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.


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