Monday, February 22, 2016

The most beautiful rhinoceros: Jillian Peever

Jillian Peever is a rhinoceros. She knows I write this with hoardes of love. She is nothing like a rhinoceros -- a voice like silken gravel, a look like a Scandinavian elf, and a dancing body that can do anything -- but she is a powerhouse, a compact of determination and ferocity. 

I was lucky to get to know Jillian when she stepped into Denise Fujiwara's EUNOIA in the 11th hour last fall, as one of the original cast fell ill on tour, and the original understudy was very pregnant. Jillian learned the work on site in Calgary with speed and precision. She was, to me, a rhinoceros: head down, fiercely, quietly getting the work done with impressive power. Rhinos are gorgeous.

I was intimidated by her skills, but mostly inspired by her combination of utter sweetness and total confidence. 

And I am so happy to present here an interview with Jillian about her show, opening this week, with choreography by the beautiful Sharon Moore (see earlier interview with Sharon from the summer of 2015).

LR: What made you want to take on the solo show, self producing and all?

JP: I wanted to take this on, because it had been an idea of Sharon's for quite sometime. She planted the idea of making a solo show for me years ago. She was bringing me into rehearsals every so often to try new things out for the character. 

At some point she made it clear that she really wanted to go ahead with this, and I offered to get the grant application process started. I took 'the bull by the horns' and she supported me every step of the way. She continues to guide me in self-producing. 

This will be my last season as an 'emerging dance artist' by CADA (the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists, Ontario Chapter) definitions; taking on a solo show as an 'emerging artist', at first, I was a bit curious about how it would all turn out--but mostly I was ecstatic to have the opportunity. 

I never thought that I couldn't do it. I knew it would be a huge undertaking, but I had confidence in Sharon's work, and with the solo-performance mentorship of Peggy Baker, I knew that this work would be a turning point in my artistic career. 

LR: What drew you to Sharon Moore in the first place? What is your history working with her?

JP: Going to the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, working with Sharon is a 'right of passage'. Every first year student gets the experience of dancing in her work. I remember being very shy and unsure of myself in that first creation period with Sharon. I definitely wouldn't have thought, at that point, that this solo project would be in the cards! 

I was shy, quiet--but I did work hard, and I do remember throwing myself into some wild movements. I wasn't afraid of a few bruises! At the end of the 3 years of school, Sharon gifted me with a 6 min solo that was mine to perform and use for any opportunities that would support my career. It was here that I really experienced working with her in a one-on-one relationship for the first time. The amount of text she gave me increased, and, for the first time, I fully experienced the physical challenge presented by delivering text with as much intention and detail as her technically and physically demanding movement signature. 

The challenge is what drew me to her again and again. 

LR: How has the work shifted as it has expanded?

JP: After the first 6 min solo was created (which I remember, really felt like a marathon!), I presented the solo along with some of my former classmates in a production called "Fantasies and Other Poisons". The production involved the stringing together and weaving of 5 solos choreographed by Sharon. This allowed me to see how Mr. Leftovers would interact and corroborate with other characters from Sharon's imagination. A very important step in getting to know someone is seeing how they behave at a family function. 

Later that year Sharon invited me to Princeton University to be part of her creative residency there where we continued developing Mr. Leftovers, but also researched ideas for another of Sharon's works. Working with Sharon this closely, and on different material allowed me to see the 'Mr. Leftovers' living within Sharon. We worked together a couple more times in the summers after this, always adding to Mr. Leftovers and each time we added to his history--and to our own. 

Now, we are connecting all these little scenes of Mr. Leftovers' life. Connecting them gives each scene a new feeling; exiting one scene and moving directly into the next does something to the atmosphere and emotion that is different than simply starting from the 'top' of the scene. 

The use of text has also expanded. Text has become an even more important element. In recent months I've had more opportunities to experience the use of text in performance, and I feel much more equipped. I believe Sharon is aware that I can handle more and she gives me more!

LR: What is your next dream for yourself as a dancer/producer/creator?

JP: I think my next dream will be to fully realize a project I've been exploring in little bits and pieces over the past year I am calling "The End of the Road Project". I hope to spend more time choreographing on others as well as choreographing on myself, and collaborating with artists to bring something together. 

I imagine it will end up taking several forms: dance film, site-specific performance, audience-engagement/experimental, and more traditional theatre style performance. Eventually I want to find some beautiful site specific locations across Ontario that will frame a relationship, character, or abstract feeling, possibly stringing them together in an interactive way making use of technology and media. I have some work to do on this yet. Could be a life-long project! 

LR: What have you learned along the way of self-producing? What advice would you have for others considering putting themselves out there like that?

JP: First bit of advice is from my logical mind: I would suggest going to the Dance Umbrella of Ontario and asking for advice on how to make your project stronger. I have the drive to get a project going, to get to work on the choreography, to perform it well--to make the artwork-- but what DUO has been able to help me do is make sure that my work gets exposure. The services there are completely tailored to my needs. I am lucky in that I have Sharon as an experienced producer giving me support, but if you don't have that, DUO can help with grant applications, budgeting, contracts, media. 

My artistic advice: I've been thinking a lot lately about what I think makes a great performer, a great work of choreography, a great night out to see some theatre. If I were to come see my own show as a member of the audience, what would make it a great experience for me? Thinking in this way allows me to see the challenge I have before me as really important, not just for the audience or choreographer but, for me! I will do my best, I will bring my own ideas and I will do everything in my power to make the night a 'great night' from my perspective! And that's really the best I can do. If I'm happy with it, than I'll know I've done my work. 

Personally I would also advise that you just do what you can. Set some goals, do your best to stick to them, but if something doesn't go the way you planned, don't dwell on it. Look ahead to the next thing you can do. Keep a positive mind and be determined that you are 'fighting the good fight' bringing more art to the world in the best way that you know how to!

Go see Jillian work her magic.
The Mystery of Mr. Leftovers 
February 25, 26, & 27, @ 8pm
The Winchester Street Theatre
General: $25     Student/CADA/Arts Worker $20


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New York/Toronto Project: Jeanine Durning in her own precise words

As recently as yesterday I retold the story of a professor of the University of Toronto who tried to discredit my research in early 20th century Central European comparative cultural history based on his view that since I was also a dancer, my research was irrelevant as dancers are "automatons who don't think for themselves, but simply do as they are told". I was shocked that in the 21st century I was coming up against this image of the unintelligent dancer.

I guess because I so recently retold this story, I am gleefully posting yet another gloriously articulated interview with a fiercely individual, intelligent and rigorous dance artist: Jeanine Durning, the second choreographer involved in the New York/Toronto Project with Toronto Dance Theatre which opens tomorrow night, February 11th at 8pm, at the Winchester Street Theatre.

I am so grateful to Jeanine and Joanna (Kotze, whose interview on her portion of the New York/Toronto Project I posted earlier this week) for their terrifically honest and precise answers to my questions.

Read on to learn about Jeanine Durning's work.

photo of Jeanine Durning by Snorri Sturluson

LR: How did the TDT commission come about for you?

JD: I'd met Christopher some years back through Deborah Hay. He'd seen me perform her work several times, I believe. And then a couple of years ago, Ame Henderson was creating a work with TDT called voyager, and she asked if I would be interested to come in on that process as an outside eye/advisor kind of person since she was working on a continuous movement practice with the company and she know I had been working on a practice of non stopping. 

So, I came for a couple of weeks and I taught movement practice for the company and community, was there for rehearsals, and then at the end of that period I performed inging which is my nonstop speaking performance practice. I think Christopher was interested in continuing the dialogue that began through that process. 

I have enormous respect for Christopher and the work he does. And the company is very rare in that they are very willing and able to be in a mode of research and questioning. The whole structure of the company is in support of that way of working. I am also extremely happy to have this opportunity to share work on a program with Joanna whose integrity and intelligence is evident in everything she does. 

                         Jeanine Durning in inging, October 2014, Zagreb. photographer unknown.

LR: Your practice of "nonstopping" —  what was the impetus for building this practice? What do you think this practice offers dance artists and audiences?
When I started what I am calling nonstopping now, I wasn't really framing it through that language. That language emerged through years of working on something, and through teaching it in different capacities, and trying to find a way to talk about it. As these things happen, language tends to reduce the expansion of things. 

In any case, it came out of a time when I was personally questioning the relevance of performance,  asking what it was, what could it be, what were we sharing, and what am I personally contributing by continuing to make work. I was going through a kind of artistic paralysis. I would enter the studio, and I didn't "know" what to do, and nothing I did seemed to "matter." 

One day, I decided that I would just come in to the studio, put everything down, and just start going, non stop, without agenda, without my feeling of desire, or feeling good about what I was doing, without an idea to fill in with dancing. I did that for a while and then created this cycle of nonstop moving, nonstop speaking, and nonstop writing. I would just go through this cycle over and over again. 

Through the "doing" of this, through this "purposeful purposelessness," I was discovering that the internal structures of my thinking are directly linked to how I speak, to how I move and organize space and time, and to how I construct language on the frame of a page. I started to become really interested in what constitutes choreographic thinking, and seeing that choreography is a way to reorganize our thinking through our attention to the tools of space and time, and not just about repeating aesthetic value systems, or narrativizing experience, or iterating an historicized relationship to the form of the body. 

Jeanine Durning in inging, January 2013, American Realness, NYC. photographer: Ian Douglas

So this is what, after about 7 years of working this way, I feel this way of working can offer both artists and audiences: a reflexive approach to their ways of thinking; a recalibration of patterns of thought and action; an alternative to outcome, form, and production; a ways and means of perceiving ourselves and each other in different ways than we expect to see them; a heightened awareness of our environment and how we enact ourselves within and through it; and ultimately a way of experiencing our togetherness as something that is precious, vulnerable, precarious, and fleeting.

LR:  You work outside a more conventional company model, working in a way that is specific to the individuals involved…..has this been the same approach to the TDT creation, even though the dancers function as a company themselves outside the scope of your work with them?

JD: Well, I work outside of the conventional company model for very practical reasons but then that condition sets up a different kind of power structure. Things become much more horizontal. But principally my concerns are the same, no matter what the model. 

Generally, I've been interested lately (lately meaning the last 8-10 years!) in creating the conditions through which the performers can compose and be in a decision-making process in real-time. So, on some level, the choreographic structure that emerges is not separate from the performer's relationship to the tools and strategies I propose. One is naturally and critically dependent on the other. 

To Being with Julian Barnett, Jeanine Durning, and Molly Poerstel, September 2015, The Chocolate Factory Theater, NYC. photo: Alex Escalante

I am definitely not one of these choreographers who comes in with pre-determined materials, and has an idea of how to design that material in space and time. It's not a value judgement. It's just not my skill set.

I'm more interested in seeing people trying to figure something out while performing, and I'm interested in what kind of body that "figuring out" produces. So say if someone becomes really "good" at something, then I try to figure out how to destabilize that knowing part of what they do. That is where the specific people involved help to create the conditions of the work. I can't separate the people from the work. It's not interesting to me nor do I think it's possible.

LR: I love a question which you wrote in regards to your work “To Being”: “What does it take to stay in action?”  I wonder how this question translates or might be answered in the context of keeping going as an artist?

JD: The choice to continue to be an artist requires a specific relationship to being in the world, and that being in the world consequently filters into the work that is made. To Being asks of us, the performers: how do you keep going when you feel you can't, how can you keep giving when you feel you are incapable of it? The mechanism, the operation of the work demands that, in spite of those questions, or maybe because of them, you must find a way to keep going, and in the midst of that, what you are practicing is humility, generosity, vulnerability, precarity. It's a different relationship to or understanding of what skill is, or what expertise is, or virtuosity, or purpose even. And ethically, philosophically, politically, these, to me, are qualities worthy of practicing. 

As John Cage said: "Inspiration is not a special occasion." Or as Chuck Close said: "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work." For me these days, inspiration and creativity are by-products and not the thing itself.

To Being with Julian Barnett and Molly Poerstel, September 2015, The Chocolate Factory Theater, NYC. photo: Alex Escalante

LR: What have you learned or discovered during this process with Toronto Dance Theatre?

JD: I've been working for the past years on a creating operations or mechanisms, or following a primary directive, and then just going.  And then the research and practice becomes about collecting and discovering tools and strategies to help the sustainability of that operation in real - time, over time, and under different conditions. This way of working understands a structure that emerges through the materials, rather than the other way around. 

For the work with TDT, because of the amount of time we had, it seemed important to do the inverse and establish a structure right away and then understand how the materials we were working with are informed by that structure. This way of working produces a different relationship to space and how we understand time, because you are working with repetition of structure and the memory of that structure.

I also learned and continue to learn that language and how you frame things/ideas/propositions through language changes the perception of that thing, and therefore the doing of that thing. And I discovered that this company, the staff, the manager, the rehearsal assistant, the production manager, the artistic director, everyone, is amazing and really about supporting the research of the body as dance. I also learned that I am officially in love with all the dancers I'm working with!

See Jeanine's ideas in motion:

all photos courtesy of Jeanine Durning. Thanks Jeanine!!

Monday, February 8, 2016

New York/Toronto Project at Toronto Dance Theatre: Joanna Kotze

Photo of Joanna Kotze courtesy of

It is almost a cliche now to comment on how intelligent and articulate a dance artist may be. Still, this interview is an immense pleasure to post -- virtually unedited  -- this interview with the hyper-articulate, both in body and in words, Joanna Kotze, one of the two New York-based choreographers involved in Toronto Dance Theatre's New York/Toronto Project this month.

Thank you Joanna!

LR: How did the commission with TDT come about for you?

JK: I got an email from Christopher in March 2014 saying that he was in New York and wondered if I might be available to meet for a coffee. He had heard about me via some common New York friends and told me about the desire to have a New York/Toronto exchange. I was immediately excited about working with him and the company and also to know he was inviting Jeanine Durning to do the project. 

I thought it would be wonderful to share the experience with her since I am a huge fan of her as a person and an artist. It was the next year that Christopher and I solidified the plans for me to come and he told me more about the company and the dancers. His vision for the company and the way he is continually introducing them to new ways of working is truly admirable. This reflects in the openness of the dancers and their work ethic.

LR: How do you approach a commission or this commission versus the work you make for yourself or your company?

JK: A commission is a way for me to work on what is important to me at the time but under different circumstances and conditions than the work with my New York collaborators. It is a shorter time, it is with people I do not have a history with, and I usually have much more support administratively and technically. 

It is fun and challenging to work in different contexts and under various time constraints. In many ways it is the same as beginning my other work as I usually start with very little until I am in the room with the people I am creating on and with. 

I want to work site-specifically, in the fullest and most personal sense of that term. But with a shorter time frame for these commissions, I arrive with a few ways in—a visual image or set of directions— to get to know the new group quickly. Also, when it is a commission, I often have the chance to work with a larger group of dancers, and that is an exciting challenge. 

LR: Speaking of site-specific choreography, many of your works have non-conventional audience arrangements — is this part of the plan for the TDT piece? 

JK: One of the first things I do when I get a commission is ask for photos and plans of the space where the piece will be performed. If there are options with the seating/audience arrangement, I like to entertain those options. Often for commissions, the venue is a more traditional set up and there is no option to change this arrangement. But, there are always ways to play with it, like having parts of the dance infiltrate the audience space or shaping the space in a way that the audience may not expect. 

I think placing an audience in a non-conventional arrangement gives them a different way into the space, the work, the dancers. It is not always what the work requires but when you are placed more inside the work, there is a different commitment to the viewing of it, a different sense of being a part of it. I like this intimacy and engagement with the viewer.

With TDT, the seating was a set arrangement but there are always ways to play!

LR: You have a B.A. in Architecture, how does that aspect of you inform your creative process or vision?

JK: Relationship to architecture is just a part of me - architecture of the body, of space, of bodies in space. I came from a mostly ballet background and then was studying architecture at the same time I was studying contemporary dance. They are one in the same to me, in a way. Both choreography and architecture speak to the relationship to the human body and how, ultimately that engages us, makes us feel a part of or disconnected from something. 

I am fascinated by the facility of the body, its unique potential for each person and that often is shaped by their architecture and their relationship to that architecture. And since, as a viewer, we see everything in relationship to everything else…the space around the body is always in connection to it. I also work a lot with the relationship of humanness to form which for me is architecture.

LR: How does your approach differ between making work on other bodies and making work that you yourself will perform?  

JK: I have a very physical connection to my work so I usually start with my body involved in either case. But when I am not going to be in the work I get the chance to remove myself and become the outside eye sooner. 

Although my physicality may stay a part of the exchange, I am much more interested in what the dancers take on physically and performatively so that they gain a sense of ownership. I find it challenging to not feel the work from the inside but I am also able to see it in a different way when I am not so physically attached. 

See Joanna's work in the New York/Toronto Project opening this Thursday at the Winchester Street Theatre.