Dreamers: Karen and Allen Kaeja dream big
Have you heard about Solo Dance Xchange? A dream of Karen Kaeja's, brought to fruition through film by Allen Kaeja and a performance happening this week at Crow's Theatre's beautiful new space in Leslieville. Produced by Kaeja d'Dance, 22 dancers reinterpret the solos of each other in a stream of evolution, with the potential to reveal the beauty of the individuality as much as the universality of the artists involved and dance as an art form. Check out this link for a more detailed description of the whole monumental undertaking: https://www.kaeja.org/sdx
They've been dreamers for a long time....
Karen and Allen Kaeja
Below, I've compiled questions and answers with Karen and Allen Kaeja, and dance artists Esmeralda Enrique and Roshanak Jaberi, on the nature of inspiration and reinterpretation.
LR: So, Karen and Allen…what gave rise to this project? What need did you see or feel in conceiving the Solo Xchange?
KK: I have been incubating the Solo Dance Xchange for about ten years. It has taken many forms in my mind but this incarnation is the one that stuck. It was always a short, under 5 minutes, explorations where the inspiration came directly from another dancer’s articulations and practice. I never had enough money to move forward, just lots of conversations. I kept it percolating and I guess it never left me. I love making platforms for people to research, create and shine and I seem to keep doing it in different incarnations.
AK: Both Karen and I have been dreaming of these initiatives for over a decade. In 1997 I was beginning to immerse myself in film, I said to Karen that, as we were touring around the world, from India, Europe to South/Central America, I wanted to shoot short solos of her in every location. When we started to discuss what to apply with to the Toronto Arts Council Strategic Funding program, I though what if I expanded the concept to many of our incredible dance artists in deeply personal spaces throughout Metro TO and I knew I wanted to shoot in 4K.
KK: Sooooo, driving along a country road with Allen, heading back into the city a year and a half ago, we were discussing the plethora of projects to apply for. We both tried to convince each that our long-term incubating ideas were way more important/impressive/necessary than the other's. After lots of long pauses, it became clear to me that both our dreams can live together as one project. That was it. The combined project became Xtraordinary TO Dances. Important to me was that the artists were all given the same parameters and had exactly the same opportunities offered throughout the process.
LR: One of the most compelling things about the Solo Dance Xchange project, to me, is the transference of one artist’s material to an artist working in a different genre or medium of dance. At root movement is movement, but we know our bodies have their familiar physical homes and pathways…Esmeralda and Roshanak, could you tell me: what stood out in the for you in the physicality, or movement qualities of the artists whose work you are interpreting?
RJ: What stood out to me in the artist's movement quality was their musicality. There was a lot that remained a mystery because while I had seem them many times in performance, I didn't know much about their artistic motivations, which is what intrigues me most. So my approach was to connect with the elements that personally resonated with me, drawing inspiration not only from their movement but also from their story.
EE: What has stood out for me is not so much the material but the intention of their movement, the abandon and the joy in hurling yourself into danger!
LR: How did you select the artists involved, what were the key elements in the artists you wanted?
AK: For the film aspect of the project, this was a very long and difficult process and we have sooooo many Xtraordinary Dance Artists (EDA) here in TO. We set a number of parameters that helped us narrow down the EDA’s and they included:
i. Must be a Choreographer
ii. Must be a Performer
iii. Must be comfortable improvising
iv. Must be available for both projects: Film & Stage
It was very important to us that we represented, as much as we could, the mosaic of dance currently active and excelling in our city. We also wanted a strong multi-generational representation. They range from their 20s to their 70s.
KK: The ‘selection process’ for the 22 Xtraordinary TO Dancers took about a year. First we had to decide how many artists we could bring in to the project – budget budget budget. Then we began intuitively making our way through the huge number of artists in our minds that are deeply imbedded in their practices. We could be easily making XTOD’s annually for the rest of our lives with the number of great artists in Toronto.
LR: For the stage aspect of the project, how did you determine the transferences, the pairings of dancers to reinterpret each others' work?
KK: After the film shoot, we gathered and the dancers drew a name out of a hat. If they got their own name it went back in for a redraw. So that was in June 2017 and it rolled forward from then.
LR: How did you, Esmeralda and Roshanak, approach translating that movement into your body? what was the in-studio process like for you? As much as you can tell me, as I know the pairings are secret until opening night!
EE: I am a much more cautious person at this stage of my life as it relates to physical danger. I do not take unnecessary physical risks. But hurling myself into music, rhythm, inner feelings and outer sensations, all of these new or unknown are exciting for me. So I have worked in-studio to embody these stimuli. We can only feel and know in our own bodies but I have tried to push the edge of my comfort zone in all areas.
RJ: I met with the artist one-on-one to learn more about the person behind the dancer. I was interested in their lived experiences and how their individual journey is expressed through their art. I was also curious about what excites them most and how that translates into their practice.
We met a second time in the studio with the intention of moving together. What I expected to be a short lesson in the physicality extracted from the artist's solo, turned into a one and a half hour improvisation which I walked away from feeling artistically full and with a deeper understanding of the person.
LR: Well you both lead clearly to my next question about the value of this project to the artists involved. Obviously you both have experienced really positive challenges and growth. what do you think the value of this project is for the artists involved? for the audiences that encounter it?
RJ: The energetic exchange with a new artist re-invigorated my relationship to dance because it reminded me of my love of the unexpected and the sheer joy of moving with a new body without expectations.
EE: As artists we get to explore areas of how we can tell a story from very different perspectives, still our own, but perspectives that we usually do not rely on.
LR: And the process of giving your solo to another artist, what is that like? How involved were you?
RJ: I'm delighted and honoured to have my solo interpreted by an artist I admire. I met with the artist to talk about my story, and then again in the studio where I shared some of my movement vocabulary with them. I don't know much about what the outcome will be, but I'm most curious to see what the seeds of inspiration will be for my interpreting artist.
EE: We are not interpreting each other’s dance, but rather finding out how the other artist approaches their creation of movement, what inspires them, and approaching our dance with their inspirations. I am very curious to know and see how my approaches to my dance can inspire another dancer in a very different style.
LR: Anything surprising happen in the course of this project? Of course there must have been...
AK: During the process of filming, we interviewed each of the EDA’s for 10 – 15 minutes. Their answers were mind-blowing, introspective, personal and incredibly enlightening. We hope to make a documentary with their dance and interview processes.
KK: Originally I thought I would visit rehearsals for all the works, and I have seen some, but I will not have seen most of the works until we are in the theatre. The artists have not seen each-others, nor heard their own solo music which be improvised live each night. I am most enamoured with the amount of trust that the artists have given Allen and I in this whole Xtraordinary TO Dances project.
LR: So the biggest surprise is still to come for you Karen! On another vein, how do you manage as a company to keep expanding the scope of what Kaeja d’Dance does? — I guess I mean this from an artistic and energetic viewpoint rather than a managerial one, but I know they must overlap.
KK: Who really knows? I have always instigated projects that ring true to me, always self-taught. I had my own night shirt business called Dreamers, before I chose to commit to dance. Rather than waitressing to subsidize my career in the early phase, I made and toured my Dreamers Nightshirts for five years to craft shows all over Ontario, while I lived and trained and began professional work in both Montreal and New York.
John Oswald was one of my first nightshirt purchasers! I remember years later when I stopped the nightshirt train, John had called and wanted one – so he was my first and last to ask! I started the nightshirt biz much in the same way Kaeja d’Dance was born – out of a need to fulfil a passion.
AK: Karen and I believe strongly in following our passions and visions. We also are very supportive of each other’s creative visions and do everything we can to see each other’s ideas find a life.
KK: Both Allen and I are doers. In the first decade or so he was always the big idea person and I was the epitome of detail – dancing and brain. Over the years those roles have merged and transformed. I have moved out of my shy phase (for the most part) which let my urge to create bust out.
AK: We are always dreaming and realizing these directions. If an idea or project doesn’t receive enough funding to see it come to realization, then we just put it on the back-burner until either opportunity presents itself or it morphs into a newer, more vibrant idea.
KK: Kaeja d’Dance is an ongoing collaboration. Allen is an amazing human being. He and I definitely inspire and feed each other. We share a love to be in a state of creativity and travel and we are there for each other. I would call it orienting the disorienting. There are perks in our partnership for sure – and yes, of course there are challenges. It feels like we are a never-ending, always-evolving story, with kids in tow and hundreds of artists and team players in our sphere.
LR: And what inspires you as artists? All of you?
RJ: I'm currently challenging my artistic practice by deepening my research through my creative process, re-envisioning my aesthetic and physicality, as well as ideas around audience engagement. I'm interested in the intersection of dance with other art forms, with social justice at the heart of it.
KK: My current choreographic drive is really realizing what my lifelong passion has always been, which is all aspects of ‘Touch’. So I am taking 3-4 years rather than our normally slated 2 years to make a new work called Touch X. I am charged about working with professional and non-trained dancers. And I have four commissions this year which I am really honoured by. I do very much thrive on mentoring the next generation in a one on one context with their creative team. Giving them whatever I can and being in the studio in a way that works for them in creation.
EE: I am most curious about depth of expression, about how subtle I can be without losing the ability to communicate to an audience what I am trying to express.
AK: My work has transformed, whether purely physical, thematic, societal or personal. In my most recent production DEFIANT, I began to examine my deep personal past, having spent almost a decade being severely bullied, marginalized and trying to build a sense of self through the combatives of wrestling and Judo. Violence, re-direction of this energy into dance and redemption was at the core of this research.
I will continue with this investigation looking into the culture of shame and searching for the roots of inherent violence in our society, as well as the role of bystander in perpetrating this culture. Within this, I will examine the powerful roles of forgiveness, understanding and compassion as the roots of our humanity.