Sunday, May 24, 2015

Possibilities: the articulate, honest and magical Jessica Runge

photo of Jessica Runge by Omer Yukseker

When I first moved to Toronto in 1996, Jessica Runge was one of the first dance artists I encountered. She was a blur of wonderful energy. She danced, she created, she made opportunities for other artists.  Her mind was speedy and imaginative. She seemed to live life in the same way she danced, exquisitely. I was more than a little in awe....

Almost 20 how-is-that-possible-years later, she still is one of those artists who is works tirelessly and embodies a vision where art and life cannot be addressed separately. In talking to her about her upcoming show "Possible Dances" it is clear she remains all those things I admired in her when I first met her. 

She has a marvellous way of speaking about her life and her work that reveals her as a visionary -- I don't say that lightly -- without really knowing it.  "Possible Dances" incorporates the spectrum of the vision and presents to us in an intimate way.

Her show is happening, as many things are these days, at the Artscape Youngplace (180 Shaw Street), a newish undertaking of Artscape in a school built in 1914. The whole building has vibe of good, interesting, hard work going on, created by people with fresh, caffeinated energy.

The Intergalactic Arts Collective (IGAC) space in this building is a beautiful, clear, white-walled classroom, converted into a rehearsal/performance space, uncluttered and ripe with possibility. Jessica, as a member of IGAC, is making the most of it, not only rehearsing there but mounting her show there without masking the reality of the room.

"Even though it's a classroom, it's not a school." she says, "And there is a lot of natural light. Simon Rossiter (lighting designer) is merging technical minimalism with the natural lighting of the room as it shifts." 

The windows of IGAC's room face west and the light travels across the room during the performance, so the passage of time is apparent. The order of the pieces in the show were determined by the type of light they embodied as time moves towards sunset. 

The palpability of the passage of time is a poignant and fitting image as the initial impetus for Possible Dances emerged from the death of Jessica's step-mother.

"I wanted to find a way to let that sadness and other feelings out, like crying but fuller, to dance them with my whole body. I couldn’t hold all those things inside. I thought about love and letting go, and that sadness you have when something can never be put right, that unpleasant feeling that there has been a mistake that you can’t fix, sadness about the things that perhaps were never said that could have been said. 

"At the same time, I was pregnant for the second time, my life was in the middle of letting go and getting ready, filled also with different fears,  the sometimes overwhelming or dismantling sadness that so much love and hope can somehow bring. The way a parent cries when they think about how much they love their children is so curious: why do we cry? Do we think we don’t deserve this goodness? We won’t be able to protect their beauty? 

"I was letting go of a woman who had been a mother to me and knowing I was a mother and becoming a mother to another child... and living is always in between beginning and ending our lives…”assuming” the role, accepting the failures and responsibilities.

"I decided to do what was “possible" [in the original dance] to just allow and not invent anything other than what felt best and most exciting or rewarding to me."

Since then Jessica re-envisioned the work as a set of dances each with a different choreographer re-interpreting her original material. She enlisted some mighty creative women to work with her: Susie Burpee, Susanna Hood, Heidi Strauss and Deborah Dunn. Each woman is a different kind of inspiration for Jessica. Whether it was a particular performance or work of theirs she'd seen or a broader sense of each artist, Jessica notes each choreographer as artists who have moved her in significant ways.

Each choreographer re-mixes the original Possible Dance and all the original material appears over the course of the current program. One version adds a second dancer. Another involves puppetry. One she describes as 'sweet', another as 'Greek'. Jessica likens the whole program to a box with four ways to open it.

"Inside the box is the experience, each piece shows a different way of looking in at it."

Balancing rehearsals with four choreographers (two locals and two out-of-towners) is a challenge. As we spoke, Jessica was packing to get on the train for Montreal, ready to dive in again with Susanna Hood once she arrived. Add to that the demands of self-producing, being part of a collective, managing a freelance career that involves teaching and dancing for other choreographers: no easy feat. But Jessica also has two children at home ages 9 and 4. How does she manage it all?

"It doesn't always feel very manageable. There's such anxiety. Are things getting done? Is it going ok? Can I let the mess on the dining room table not bother me? It's hard to stay focused. But there are different kinds of 'manageable'. Working as a team with my husband. Staying in the here and now."

Jessica has always managed to manage it. She credits a supportive family and good daycare for helping ease the anxiety. But "staying in the here and now" cannot be underestimated. When asked what keeps her inspired to continue dancing and creating she says, 

"It's just that's what I do. It's one of the ways I feel myself, one of the ways I think -- through movement. Part of how I process life events, feelings, thoughts, impacts...."

Through dance, she processes the very act of being alive, from the mundane to the profound. I think that's what I recognized, but couldn't articulate about Jessica back in 1996 and what is so delightful about her now, whether speaking with her or experiencing her performances. She carries both the mundane and the profound in just about every moment. 

As someone striving to stay in the now, for me those moments take on a magical sheen.

I hope you experience this too.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Collaborations: Dancing in the Third Act

Dancing In The Third Act is a unique seniors’ dance project created by award-winning choreographer Randy Glynn. Inspired in part by Pina Bausch's Kontakthof -- a work created on her Wuppertal company, then later staged on teenagers and seniors -- Glynn created originally  Dancing in the Third Act, or DITTA, on 12 untrained seniors in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. DITTA has been invited to tour to the US, opened the Quartiers Danses Festival in Montreal and been remounted on seniors in Orillia.   This month it is being mounted in Etobicoke. When Arts Etobicoke and Lakeshore Arts sent out a call looking for senior participants the response was unexpected. After an audition and interview process, choreographer Randy Glynn selected 12 dancers out 40 applicants ranging from age 60 to 86, each with their own unique life story.  

Under Glynn's guidance these seniors who have little to no previous dance training transform into accomplished dancers. They bring their indefatigable strength, endurance and life experience to this intimate and playful piece. By opening night the participants will have completed three months of intensive dance training and rehearsal, culminating in three professionally staged public performances. 

Randy Glynn and two of his Etobicoke dancers, Susan Brown and Slade Lander, answered my questions about this remarkable project. First a little bit on Randy, Slade and Susan.

Choreographer, dancer, director and teacher, Randy Glynn has been a significant figure in the world of Canadian contemporary dance for over three decades.  A principal dancer for many years with Toronto’s  legendary Danny Grossman Company , he formed his own company, The Randy Glynn Dance Project in 1987. Randy created over 20 major works which were presented by his company and others in Canada, Ireland and the US.  Mr. Glynn is also a recipient of the prestigious Clifford E. Lee Award for Choreography. In the words one Globe and Mail critic, "You will be amazed by Glynn's vision and feeling, his ability to dignify and deepen ordinary experience."    

Susan Brown was born in Brantford Ontario with her family moving to Sudbury Ontario a few months after her birth. After graduating from Lasalle Secondary High School Susan left Sudbury to attend University of Guelph where she received a B.Sc. (Human Kinetics). Her career started out as Women’s Athletic Director at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and has evolved to her current position as a health and wellness consultant here in Toronto. Susan has always been involved in sport and still takes and teaches tap classes. She is a proud mother of twin daughters who are professional contemporary dancers in New York city.

Slade Lander has bounced between dance and information technology and the United States and Canada.  In his twenties, he danced with modern dance companies in Chicago and Toronto and earned a degree in dance at York University.  In his thirties, Slade left dance and worked in information technology in the pharmaceutical industry until he was laid off in his fifties.  Slade then returned to school to earn an MBA in Arts and Media Administration and worked as an Arts Manager for dance companies and individual dance artists in Toronto.  Slade heard Randy Glynn being interviewed on the CBC concerning Dancing in the Third Act and jumped at the chance to perform one more time.

And now for the questions. I asked everyone the same questions, each unique perspective part of the greater picture, just as Dancing in the Third Act unites a range of performers' experiences into one magical, moving experience for the audience.

LUCY: What drew you to create Dancing in the Third Act?

RANDY:  In 2012 I was asked to choreograph a flash mob for the August Bank Holiday weekend in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. I’ve had a summer home there for 25 years. Most of the volunteers for the “mob” were my long time senior friends and somewhere in the process of creating this market piece I realized 3 things – one was that my friends were pretty bad dancers, two was that the flash mob was awful and three was that if I could get these old farts into a theatre where I do have some craft I could make something special. I was right about all three things.

In 2013, together with 12 friends, I spent the summer creating DITTA. Its instant popularity caught us all by surprise. By the time the Etobicoke show goes up it will have been performed by 3 different casts in 4 provinces before 1,000’s of people – and there are plans for more.

SUSAN: The opportunity to be part of a dance production at this stage in my life could not be passed up. It attracted me because of the professionalism of the people involved like Randy Glynn and the production team - I knew we would not embarrass ourselves and that we would be proud of the work.

SLADE: Before Christmas, I heard Randy Glynn being interviewed on the CBC show Ontario Today.  He was describing Dancing in the Third Act and I immediately knew that I wanted to be part of the project.  I have felt that, although I do not have the physical abilities that I had forty years ago, through my maturity and simply having more life experience, I perhaps have more to offer in a performance than when I was younger.  I was feeling frustrated that there was not a way to put this to the test.  Then I hear Randy’s interview and here I am.

LUCY: How do you navigate working in a group with such a varied experience in arts/performing? 

RANDY: Encouragement, patience, humour and a thorough knowledge of my material.

SLADE: As a performer, I seek to honour what my colleagues are bringing to the performance.  The task of all of us is to make the group look good and not make ourselves, as individuals, look good.  There are two sections of the piece that I seek out by colleagues to work on before rehearsal so that we have more time to become acquainted with what each is doing and present ourselves to the audience better.

LUCY: What has been most surprising about “Dancing in the Third Act”? Randy, I guess more specifically, this leg of the DITTA journey?

RANDY:  It has been, like the other experiences restaging the dance, extremely pleasurable and very satisfying. These are wonderful people. Once you have lived 60, 70 or 80 years and are adventurous enough to come out for something like this you are most definitely interesting. Get 12 interesting people together to learn something physical they never thought they would do in a 1,000 years - how could it not be interesting? Arts Etobicoke, Lakeshore Arts, the City of Toronto and Silverthorn Collegiate have been excellent partners/producers in this project and all have worked to ensure it has run smoothly - and it has.

Maybe a bit surprising is that there is such a large and beautiful theatre in this suburban high school built in the 60’s. Oddly some of the best theatres for dance in Toronto are in a handful of high schools scattered here and there. This is one of them, and well worth drive up the 427.

SUSAN: Most surprising: The professional level of the production, how Randy has pulled the group together considering the diversity in skill level and dance experience.

SLADE: There are two things that have surprised and delighted me.  One is the straightforward commitment of everyone to the piece.  This includes not only coming to a large number of rehearsals (I calculated more than 120 hours of rehearsing) but also being fully engaged in the process during the rehearsals.  Everyone arrives with the feeling, “We’re here.  Let’s make this happen.”  The other is that once we started doing run-through of the piece, there is a tremendously compelling theme to the piece which I can’t quite express.   There are parts of the piece which are comical, but there are no parts of the piece that are trivial.

LUCY: What do you love or enjoy most about dance? What challenges you the most?

RANDY: What I love about dance now would be different from what I initially loved – though, were I able “un-age” I might still love the opportunity to use my body full out to touch an audience in meaningful works of art. Now, at 65, I may perform a bit, gently, but more I love making and staging and presenting works of dance art before large audiences in real theatres. I have started a dance festival – Festival of Dance Annapolis Royal –  . I love how that festival uses all my many dance skills developed over several decades in the business – technical, marketing, staging, creating and planning.

I am most challenged by mediocre, poorly crafted dance.

SUSAN: I enjoy using movement/dance to express the music. The biggest challenge is finding the nuances and subtleties Randy would like us to convey through his choreography.      

SLADE: What I enjoy most is the sense----if everything goes right----of being part of something magical.  There is a paradoxical moment when I lose the sense of my self and yet have a sense of a truer self.  It is something like a Zen riddle.

What challenges me most right now is making it through the rehearsal and the run-through and remembering all the cues.

LUCY: This is a question I'm posing to everyone I interview this season: can you tell me about a performance you experienced as an audience member that really changed you? who was it, where, when, why was it so impactful?

RANDY: As an audience member many great works have impacted me – especially some of Sankai Juku’s work and certainly Pina Bausch’s “1980” and “Café Muller”. However three performance experiences have stayed most clearly with me all these years. I was “watching” all of them but only one was as a seated audience member. One was as a backstage viewer, and one was while on stage in my own piece – silently watching.

The first was seeing Danny Grossman’s “Higher” at the 1976 Dance in Canada Conference in Halifax. It came near the end of perhaps the longest, most bizarre evening of dance ever presented. One moment it was a group of 12 year old Cape Breton Highland dancers and next it was the TDT Company, then some baton twirlers from Shubenacadie followed by a famous ballerina. Then came “Higher” and I, for the first time, really saw something I both loved and knew I could do. 4 years later, when Danny stopped performing the piece himself, I inherited his role.

The second was again with Danny Grossman in late 1978. During a 9 week driving tour of Western Canada, we did a matinee in the Drumheller prison. That really wasn’t for the faint of heart. Mostly the inmates wanted the 2 women to come out and take their clothes off. They did not want to see art. When Danny started to perform “Curious Schools of Theatrical Dancing”, a solo danced to Couperin about a clown hopelessly trapped in a white circus ring, I thought we were dead. But when the dance started it became clear that for these men this was their story. They got it and it hit them in a way they never expected reducing them to tears and rapt silence. It gave me goose bumps.

The third was during a presentation of my own “After Godot” at the Premiere (now Fleck) Dance Theatre, in 1987. Based on Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and  performed in silence, the dance had never been performed in larger theatre before and I was worried that the ½ hour without music would’nt work. I shouldn’t have. About 2/3 of the way through the Judy Miller started her solo as “Lucky” – basically a short dance to exhaustion. Because of the silence we could gauge the audience reaction and as she started I realised they were dead silent – and I mean dead silent - a whole theatre was literally holding its collective breath waiting to see what Judy would do. She completely owned that audience and it was one of the eeriest, strongest moments I have ever experienced on or off stage.

Because of the power of these moments I can’t really forget them. The first helped carry me into dance. The other two remind me of how truly magical and overwhelming live performance can be and what to aim for whenever I create or program.

SUSAN: I saw a performance that was part of the Fringe Festival called “Pulse" choreographed by Jasmyn Fyffe. I was pleasantly surprised by their musicality and joy of dance which was to the sounds of soulful Motown.  I find the current modern dance companies of this generation are typically dark or sad in nature. I left feeling refreshed and optimistic about young dancers love of dance, music and interpretation of music. They considered the audience and wanted to share their passion through their energetic, joyful, technical abilities. Loved it.

SLADE: Around 1968, in the Hyde Park neighbourhood on the south side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago where I was a student, there was a dance festival in the Harper Theater.  It was an unusual festival because it brought in the major choreographers ---Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokalow, Eric Hawkins, Alwin Nikolais---to perform a week’s run.  I saw Alwin Nikolais’ piece Tent which was a dance piece involving extreme use of lighting, props, costume, and sound, and had the epiphany, “I want to be part of that.”  I think it was the sense of Nikolais being able to create another world on the stage.  I didn’t get to perform in Tent but I did get to take a workshop at Nikolais’ New York studio and did get to study and perform dance.

Dancing In The Third Act 
presented by Arts Etobicoke, Lakeshore Arts and City of Toronto. 
A Signature Event for Cultural Hotspot. 
May 20, 21, 22, 2015 at 8:00pm
Silverthorn C.I. 291 Mill Road 
General Admission Tickets: FREE!

To reserve or for more information: 416.622.8731 x 226