CanAsian Dance Festival 2015 Feature #5: Peter Chin
When you meet an artist like Peter Chin you realize what diversity is: artistic, cultural, disciplinary, philosophical. Often called an archetypal "Renaissance man", Peter is a choreographer, dancer, a singer, instrumentalist, composer, designer, writer, director, and performance artist. He started training as a classical musician, then attended York University for Visual Art, where he he studied experimental directions with Vera Frenkel, (also painting, sculpture and video art), music composition with James Tenney and creative writing with bp Nichol. Through his company Tribal Crackling Wind he choreographs and performs, allowing his many other skills take flight as well.
"I was fortunate to be born into diversity because of my mixed background – black, white and Asian in Jamaica. The way I grew up there was always a mixture. Jamaica is very racially integrated and has been for a long time. Jamaica's motto “Out of many, one people” has entered my psyche."
Having come to Toronto in 1966, Peter has seen the evolution of Toronto as it has become very intercultural. Toronto has influenced his world view and his view on creating art.
"Travelling in 1990 to Asia was also very important to me, researching performing arts there. Ideas of total theatre and ritual in the courtly arts and indigenous tribal performing arts, the relationship to nature. All of this has influenced my work completely."
"In the way I became a dancer, my initial training in western classical music, then visual arts, then dance: all of that has remained with me. It has been a natural progression for me to bring all of those things forwards instead of specializing and putting something away."
With training in classical music, then visual art and performance art, how did he become a choreographer and dancer?
"I started to move in the 80s at university while becoming a performance artist and it just seemed natural that I would use my body as my main medium. I was vocalizing -- an experimental singer -- and I was doing what I can identify now as dance…I didn’t think I was then but I can see now that was what I was doing."
As he came into contact with choreographers and dancers he realized he was dancing and choreographing. Dance captivated him, and continues to captivate him.
"I really love dance, especially contemporary dance and contemporary dancers, in the way that the body can work with very abstract material and not think about about text or meaning but evince some kind of reality or truth that is more compelling because we can’t pin it down."
Chin's work for the CanAsian Dance Festival this year is entitled "Ferocious Compassion", made especially for Chy Ratana, a young dancer from Cambodia with whom Peter has worked before.
"I wanted to bring in Buddhist-based themes about compassion and a certain discipline and ferocity we might see in animals we admire but fear – snakes, tigers. A relationship with that kind of strength….wildness. In the piece a young boy walks to school to see his teachers, he sees a dead animal and is moved by compassion for the animals and starts to identify with the wildness and strength of animals."
It is a virtuosic solo performance, utilizing Chy's full capacity as a performer.
Chin creates his works by demonstrating his own movement, asking dancers to recreate it as much as possible, then shaping it so that it melds the Peter-ness of it with who the interpreter is.
"Often I start in the studio with no steps but a general sense of feeling and from the dancer something emanates that I feel I pick up. Once the choreography is in the dancer I shape and mold it from the outside. Real time and space changes the feelings of the movement.
"My way of working hasn’t really changed. That’s the way it’s been for decades" Peter says laughing.
Having seen many works of Peter's, and having had the chance to be a rehearsal assistant in one process, I feel a visceral arc to his choreography. Through my eyes, his works take place in a suspended place of transition. The place is not the transition, but the beings suspended there are given indeterminate time and space to reveal and discover their shifting identities.
Most recently I saw Chin's new work for dancers of Toronto Dance Theatre (the Chin/Burpee double bill at Winchester Street Theatre until April 19. www.tdt.org for details). For me, this work too was a luscious world where cellular changes in the individuals became apparent. While I watch Peter's work I am riveted and also my mind wanders along other tangents, as though following an invisible trail created by the after burn of the choreography.
Peter has experienced a sense of after burn from his choreography as well.
"In 2006 I started working on Transmission of the Invisible for two young Cambodian dancer san three Canadian dancers. We worked in Cambodia and Canada. It was a real opening up and vulnerability in a multicultural endeavour. And given the seriousness of the material – artists killed in the war in Cambodia, the whole premise of the transmitting something invisible. I was emotionally invested. It changed my life. It really showed me how open the Cambodian art was to working with me, 10 years later I am still very much engaged with the Cambodian artistic milieu. I’ve been embraced almost as an honorary Cambodian. That has totally changed my life. Shown me what is possible in this cross cultural creative collaborative endeavour and how deep we can go and what the rewards are and how it can transform our lives…."