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How to Understand Contemporary Dance Shows

Last year, I watched Yvonne Ng once dance a duet with Robert Glumbek at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ontario. It was called “Stone Velvet,” and is a well-known piece within the contemporary dance world.

I loved it. To me, the dance was about taking care of one another. The next day, I fervently searched online for the “real meaning” of the piece. I learned instead that Tedd Robinson, the choreographer, had approached the piece more as a choreographic challenge. In other words, there wasn’t an “intended meaning.” I was disappointed that he wasn’t “trying to say” something. This month, more than a year later, I got a chance to talk to Ng about contemporary dance. As we talked, I realized I needed to adjust how I appreciated this beautiful, varied, and sometimes even controversial dance form.

Yvonne Ng and Robert Glumbek in “Stone Velvet.”

Ng is a dancer, choreographer, presenter, producer, curator, and arts educator. She is the artistic director and creative instigator behind tiger princess dance projects, which has been in operation since 1996, and founded the presentation series dance: made in canada / fait au canada, in 2001.

Contemporary Dance: A Different Kind of Show

If you’ve ever attended a musical, you likely knew the plot before you bought tickets. If you love the dance competitions on TV, each dance has a verbal introduction that shares with you the dance’s background. This is the commercial world, and it makes lots of money, in part because audiences know what to expect and how to interpret it.

Now, imagine going to a show where none of that happens, where it’s the choreographer and their dancers saying, “We have an idea we’ve chosen to explore, we’re going to show it to you, and you can decide if you like it or not. When we’re done, all we ask is that you let others know what you liked and didn’t like and encourage them to come out and see our work for themselves.”

That’s a very different approach from the commercial world, isn’t it?

Give me a few minutes of your time and let me—and Ng—explain why contemporary dance choreography typically works in a different way. With any luck, I hope to entice you to try something new and see a show.

If I Won’t Enjoy it, Why Go?

Ng understands this concern. “We make a lot of art and some people are a little bit worried when they know it’s dance.”

Despite my love of dance, I have to admit that I sometimes feel this way, too, about contemporary dance.

“Contemporary art is challenging because it’s non-linear. It’s a collection of images,” says Ng. She explains that the images do tie together, but it’s not always in a way your brain is used to. In addition, because contemporary artists come from a variety of backgrounds, it’s impossible to approach their work in a single way.

“So sometimes it has a very theatrical feel and sometimes it’s very pure movement and sometimes it’s very minimalist. Not everyone continues to work in the same vein,” she says.

Then How Do I Watch Contemporary Dance?

Ng compares a contemporary dance show with a potluck party: you don’t know what you’re going to get.

This means coming to the show with not only an open mind but also with acceptance that there will be some mystery. Because contemporary dance often revolves around the choreographer’s exploration of an idea, approach the show with a blank mind and see what you see. When Ng goes to a show, she expects to be fed something, but not a narrative.

“I try not to make too much sense of it,” she says. “I just try to absorb it and I find that sometimes a narrative might emerge. Sometimes the creator wants you to get that, but sometimes he just wants you to get that feeling and the sensation of that concept. It doesn’t have to match, word for word, your experience [of it] with the concept.”

Delete Those English Lit Classes from Your Mind

Two men in a contemporary dance piece called Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse.
Dancers of Parts + Labour_Danse in ​La vie attend.​ Photo by Guzzo Desforges. Yvonne Ng curated this as part of the 2019 festival dance: made in canada/fait au canada.

You may remember high school English class, where you thought you had to figure out what the author was trying to say in order to “understand” the book. Because you obviously couldn’t figure that out, you felt like you failed as an English student. The good news is you can let go of that feeling of failure. When you read, just focus on what you see, not what you think the author wants you to see.

It’s the same with dance. Ng believes that the fear many have with contemporary choreography is that they believe there’s one message or intent they’re supposed to understand.

“But I believe for a lot of choreographers and great creators, we’re not wanting you to have the same identical experience,” she explains.

Let’s look at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. If you’ve seen it, did you sit there and ask yourself what Lloyd Webber was trying to say? I imagine not. When I was 14 and saw it for the first time, I was amazed by all of it. Now, in my 40s, I step back and wonder why I love a musical about a narcissistic murderer who stalks a naive woman half his age while terrorizing those who love her, including committing arson. It’s the kind of thriller that would give me nightmares, and yet it never does, because I’m so focused on the love story.

But with women’s voices becoming louder by the day, suddenly a classic musical like Phantom takes on a whole new meaning. And still no one asks: What was Andrew Lloyd Webber actually trying to say with this creation?

So why do we think we have to figure out what a contemporary dance choreographer is “trying to say”?

Contemporary Dance Needs You to Have Your Own Experience

It’s a bit funny when you think about it: We expect so many services and messages to be individualized just to us, yet we still crave entertainment that millions of others have approved.

Contemporary dance creators want you to have your own reaction,  they want you to talk about their work, the good and the bad of it. Whereas commercial dance emphasizes the group, contemporary dance emphasizes the individual. After all, how much can you say when you think the same thing as the person next to you?

(That happened to me in a reading group once. We all loved the book so much that we found it difficult to start a discussion.)

“An audience member should feel there is no obligation that your experience is going to match the person sitting next to you.” 

Yvonne Ng

That comment opened up my eyes. Just like when I was watching “Stone Velvet,” anytime I’ve seen a contemporary dance piece, I have truly wondered if I was missing something that everyone else was getting.

What I was missing was my own thoughts on the show.

“When you bring yourself to the theatre, you are going to bring your previous history. So that informs how you experienced the work that you see,” says Ng.

In other words, contemporary dance wants you to be you, see you, and feel you. It doesn’t expect you to be someone you’re not. You can actually let yourself go, leave your expectations behind, and just experience.

Quite frankly, that sounds refreshing.

Give Contemporary Dance a Few Tries

Contemporary dance choreographers are as unique as your own fingerprints. If you try one and don’t like them, first ask yourself if you entered the theatre with the same expectations you would have of a commercial piece. Then try another contemporary dance choreographer and see how you do or don’t like their work.

However, if you’re still too nervous to take the plunge and pay for a ticket to a show you may not enjoy, check out dance publications, like The Dance Current*, and read reviews and stories about different choreographers. You may find yourself discovering a new form of art that leads you to discover something about yourself.

*Full disclosure: I’ve written for The Dance Current before. However, it’s the only remaining dance magazine that’s about the dance scene in Canada.

dance: made in canada/fait au canada runs August 14-18, 2019. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

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Art is Exploration: Sasha Ivanochko’s Double Bill at The Citadel

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.

Dancer in an angry position against a mirror. From Sasha Ivanochko's
From “Mirror Staging the Seeing Place.” Photo by Tyler Pengelly.

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?

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Inspiration Isn’t a Eureka Moment: Laurence Lemieux’s “Looking for Elvis”

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.

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"
“Look for Elvis.” Photo by John Lauener

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.)

James Kudelka's "The Man in Black." Citadel + Compagnie
“The Man in Black.” Photo by John Lauener

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.