Monday, March 23, 2015

CanAsian Dance Festival 2015 Feature #1: Hong Kong Exile

Hong Kong Exile Arts Association is an interdisciplinary arts company made up of three emerging contemporary artists: Milton Lim (Theatre), Remy Siu (New Music), and Natalie Tin Yin Gan (Dance). These three met as students at Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts and have been consistently creating and producing work since 2011 when the company was formed. Hong Kong Exile creates innovative, collaboratively-made work, investigating the possibilities of interdisciplinary work for their diverse, young voices.
They are joining CanAsian Dance Festival 2015 with their quirky, dynamic work NINEEIGHT. Natalie Gan generously answered my questions about collaboration and creative process.
Hong Kong Exile in rehearsal for NINE EIGHT

LR: How do your (Hong Kong Exile’s) collaborations work — what is the creative process like?

NG: Because of our shared training at Simon Fraser University, Hong Kong Exile collaborations are greatly influenced by devised theatre where there is no script or a pre-determined outcome. There is generally no interest in hierarchy in the room; we improvise and play. We rigorously discuss and debate over nachos. There's usually a lot of laughter and post-it notes.

LR: In descriptions of NINEEIGHT there is a nod to absurdist humour of 90s Hong Kong cinema — how has this influenced this work or how has it manifested in the work?

NG: Mo Lei Tau form and aesthetic is deeply woven into NINEEIGHT. Humour from mo lei tau often emerges out of timing, archetypal character, juxtaposition, and violence--- and I do believe this is all at play in the work. The more time I spent re-watching these movies of my childhood, the more I saw these films as historical artifacts, cultural nuggets and political reflections. Mo lei tau, in painting itself as low-brow humour, has immense capacity to capture the tragic, the ominous, the political. This has been my driving force and primary obsession through the process of NINEEIGHT's creation.

LR: There is also mention of “personal fractures” in your work — can you speak about this? does that mean personal fractures in a general way, or are there stories or experiences very specific to any of you? 

NG: My reference to "personal fractures" is meant more generally. It speaks to shared crises of identity, belonging, and home as result of historical/contemporary legacies of colonialism, mass migration, globalization, war, and more. Of course, for the three of us as second-generation Chinese Canadians, we each are confronted with these fractures in a multitude of ways.

Hong Kong Exile in rehearsal for NINEEIGHT

LR: And how do these fractures emerge in the choreography?

NG: These fractures are imbedded in nostalgia, longing, searching, chasing. Some examples of how NINEEIGHT evokes this: through physical/vocal repetition that manipulates meaning and relationship, through the act of seeking something previously tangible/experienced but is no longer, and through dramatic shifts of scene.

Michelle Liu in Hong Kong Exile's NINEEIGHT

LR: As a team of collaborators you all met at university — how did you know you were a good match for collaborating?

NG: I think that question never crossed our minds, which was why we knew it was a good thing in the making. We found that the three of us had similar formal and conceptual curiosities that we wanted to explore through our art, so the company came together quite organically.

Hong Kong Exile in performance of NINEEIGHT

LR: This is a question I’m asking everyone i interview this year: can you tell me about one performance you saw that was a game changer for you? one work that shifted your approach to dance/creation/performance? who was it, when, where, why did it impact you or change you?

NG: There is a two-year research project called Migrant Bodies that has brought five choreographers together to travel around the world for residencies in different cities, to research and reflect on migration. When the group most recently stopped off in Vancouver last month, I had the privilege of watching a solo that Lee Su-Feh presented in the theatre lobby of the Scotiabank Dance Centre, on a bed of cedar branches. I could write extensively about how this work affected me, and it could get very ethereal and spiritual...but to answer your questions as plainly as possible, her solo impacted me because of how honest I felt each gesture was, how poetic and painful the content was, and how nothing about it felt like a performance. Instead, it felt like Su-Feh had invited us all to experience something together. It was achingly personal and universal. It made me feel homeless and worry about the salmon.

2015 CanAsian International Dance Festival
April 30 - May 2, 2015 at 8:00pm
Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay West, Toronto

all photos courtesy of Hong Kong Exile

Friday, March 6, 2015

Collaborations: Marie France Forcier on collaborating with trauma, dancers and her soon-to-be-born baby

Marie France Forcier's works have always created intense, moody worlds where humans are  almost exhaustingly human in their ability to manoeuvre and manipulate each other connecting without entwining. The first work I saw of Marie France's made my heart ache in a good way. 

photo of Marie France Forcier by David Hou courtesy of the artist's website

Her recent academic work delving deeply into dance as an artistic embodiment of trauma has taken her approach to an even more intense level. Her upcoming shared program with Tracey Norman in DanceWorks MainStage Series gives us a chance to see how it all comes together. Below are some thoughtful, honest answers to my questions about her process.
     LR: Can you tell me  a little about the collaborations involved in your portion of the upcoming Double Bill show?

MFF:  I am working with composer James Bunton again on this new piece. Over the last decade, our way of working together has evolved from developing our respective materials on parallel tracks to creating common works in a far more integrated ways. When he is in the studio with us, it feels natural for me to check-in with him about choreography-related decisions.

It is a real blessing to work with a collaborator who has an inherent knowledge of my artistry and work’s history. There is much trust in our creative relationship; this enables us to say what’s really on our minds: if one of us disagrees with something the other is proposing, we won’t hesitate to express that and dissect why that is. I think that this type of analytical honesty really helps to specify a product and increase its impact.    

As for my collaborative relationship with the performers, this current process, mostly because of its topic of exploration, is particularly reliant on a feedback loop. Because the work is largely informed by somatic reactivity to re-experiencing or enacting ideas of trauma, I am constantly asking the individual dancers to share what it feels like for them to be within the work, or what their physical instinct might be in reaction to a proposed idea or a certain dancer-to-dancer interaction. I am finding those exchanges really satisfying because it gives the work, a fairly structured affair, a certain dose of performative realism.  


LR: As you are soon to have a baby (congratulations!!) I wonder if you have thoughts about the collaborative process of being a body with another body collaborating inside you? 

MFF: There are many nuances to this “collaboration” I have with my unborn son, and those appear to be largely contingent on context.

I am constantly aware of him; he is a mover and I am rather somatically sensitive, so it is rare that I’ll go about my work for very long before getting a very concrete reminder that he’s involved. Consequently, I’d say that what I’ve produced in the last eight months as a writer or an interpreter has been somewhat informed by his presence. 

I have found the I've been creating and performing rooted in psychological trauma research to be far more challenging these last few months compared to what I have experienced since the beginning of my academic and professional investigation of trauma three years ago. 

My ability to recall post-traumatic states in performance has become somewhat impaired, and I suspect that this has been caused by unconscious attempts on my part to protect my baby from emotional stress.  

Similarly, in the creative process for Scars are All the Rage, I have been far more intellectual than emotional in my decision-making, contrary to my earlier habits. While a healthy dose of instinct and memory has still informed the work, I have been more emotionally detached than normal with my choreography. Strangely, this yielded the most graphic and emotionally distressing piece I ever made.

LR: You are working with dancers with whom you have varying degrees of history — how does that or how has that impacted the creative process?

MFF: It’s been wonderful to work with a fresh arrangement of characters, even if it wasn’t originally the plan.
I’ve tended to work with the same people over time, but one of my long-term collaborators  had a baby, and another one had irreconcilable scheduling conflicts. So Molly (Johnson) ended up being the only one returning; I love to have her in my work. 

I have worked with Justine (Comfort) since she was an undergrad student at York, and Louis (Laberge-Cote) and I have known each other for a long time, having had occasionally been involved in the same projects, but never in a creator-interpreter relationship until now.     
Having the three of them in the process has brought a new set of instincts to the table; this ended up creating a rather fertile environment in which to play. Navigating different experience levels could have been a significant challenge, but this has created an interesting dynamic in the studio.     

LR: What is your current creative process model? What is it like to be in the studio with you? 

MFF: This process has been a little bit of everything…

At this stage, we are wrapping up the work’s creation, so currently the process is fairly directorial and the dancers are refining their interpretation within a solid and established structure. It has been important for me to make sure that the rules I’ve asked them to follow made sense to them, especially because of our subject matter’s delicate nature. So there has been a fair amount of discussion and analysis going on.

However, this past summer, during the initial development phase, there was a fair amount of play. For example, one rehearsal, we ended up creating a 3-minute highly choreographed duet on superheroes with Graham technique as their power; just because that was the kind of mood we were in that day and despite of the fact that we knew from the process’ onset that the work’s aim was to address post-traumatic ideas. 

Of course, no one can identify this superheroes’ duet in Scars’ final version, because it has been stripped and re-contextualized, but it did make it in the final piece. … I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that it is currently important for me to allow for freedom and silliness in processes, because moments of brilliance often come out of goofing around.     


LR: You know anyone reading is this is going to try to find the Graham superheroes at the show. I certainly will be.  This leads nicely to my next question:  In working with ideas and theories surrounding trauma, have you found levity in the process? 

MFF: Yes. I have definitely found levity. Most significantly, I was introduced to the notion of post-traumatic growth (PTG) a few years ago and this changed my outlook on trauma research in general and my own history of trauma in particular. 

Essentially, PTG is a relatively new stream of research in positive psychology, and its premise is that a trauma victim can, following a battle with PTSD, not only return to their pre-trauma level of functioning and well being, but also exceed it by a significant margin moving forward. It’s the old what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger adage, based in scientific research. This discovery made a huge impact on my perception of psychological trauma’s transformative potential, artistically and otherwise.

LR: Can you tell me about one piece of choreography or performance that was profound or game-changing for you? 

MFF: There have been a few along the way. When I still lived in Montreal, about 15 years ago now, I saw a video version of David Earle’s Sacra Conversazione. This made me want to go to the School of TDT.  

And seeing Julia Sasso’s Beauty gave me an appreciation for fluidity and levity in tightly conceived movement, this made me pursue that classical artistic philosophy in my first creative attempts. 

In the recent years, I’ve been mostly shifted by the evocative imagery and the intellectual reasoning behind performance art– and I think that my current interest in the aesthetics of physical discomfort and visual/emotional dissonance originate from there.

Harbourfront Centre Theatre
Thurs. Mar 12 through Sat. Mar 14, 2015 8pm
Marie France Forcier and Tracey Norman (Toronto)
Choreographers: Marie France Forcier & Tracey Norman
Performers: Justine Comfort, Molly Johnson, Jessie Dell, Beth Despres, Brittany Duggan, Sky Fairchild-Waller, Louis Laberge-Côté and Marie France Forcier

Through works aesthetically different but astutely crafted and rich in imagery, local indie favourites Forcier (Scars are All the Rage) and Norman (what goes between) explore the impact of loss and transformation. 

Photos of Scars are All the Rage by Craig Chambers, courtesy of Marie France Forcier

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Collaborations....Tracey Norman and Sky Fairchild-Waller

 Tracey Norman is one of the hardest working, most thoughtful dance artists working Toronto right now. And now she's a new mother to boot. You may have seen candid photos around on social media of Tracey and new baby Pearl in the studio rehearsing her choreography in the Forcier/Norman Double Bill opening at Harbourfront Centre as part of DanceWorks MainStage Series next week. 

I have known and adored Tracey for about ten years and besides my wanting to dance for her, I have been fascinated by the dancers with whom she collaborates and continues to collaborate. In fact seeing Sky Fairchild-Waller dance in Tracey's works spurred me to ask Sky to dance in a new dance work with me. And now I adore him too.

So here's a little interview with the two of them, answering the same questions in their very different ways. They reveal a little of the synergy possible between an intelligent and giving choreographer and a generous and imaginative performer.

LR: How did you, Tracey and Sky, first meet?

TN: We first met when Sky was finishing his BFA and I was doing my MFA at York. 

SFW: I remember this meeting very clearly--we were in tech for the York Dance Ensemble's show, and Tracey had set a work with many of my friends. The piece was sinewy and articulate and featured some of the most beautiful maroon costumes that stage has ever seen.  

LR: What was the first work you collaborated on?

TN: We first collaborated on a work for my concert thesis for my MFA in 2010. The first phase of research and creation took place 5 years ago right now and the work went on through many sporadic creative processes, eventually becoming 43°N 79°W  -  a 30-minute duet for Sky and Jesse Dell. The work means a lot to me and was the first thing I made/collaborated on that I could watch without cringing at certain points or second-guessing my choices.

SFW: I also remember this very clearly--we happened upon each other in the halls of the colossal Accolade East building, and Tracey got right to the point. I think she had seen me perform a duet by Ali Smith, with fellow dancer Brandi Ferreira, and said she was interested in beginning a process together for her thesis.

LR: Tracey: what drew you to Sky? Sky: what draws you to Tracey?

TN: Sky is incredibly honest, analytic and hilarious. I'm drawn to working with people who I feel present me with both challenge and ease in process. Sky is challenging - he asks really interesting questions and is different than other dancers I work with - but he also puts me at ease a lot and is often a person I go to when I'm not sure about something or want to hash something out. He moves in an interesting way and has a strong presence.

SFW: When I was at the National Ballet School, most of us performed Nutcracker ad nauseum in what is now the Sony Centre during the month of December. It was during the 1999 season that I remember, at the ripe age of 11, seeing what being a performer was like; you were seen, and never heard. It was because of that experience that I decided that this was a life I never wanted to have. I never wanted to feel like no one heard what I had to contribute, and what's worse, that no one cared. Working with Tracey, a decade later, epitomizes the polar opposite of these fears and that experience. Tracey's mind is an incredible instrument of composition and consideration, contributing to her incredibly rare skill as a collaborator.

LR: What is the most challenging thing about a long-term collaboration between choreographer-dancer?

TN: When it works well, I don't really find it challenging to be honest. In the past, I sometimes continued to work with people out of loyalty (I'm pretty loyal by nature) and I started to realize they weren't always the best people for the job. So now I try to put myself in check as much as possible and ask - is this the best person for this work? Is our collaboration continuing to flourish?
What can be challenging is that working with long-term collaborators means you're also likely long-term friends and so juggling that can be potentially difficult and being sensitive as a friend is sometimes different than being a sensitive collaborator. 

SFW: Nothing. Unless you consider history a challenge, or the fact that a relationship, and its richness, can be a source of difficulty, but I've never found this to be true. The benefit of time is information, and working with Tracey over the course of five years, and on different projects, has meant that the wealth of insight I have about her and how she's approaching the task of creating is all the more endowed. It's precisely because our relationship's context is so much more bountiful that I feel that what I'm able to provide as an interpreter is all the more potent.

LR: What is the funniest thing that’s ever happened in the rehearsal studio?

TN: There are so many things that have happened… I don't know where to start. We have these running jokes that last through each creative process and they're often the kind of thing that when you tell them to other people, it's not very funny but we're dying laughing in rehearsal. Sky often does weird impersonations - he does one currently where he's Liza Minnelli.... Something that happens often in my rehearsals is that we'll be really seriously working and then someone says something and we all die laughing. 

I like that people feel comfortable to do this in rehearsal and sometimes we talk a lot more than we move - depends on the day. But I really believe that's all a part of the bonding process and that these experiences we have together show up in some way on the stage. Also notable, Sky lost his toenail in a rehearsal several years ago. That wasn't so funny at the time but his impersonation in years after of Jesse's reaction still makes us break down laughing.

LR: I know the toenail story. He told it in one of my rehearsals which led, of course, to me telling my own toe-losing story....and probably the "loss" of half and hour of rehearsal. But I agree these moments builds an ensemble as much as the dancing or rehearsing.

SFW: What Tracey really means to say here is that I have the most bizarre and borderline pathological sense of humour that affixes itself to a word, an accent, a situation, and beats it to death with an awkwardly shaped stick. (Still, Liza will likely be backstage during our shows next week.)

LR: What is the inspiration/theme for your new work Tracey? And how do you both relate to it, get inside it, embody it or interpret it?

TN: what goes between is a work that began with a minimal theme, I'd say. I was interested in further exploring something that is naturally a part of the creative process and our relationships with others - the energy that exists and transforms between people and how it impacts our relationships, decisions and moods. I tried to keep tasks in rehearsal related to reliance on one another or using all of our senses to become aware of each other. Often images would come to me which we implemented and we would build from there. 

During the process I was reading about emotional contagion or synchrony in which one person's thoughts or emotions affect another's. I often thought - oh we should discuss this in rehearsal - but then I'd get there and it wouldn't feel right. I would say of anything I've ever made we spent the least amount of time in this process talking about it. We talked a lot, but not about the theme or starting point.  

SFW: At the risk of sounding trite, what makes this work feel so natural to inhabit as a performer is it's predication on the most pervasive part of being alive, which is how we learn to navigate or coddle or defy or sacrifice each other's psychic and physical experience of living, including all the pleasure and pain associated with it. It's like some sort of psychoemotional anthropology that I can't help but find incredibly fascinating.

LR: How has Tracey’s pregnancy shifted or evolved the creative process together?

TN: For me, I felt horrible in the summer during my first trimester when we were building what goes between and the dancers didn't know yet that I was pregnant. I normally have a process that is comprised of a variety of ways of generating material - improvisation, task-based work and I often bring movement material to rehearsal that we play with and build from. I couldn't really dance during my first trimester - I was constantly nauseous and exhausted - and this was when we built the majority of the material. I had to find other ways of working and so more than ever this piece is about the dancers and the results of their collaborative efforts. 

Luckily, I felt great during my 2nd and 3rd trimesters but the piece was well underway and I liked how we were developing together. I'm guessing Sky will say I wasn't so much fun to work with back in the summer.

SFW: For the record, working with Tracey is always fun--but in hindsight I think I was interpreting her morning sickness as casting regret.

LR: Ha ha. That sounds like a joke I would make. No one is allowed to be self-deprecating except me, remember? Tracey, what do you look for in the dancers you work with? And Sky,  what do you need from the choreographers or choreography that you take on?

TN: I have to be compelled by them - as people and movers. There are so many great dancers, but it's actually really easy for me to be selective because I have to be compelled by the person not just the dancer. When I first saw Sky on stage, I was interested in working with him. what goes between is a work I've made with five dancers whom I've known in different capacities prior to this work. Marie France Forcier is my partner on our upcoming production Forcier/Norman and she was integral in building what goes between. It was our first time working together as choreographer/dancer but I'd known and admired her and her work for some time. I've known both Beth Despres and Jesse Dell since doing our undergrads together years ago. Beth and I have collaborated numerous times over the years and Jesse has been a part of almost every single work I've created, whether as a dancer, costume designer or co-producer. Brittany Duggan, like Sky, I met while she was completing her BFA and I was doing my MFA, and she was in a work I created then and I never forgot how stunning she was and was always looking for a way to work with her again. I also have a thing for dancers who aren't in every single piece going.

SFW: I need to feel changed, like the time I'm spending with a choreographer is actively shaping how I exist in the world. I think about working with a choreographer as a choice to spend a portion of the time I have in this life in a room with a certain human being, all because I have the opportunity to be enriched by it. It's entirely selfish. 

LR: I don't think that's selfish. It's a kind of ambition. Ambition about our life as artists and our growth as people.  It's a cliche but you can't do this for the money only, there's got to be another kind of "pay".

But speaking of the arts impacting you here's a question I'm asking everybody I'm interviewing these days. Can you tell me one piece of choreography/performance that was a game changer for you? 

TN: In 2003 I was in my last year of my BFA and I remember seeing Les Ballets C de la B performing Foi by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui at Harbourfront. This was game-changing for me. I remember the work so clearly still and I think it was important for me as all the components of my life, my mood and the performance came together to point me in a specific direction. There have been a number of pieces I've seen over the years - at home and abroad- that have presented me with an opportunity to question what I'm doing or reinvigorate what I'm doing creatively. When I saw Foi, I'd never seen anything like it and I was so moved and inspired.

SFW: I LOVE that this is Tracey's answer. After I finished university in 2010, and was dancing with the Canadian Opera Company, I saw Les Ballets C de la B's 'Out of Context - For Pina', Alain Platel's elegy to the late and great Bausch. As was the case for Tracey, Tina Rasmussen at Harbourfront Centre's World Stage had imported this brash and poetic masterpiece, and I still attribute seeing it as reifying for me that performance and live art can actually change how we see the world, and how we choose to exist in it.
LR: For those who wanted to be moved....

Thurs. Mar 12 through Sat. Mar 14, 2015 8pm
Marie France Forcier and Tracey Norman (Toronto)

Choreographers: Marie France Forcier & Tracey Norman
Performers: Justine Comfort, Molly Johnson, Jessie Dell, Beth Despres, Brittany Duggan, Sky Fairchild-Waller, Louis Laberge-Côté and Marie France Forcier
Through works aesthetically different but astutely crafted and rich in imagery, local indie favourites Forcier (Scars are All the Rage) and Norman (what goes between) explore the impact of loss and transformation. 
Harbourfront Centre Theatre

All photos from rehearsals of what goes between by Craig Chambers courtesy of Tracey Norman.