in on any scene they wanted to. A bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but you could decide when the adventure continued.
The crazy idea is called The Curious Voyage, costs between $1,950 and $3,600 plus flights and meals, and spans two continents. My first thought was, “Theatres have a hard time selling tickets for $35 a piece sometimes. Who’s going to pay this much for a theatre show?”
The Risk: “The Curious Voyage”
And that’s where the risk comes in. The Curious Voyage is a three-day experience that immerses the audience in a theatrical experience that starts in Barrie, Ontario, on day 1. On day 2, they’re shuttled to Pearson International Airport, where they’ll fly to London, England. On day 3, they’ll get to watch a Tony Award-winning musical, whose title is being kept a secret.
I told Cushman that I don’t know if I would jump on board for that kind of price. What if the musical was Kiss of the Spider Woman? That’s the last musical I’d want to spend over $4,000 on.
“I can tell you it’s not Kiss of the Spider Woman, if that’s scaring you off,” he said. Whether to advertise the musical or keep it a secret was debated, but keeping it zipped was the final decision.
“We’re offering them an unexpected experience where you should never know what’s going to happen next,” Cushman explains. “We felt that our potential to get underneath people’s skin with the project would be a lot stronger if they didn’t know what they were in for.”
Before you worry if you’re about to be slimed on stage in front of your fiancée or asked to eat cheese curds like a cat, the FAQ for the show confirms that, although audience members are meant to participate in the experience, no one will be asked to do anything potentially demeaning or embarrassing.
Details of a Big Project
Cushman’s job in this wild adventure is to direct The Musical That Must Not Be Named, in London. Director Daniele Bartolini will look after the Ontario elements of the production. There’s of course an entire production team involved, with Spivak heading it all. When I asked Cushman about the logistics of pulling off a project like this, he could only say, “A lot of equally enthusiastic, equally crazy people working on it together.”
Not even his musical in London will be “normal.” The little clue he did give me about the musical is that it’s one that normally requires a big theatre and will be staged in a very intimate setting. Audience count is limited to 36 per Curious Voyage (there are several trips).
Granted, most musicals I’ve seen need a big theatre, so that’s not much of a hint. In my mind, I’m thinking Les Mis in my living room perhaps, or Phantom in my office, minus the crashing chandelier. Would either musical be as powerful if you could see everyone’s wig lines? Hmm…
Is There an Audience for This?
Cushman finds it’s hard to make any kind of art, and that it can be harder to find the right people to come and see it. Add such a large ticket price, and your potential audience becomes incredibly small.
“But also, I find that if you’re offering people an experience that they feel like they’re going to remember for the rest of their lives, then you actually start getting people’s attention. The hardest thing in theatre is to be anonymous,” he says.
Audience Expectations May be Changing
I associate theatre with leaving the house, sitting in some large, cavernous room, and sitting back and enjoying the show. But Cushman thinks times have changed.
“There’s all sorts of research, especially for the Millennial generation, that people are spending less money on physical things and more money on experiences,” he says. He believes the time could not be better to offer immersive theatre, because it harnesses the power of the live performance.
Cushman + Big Ideas = Collaboration
But it takes a lot of work—and a lot of collaboration—to pull off ideas like these. His work with Tepperman on Brantwood took place over two years, beginning with three months in an apartment working out the concept. More collaborators entered the scene after those three months.
“It’s about surrounding yourself with the right artists who all have equal buy-in and all have different vantage points, so that every part of the piece is an integrated experience,” he explains.
Collaboration for Your Art
This blog is meant to help you explore your own creativity. In recent months, I’ve introduced you to several professional creators, talked about their work, and given you a glimpse into their creative world. How do you approach your art? Is it in the closet, where no one can see it? Do you talk to anyone about it? Ask anyone for help?
Mitchell Cushman can create big precisely because he collaborates so much. He has an extensive history of immersive and site-specific productions and some pretty big ideas. “So Spivak knew I wouldn’t be scared off by the scope of what he was looking to do.”
Don’t let your big ideas scare you off. Finding the right people to help move your creation along can give you the confidence you need to pull it off.
Talk Is Free Theatre presents: The Curious Voyage
October 23 to November 10, 2018
Performances begin every second day
$1,950 single / $3,600 double plus flights & meals
Last time, I talked about how art isn’t only about those Hollywood-movie moments of inspiration, that ideas can take time to develop. But why? What makes it so difficult to develop an idea? Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Ivanochko’s work can provide us with the answer.
Exploring Complex Ideas
It’s the exploration process. Art is exploration. Creativity, whether in art, at your job, or in your kid’s notebook doodles, is exploration. For Ivanochko, that meant spending several years developing two pieces, Mirror Staging the Seeing Place and Modern Woman in Search of Soul, showing at The Citadel in Toronto from June 6-9, 2018.
“These works are just what I’m thinking about,” she said in our phone interview.
So, what is she thinking about? Women and the stereotypes surrounding their bodies. It’s a complex, centuries-old theme that can’t be pulled apart and thrown onto a stage in a matter or hours or over a weekend. Mirror Staging took a solid two years to complete, Ivanochko told me, and she developed Modern Woman on and off over four years.
Experimenting With Exploration
Exploration #1: Mirror Staging the Seeing Place
In Mirror Staging the Seeing Place, independent dance artist Kristy Kennedy dances most of the performance facing a wall of mirrors in the dance studio. The audience, able to see themselves, of course, too, sees Kennedy’s body captured and reflected by the mirror.
Ivancohko described it as a dancer dancing, that there’s nothing theatrical about this piece. “It’s a dancer performing dance moves and also movement that a person would recognize as kind of typical behaviour of certain people,” she said.
Exploration #2: Modern Woman in Search of Soul
The second piece performed that evening, by award-winning Toronto Dance Theatre member Alana Elmer, is Modern Woman in Search of Soul, “the angry sister” to Mirror Staging.
“It’s text-driven, and the dancer verbally solicits and kind of directs the audience to describe what the dancer is doing,” Ivanochko explained. This performance is the piece’s world première and will be live-streamed by renowned choreographer, filmmaker, and creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki.
As you can probably tell, these are both experimental pieces and Ivanochko is quick to point out that she’s working “with an outstanding team.” But notice that she doesn’t shy away from grand ideas like these. Even when she was turned down for funding for one of the pieces, she didn’t stop. Her application to the Quebec Arts Council was refused. “The feedback from one of the jury members at that point was that the topic was cliché. Which is appalling when you consider what’s going on now,” she said.
#metoo, Women, and Stereotypes
Both shows could not be shown at a better time. Although the #metoo movement carries sadness in it, it also carries triumph: women are speaking up about a subject that has long been pushed back to hushed corners of our society. Artists like Sasha Ivanochko are now bringing these topics to the fore.
But if you’re expecting the pieces to be loud statements about the ordeals of women, Ivanochko emphasizes they aren’t: “The dancers are really deeply embodying these ideas. So, it doesn’t come across as superficial. And, generally, with Mirror Staging, because it has been performed twice now for audiences, and we’ve done studio showings for Modern Woman, people are generally quite moved by the dancers as they allow these stereotypes to pass through their bodies.”
Pass through their bodies. I like that: it’s a way of describing that these stereotypes exist but it also acknowledges they don’t have to be permanent.
“These works aren’t for women, they aren’t for men,” she emphasizes. They are an exploration of her thoughts on the subject of stereotypes and women.
Exploring Takes Time and Patience
Which brings us back to where we started: exploration and Ivanochko’s thoughts.
Maybe you explore your personal life through writing in your journal. Or perhaps you explore different ideas in your graphic designs. Maybe your topic of exploration is relationships, and that’s why you love acting when time allows for it.
But at some point in time, you plateau, you feel as though your creativity has hit an impasse and fear won’t develop any further. That’s where I’d encourage you to explore even more.
If you’re struggling to find your creative voice, remember that professionals take years to develop theirs. Do not use that observation to knock you down, á la “I’ll never get this right.” (Was it Grover who’d smash his head into the piano in frustration?) Use it as encouragement: “I need to be patient with myself. I have a full-time job and family responsibilities, but I can do this. It’ll just take some time.”
When Ivanochko started out, she found she had too many things to say, and an early mentor told her she needed to focus. But with time, she learned to have patience and trust her instinct.
Mirror Staging and Modern Woman are the result of that trust. She ignored the feedback from one grant committee juror and continued to explore these ideas, simply because she felt compelled to.
If you’re stuck in front of your medium of choice, whether it be a piece of paper, a computer screen, a music or dance studio in your basement or elsewhere, and you’re stuck in a rut of ideas, give yourself time to explore. What do you think about the topic at the centre of your creation?
One myth I want to take down with this interview is the romanticized image of inspiration. Yes, we all get eureka moments: I have plenty of them. However, in my case, they’re never actually good ideas. Instead, those moments of inspiration are actually doors to the real idea, but I get too caught up in those moments to make use of the gateway they are it. (Which hurts when you realize you need to delete half your novel because it’s full of eureka moments.)
Laurence Lemieux also puts to bed the myth that inspiration comes in a flash of lightning. She’s the artistic director of Citadel+Compagnie and the choreographer of Looking for Elvis, which plays at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018, alongside renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s work The Man in Black.
The idea for Looking for Elvis began back in 2012, when Lemieux travelled to Graceland as part of a road trip to Nashville with her daughter to celebrate a milestone birthday.
“It was not at all what I thought it would be,” Lemieux says about Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. She was expecting a mansion. “And you get there and it’s a little home.” (I agree with her: I had the same experience when I visited in my teens.)
But visiting Graceland opened up her artist’s mind: “I could imagine living in that home, because even though it was the 70s, it was really cozy. And I was like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’ I wanted to know more about Elvis.”
It’s not that Lemieux didn’t know who he was—she has always been a fan but “not like a crazy fan,” she says. But who was the man behind the performer?
She believes all performers experience what Elvis must have experienced, though admittedly usually to a smaller extent.
“You do a great show, people clap, you take a bow, you feel like a million bucks, you take your make-up off, you go home, and, you know, you eat a sandwich. The glamour is really sometimes in the moment on stage and then your life is actually not that,” she says.
Even though the question was planted with this visit, Lemieux says she didn’t have the idea at that time to choreograph a show that would answer it. She did listen to more of his music, but not even then did she have the moment of inspiration. It took a commission from another local dance company before she realized she might be on to something. Later, when Kudelka was remounting The Man in Black, Lemieux felt the two pieces would complement each other nicely for a show.
Lemieux never saw Elvis in a negative light. He wasn’t “fat” or “tacky” in her mind. Instead, she believes Elvis had a talent, and everyone wanted to make money off him: “They want money, so they want him to perform. So the damage that does to the person himself, that’s what I wanted to look at,” Lemieux says. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating: Michael Jackson, Prince, and many more.
To Lemieux, if Elvis were an office worker, he would have probably been sent home for a few weeks to rest and recuperate. I’d have to agree with her on that: a sick employee could actually cost a company money, whereas sending them home for awhile and having their short-term disability insurance cover the bill would save money. With performers, it’s the opposite: A performer can really be “here today, gone tomorrow,” and if the performer doesn’t perform, then the entourage doesn’t get paid.
Each choreographer has their own way of working. Some know exactly what they want and direct the dancers accordingly, whereas others have ideas in their mind and work with the dancers to embody those ideas on stage. Lemieux’s style more closely matches the latter group. She directs the movement but has her dancers find their own personal journey through it. “But I tell them emotionally where it should be sitting,” she says. “I tell them who they are in that moment and what they should be thinking. So, I give them a lot of feedback on their character more than the actual steps. Sometimes I think I direct them more like I would an actor.”
Kudelka has been the resident choreographer at Citadel+Compagnie for ten years now. Former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, the New York Times has called him “ballet’s most original choreographer.” The Man in Black, though, is not what comes to mind when you think of ballet. A homage to Johnny Cash, the work’s backbone is four dancers in cowboy boots. In contrast to Looking for Elvis, which Lemieux describes as more emotional, The Man in Black is Kudelka’s response to the music as a score. (Kudelka was not available for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him how the idea for this piece came about.)
The beauty of creativity is exploration: Lemieux describes one sequence in The Man in Black where Kudelka explores what cowboys would do if they had to dance. (Picturing Clint Eastwood trying to line dance makes me smile.) In Looking for Elvis, Lemieux choreographed a sequence where one dancer embodies Las Vegas Elvis, with all the bling, and she puts a microscope on what happens once he begins to falter: some of his friends turn their back on him, ignore him.
Inspiration doesn’t always come with a flash of lightning or a crescendo in orchestral music. It sometimes comes to us slowly, seeping via little windows into our minds until something pushes us to create a whole out of the pieces. If you find yourself frustrated with your own creative endeavours, see if you’re waiting for that eureka moment. Because if you are, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The world around you is already speaking to you, and those ideas are already in your head, waiting to be expressed. Lemieux works her ideas out on her dancers, and just like her, you can work your ideas out in your art form. That’s where you’ll find your creativity. And your inspiration.
Looking for Elvis and The Man in Black will be showing at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018. Tickets are available here.
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