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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. 

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Evelyn Hart in “Love, Sex & Brahms” by James Kudelka

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The cast from #lovesexbrahms, 2015 (clockwise): Andrew Burashko (piano), Louis Laberge-Côté, Evelyn Hart, Victoria Mehaffey, Andrew McCormack, Tyler Gledhill, Luke Garwood, Bill Coleman. Photo credit: John Lauener.

“If you went to a salon in the olden days, for example, or a house concert, and you just listened to music and you’re there and you’re experiencing the music and you’re experiencing the people around you…it’s like that.”

 

That’s how Evelyn Hart, the former principal dancer of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, described the new James Kudelka show she is in: Love, Sex & Brahms, a presentation by Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie (CLC). I chatted with Evelyn over the phone on Wednesday about the show.

Love, Sex & Brahms

A collection of vignettes about love and relationships, Love, Sex & Brahms is an expanded version of Kudelka’s Dora Award-winning #lovesexbrahms, with each vignette set to an intermezzo by the German composer Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

The vignettes are not entirely separate from each other nor entirely connected, and sometimes the characters come together and sometimes they don’t. “But the relationship in the music is what we’re painting,” Hart said.

Although the same characters may return to the stage, they’ll relate to the other characters in a different way. Hart said, “It really is that each time the music starts, it’s like watching a scene and the relationships in that scene.”

The show takes place at the Betty Oliphant Theatre of Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which seats just over 250, making this an intimate performance, a concept Hart said Kudelka is keenly interested in. It also seems like a fitting venue based on her descriptions of the set: a piano and chandelier. The only other item on the stage is a carpet made of light that changes with each piece.

“The lighting designer was quite brilliant,” she said. “So that defines the dancing space and the room that we’re in.”

Evelyn Hart on Stage

Hart enjoyed a 30-year-long career at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the vast majority of it as their headlining prima ballerina. Although she retired from dance over a decade ago, she still searches out opportunities to perform on stage, even if it doesn’t involve long series of fouetté turns and big passés.

Hart still does barre everyday. However, she does admit that retiring from dance was a grieving process for her. And yet, in this production, she says, ”I certainly didn’t feel that I wasn’t dancing. In my limited capacity, what it felt was it’s all the emotion through movement.”

Which is exactly what Kudelka is exploring, according to Hart: “He keeps saying, ‘It’s more like actors dancing.’ […] He wanted people to be very real. We’re not trying to be dancers per se.”

Hart always welcomes opportunities to perform again: “It’s an incredibly fulfilling thing to be able to go out on stage.”

Kudelka, Puppets, & Dance

It’s not just humans the audience will see on stage. Kudelka has previously explored puppetry, an experiment he is continuing with Love, Sex & Brahms: In 2014, he choreographed and performed a show called Malcolm, which involved an eponymous puppet and was a far cry from the puppetry of children’s shows many may be used to.

The Globe & Mail wrote of Malcolm, ““The piece is also a tender portrait of the human condition, in turn loving, jealous, amused and bewildered.”

The Toronto Star gave Malcolm 4/4 stars: “It might seem odd for Kudelka, acclaimed for such spectacular National Ballet productions as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Cinderella, to resort to puppetry, but then Kudelka has always been a little odd — in the most theatrically stimulating ways. And he’s no stranger to puppetry, having portrayed a mad inventor who believes he can infuse life into a cherished mechanical doll in the ballet Coppélia.”

The Star explained that puppetry has been making a resurgence, citing Crystal Pite’s fascination with the art form and a 2009 Canadian Opera Company production “that created theatre magic by deploying puppets.”

Who Is Sarkis?

The puppet in Love, Sex & Brahms is Sarkis, a clothed, bald, child-like creation.

“The puppet is the way that they speak to each other; the thing that keeps them apart or that pulls them together. It’s quite interesting,” she said. “Everybody in each piece deals with the puppet in a different way.” She says he is simply another person in the room; sometimes the whole focus is on him, and sometimes he just sits there, watching.

The show is about 40 minutes long and runs from March 16 – 19. Tickets are only $25 ($20 for artists, students, and seniors). I’m certainly going to try and make it. For full information, visit Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie).

“It’s very quiet, but there’s drama in it, there’s beauty in it, there’s love,” Hart said. Sounds like a wonderful evening to me.