Thursday, February 9, 2017

Radically intelligent: Emma Kerson on the upcoming Blue Valentine

They are funny, smart, rebellious in the most endearing way. They are Common People and they are bringing you what is bound to be a smart, rebellious and quirky double bill production next week at the Citadel. Blue Valentine throws Emma Kerson and Andrew Hartley into two commissioned duets, one by Simon Renaud, the other by Tedd Robinson presented as part of Coleman Lemieux Compagnie's Bright Lights series February 15-18th.

Andrew Hartley and Emma Kerson

LR: I know you and Andrew have known each other since you were students at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but were you drawn to work together then? What makes you want or need to work together?

EK: It’s true, we met over eight years ago, and I can actually remember us becoming friends on the first day of school.  We collaborated a lot in things like the student run coffee houses where you can really try out wacky ideas and experiment.  Our sense of humour really brought us together to dream up some crazy works and actually put a few of them on stage.  When we left school, the comedy that was our lives manifested into an ongoing saga that was the creation of our semi-autobiographical piece, The Waiters: The Process Revealed: A Tragi/Danci-Comedy.

LR: As "Common People" what are your aims? What kind of work do you want to be part of?

EK: After school we continued creating and performing works with each other, but we started thinking about commissions as a way to stretch ourselves artistically and push beyond what was familiar to us.  What was clear was that we both had no desire to follow trends in dance and make choices based on what might be seen as cool.  We knew we wanted to give absolute value to pure and honest voices, and to highlight our common humanity.
LR: How did Simon’s creation for you come to be? What made you choose him?

EK: We both knew Simon personally, and artistically as an incredibly articulate and driven emerging choreographer.  His work is visual, physically rigorous, and unique.  We were both excited about the possibility of stepping into his world.  We knew it would be a departure for us artistically.  We had full trust and respect for Simon’s vision and he didn’t disappoint!  The work pushes time and is extremely fulfilling to experience from the inside and hopefully the outside as well.

LR: What shape has the creative process for Blue Valentine taken? When did you start working, how have you worked?

EK: So we commissioned Simon back in 2014.  We worked intensively for a few weeks in November and December and held a showing for his work l’inanité des bibelots / love would only slow me down.  We knew we wanted the work to sit on a program with a companion piece.  This opened so many possibilities and ideas.  We had never done any of this before, so the potential and amount of directions to go in was overwhelming. 

Simon’s been choreographing under the mentorship of Tedd Robinson for the better part of a decade.  As emerging artists, we’re influenced by our mentors.  We asked Tedd to create a piece in response to Simon’s work, as a way of bringing this conversation full circle.  In December of 2015 we ended up travelling to Centre Q for two weeks to create his response, Songs and Tarps, with composer Charles Quevillon.

Since then we’ve worked in pockets throughout the year.  Simon and our new composer, Ida Toninato, came up in November.  It had been two whole years since we touched the work.  Andrew and I have both changed considerably as people since its first creation process, and Simon was keen to explore who we are in our own skin now and who he has been developing into as a choreographer.  The piece has shifted considerably, but its essence is still very much there.  It’s in a way a living, breathing reflection of pieces of who we are.

Tedd’s here visiting as well right now, and it’s great to have this time to re-explore the work a year after its creation.  We’re finding the work’s strength not only as a piece in conversation with Simon’s, but as a work on its own.  We’ve also been extremely fortunate to have Susie Burpee and Dan Wild in the studio with us as our rehearsal directors.  They’re both endless wells of information and ideas, and they’ve been incredible at guiding interpretation and finding the depths of the works. 

Common People photo by Omer Yukseker

And now the show’s next week!  It’s been such a long process to get here, but it’ll be over so quickly!

LR: You and Andrew are both fascinating artists, and radically intelligent people; I'm curious to know what you hope for over the course of your career? What kinds of things do you want to be doing — either in performance or otherwise…I guess I’m asking what are your dreams, your plans?

This is so hard to say.  I am a very different person from when I started this process three years ago.  My values are clearer, my ambitions are new, and a lot of this is from what I’ve learned in and out of the studio over these three years.  

So I don’t have a set long-term dream, because I hope that if I continue to expand both personally and artistically, that my current self wouldn’t be able to fathom what I will be dreaming of ten years from now.  

What I definitely do hope to do is to seek out and surround myself with people and artists that I really respect, am in awe of, can learn from, and can collaborate with.  Dance is one endless puzzle for me as an interpreter and creator, and I feel really lucky to be part of the fabric of our community.

Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie’s Bright Nights
Presents the World Premiere of
The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance
February 15-18, 2017
All performances at 8PM
Tickets: $20 Artists, Students, Seniors / $25 General Admission

all photos by Omer Yukseker, courtesy of Common People
design image by

Monday, February 6, 2017

"I want to see our community blossom." Peggy Baker's unflagging generosity and unique upcoming show

Early in January I had the new-year joy of sitting with Peggy Baker to talk about her upcoming show SplitScreen at Theatre Centre. A clear, crisp day of fresh month, Church street seemed cleaner and brighter as I headed over to the National Ballet School, where she and her company are resident, to meet with her.

Peggy was just emerging from Christine Wright’s ballet class for contemporary dancers (a program spear-headed by Peggy Baker Dance Projects), and we headed up to her office, lined with books and a smattering of gorgeous posters on the walls.

I have known Peggy for a long time now, but I still get a little nervous when we talk. The clarity and precision of her thoughts possess the same clarity and precision of her choreographic works, with a beautiful layer of warmth as well.  Wisdom in motion.

photo of Peggy Baker by Aleksander Antonijevic

We started with a little chat about the New Yorker...

P: I subscribe to the New Yorker and what I really appreciate about that magazine is the volume of conversation about literature of all kinds, dance of all kinds, art of all kinds. Dance resides right in there with political commentary and science and cartoons…It’s really where dance is, part of the world.

L: It needs to be talked about in amongst other things.

P It stimulating, exciting, nourishing to read it in that way. It’s a struggle in this country for this kind of holistic view.

L: Speaking of a holistic view….I was reading about the program for your upcoming show…. What was the impetus or spark to put those pieces together…it’s a mixed program, but it’s not.

P: No, it’s not a variety pack….Well….The move to a new [theatre] space ….I did my first show in 1991 at the Betty Oliphant Theatre, then for a while I was at the Fleck Theatre, then I went back to the Betty O. They are both conservative spaces, a really old format that’s very successful. Proscenium staging is amazing, like a fantastic sound studio.

There were pragmatic issues about the theatre, the main one is that it’s a teaching studio so if you are presenting there you have to dismantle your show everyday. My  shows have been getting pretty complicated staging-wise and the last time we were there, it was frightening to pull apart the level of technical we had every night….

L: And Theatre Centre, where SplitScreen is happening is an outstanding place. The leadership and values are apparent in the actual bricks and mortar there!

P: Toronto has been lacking a place like this for many years.

It’s important to me to try to find my integration in our community. We [the dance community] are at a disadvantage because we don’t have a central meeting place or presenters who champion local creators.  I’ve been separate because of the location of presenting my work.  Theatre Centre puts me in a neighbourhood that’s alive with ideas and images and activity and art.

So why did I choose these works….

Not presenting anything new was pragmatic as I’m working towards a very big project so I had to budget my resources this year.

I felt like one of the things that’s been happening and I’ve been questioning is the utter disposability of everything we make. I wanted to bring together works that I felt had some resonance with one another and were strong in their own right, with a good balance between male and female and in the Theatre Centre space to could offer an intimate experience with the performers.

I wanted works that require great artistry, that are substantial as a choreographic works and as I put them together a pathway through these works emerged….

Opening with a woman alone on stage. That’s how I’ve spent much of my career…You understand that incredibly vulnerable position.

L: I do.  

P: Then to look at two men.  Ric Brown and David Norsworthy. Ric is almost twice the age of David…at opposite ends of their career arcs. They are thoroughly unique.  The material very available for David at his age and a triumph for Ric as an older dancer.

L: I don’t know Ric at all, but when I see him in person or dancing he has an almost angelic energy.

P: He is completely open, uncluttered.

And next in the program is Split-Screen. I really love Split Screen Stereophonic….I don’t know if this is literally true…but I don’t know that I had choreographed about intimate relationships before this piece.

Of the original dancers -- Ben Kamino, Sahara Morimoto, Sean Ling and Sarah Fregeau -- Sarah’s the only one I have this time. So it’s been really interesting and great to shift it so much. The chemistry is very, very different. It’s a kind of evidence of the strength of the composition.

I’ve set out to make works that compositionally have the strength and flexibility of something like a musical score or a play so that it’s only the choreography. It requires artists to enter it and create performances. They are both necessary and strong: the composition and the performance.

Then as a companion piece to Split Screen Stereophonic, I made Epilogue. So through the whole arc of SplitScreen we have a balance of vulnerability and virtuosity, a blast of a flip side with the men, then into relationships and then a lone woman again. A woman at a different point in her life than the opening woman.

Women who are dancers.

L: Women who are dancers. They have to be dancers….What made you want to return to performance?

P: I feel very in command of the demands of Epilogue. It’s still very close to the bone for me. Until I’ve really completed all my personal quandaries around it, I’ll do it. And I’m not sure it belongs outside the Split Screen Stereophonic context.

Not every piece needs to go on. Some of my solos have relevancies outside of my necessity to make them, some of them don’t.

L: I know what you mean. I don’t have the same span of career as you, but I’ve found already that some of the solos I’ve made, some of the ones I love to dance, the reasons don’t arise to do them again. Others do. They have more opportunities. It’s hard because some are really in the heart,  they were epic and hard to make and they may never happen again and I have to be okay with that.

It’s kind of the flip side of the disposability you spoke of before.

On to something else. There is always something structural, architectural about your work….a description in your materials about “lines of action” struck me. It’s not about the structure sitting there, but alive through action. The structure is an emotional structure or one that can be felt, lived by the dancers emotionally.

P: I came to dance through theatre, so that’s my primary point of entry. Character, situation, relationship….something needs to be going on. We need conflict. If nothing goes wrong there’s nothing. Where’s the complication? the difficulty? the misunderstanding? And yet I’m pretty abstract in my way of going at it. I love the physical character of the work. But there’s always subtext. Motives.

Everything can’t be spoken for, otherwise there’s no room for the dancers to create, to be spontaneous. All those things that are available to you when you dance your own work because you can make those decisions and responses as you go-- I am wanting to make similar situations for my dancers, to make work that always has room, that creates room for the artists.

Dancers want great work to be inside of….it’s that feeling of watching it and wanting to be inside it that dancers get. That’s great resonant work.

L: I have that feeling all the time, but I hadn’t thought of it that way. The movement seduces me,  because I just want to be dancing all the time. But I think it’s actually the journey that’s happening inside the movement that really grabs me. It’s the whole world.

P: It is movement too. And it requires a dancer. It requires an artist who is a dancer.

L:  It’s funny when I see plays I don’t want to be in them even though I’ve been involved in theatre for more than 15 years.  But dance does it for me because it is the movement. I am a bit addicted to moving.

P: SplitScreen is hard for me because I can’t watch this show -- I’m in it. I can’t quite know how it functions in performance. Being outside the work over the last few years I’ve learned so much. But I can’t with this show because I have to look after my performance.  Once I hit the time for me to prepare for my performance, that’s it.

Peggy Baker in "epilogue". Photo by Makoto Hirata

L: I haven’t figured that out yet. When I made a duet for Elke Schroeder and Sky Fairchild-Waller last year, I loved just watching, It was first thing I choreographed that I’m not at all in….but the twitchiness to be in …to dance, is still there…how many more years do I have, it whispers…

P (laughing): I don’t have that twitchiness anymore. That’s already made itself clear. I’m no longer a dancer but I sometimes still perform. I’m the ruin of a dancer. I could only be what I am now if I had been a dancer. Even if someone else could do the things I can do I’m not sure I’d buy it. I just know that all of that investment we make in our physical practice makes a different kind of performer.

L: You have sort of talked about this a bit already…. But how has your choreography evolved?

P: An accelerated evolution. I’m looking with incredible kinesthetic memory. From what I’m feeling in my body and what I’m seeing and the impulses of my dancers. Before it was my own kinetic impulses….I didn’t expect to be a choreographer at this time in my life, but I wanted at first to experiment with working with other people with the same tools I used on myself. After a somewhat lurching entry during which I learned a huge amount, something started.  My own drive to make took over. Before it was always self-exploration….

L: When do you feel that switch started to happen?

P: It happened when I came home from rehearsing with the dancers one day and felt really happy. I realized I hadn’t felt like this since I was really in my body.

L: So fairly recently.

P: The last six or seven years.

It was with Coalesce (2010)….it got me excited. I was learning, I was growing. I couldn’t wait to go back into the studio. It was the same feeling I had in my dancer life.

L: Since I had that mentorship grant a few years ago and you sat with me in my renovation-ridden house and you gave me some breathtaking advice, I associate you with generosity – resources, information, spirit. How do you keep yourself so generous?

P: Oh my goodness….well I’ve been the recipient of such tremendous generosity….I come from a big family. I learned how to share and take pleasure in sharing. I love being part of a community, a network that’s healthy and vibrant. The more any artist here succeeds the better it is for everybody.

I want to see our community blossom. I want dance to be a great milieu. It requires everyone to contribute to that possibility.  I want to do that. I want this to be a great place for dance. There’s some stuff in the way but we shouldn’t be in our own way.

L: I’m glad I have this recorded because I can listen to it again and again to feel re-inspired and rooted.

See Peggy Baker Dance Projects in the heart of the arts:
February 21-26, 2017
(1115 Queen St. West)
Adults: $30
Students/Seniors/Arts Workers/CADA Member: $22
Early Bird promo-code: EARLY20, expires Jan 31st
Other discounts available through The Theatre Centre Dance Card