How to tear down a wall, with Tracey Norman.

When Tracey Norman's email announcing her show "How to Tear Down a Wall" arrived in my inbox, I teared up a little just reading its title.

How to tear down a wall.

Wall of ice. Wall of apathy. Wall of despair. Wall that divides, keeps out, keeps in, restricts.

In a time when walls really can't stop us from communicating with each other, or from knowing what's going on elsewhere, there is something still powerful, threatening about the idea of building a wall.

So how to tear one down? I want to know.

LR: How to tear down a wall  — what does this title mean? it’s super evocative, at face value, or taking into consideration some recent political statements of building a wall etc and our metaphorical/allegorical use of it in daily language. i want to know how to tear down a wall!!!!

TN: Well I think it’s a fairly accessible title to which you can attach surface value meaning right away and hopefully relate to in some way. I looked at it a bit as a challenge going into it. I had the title in mind fairly early on in our initial creative phase and it’s been a matter of trying to live up to it in some ways. I find it a lot easier to show conflict on stage than it is to show non-sentimental versions of its opposite. So I will say I’ve been working to figure out what the title means as we work our way through the piece. For sure, at the time of naming the work it has huge political meaning attached to it. This is purposeful and I’m mining for those tiny moments of misunderstanding  that fester and if left to unstable individuals turn into huge statements of discrimination.  

LR: How did this program come about? Does it stem from your research last year into community? I was happy to be involved in a couple of those sessions....

TN: This program first came about because I set the horse before the cart – I had a spot in Toronto Fringe and no plans for it. I thought about giving it up and then I looked down the long list of dance artists who’d applied. I saw one of my dearest friends, Alison Daley, on the list, as well as Half Second Echo (HSE) comprised of dancers Justine Comfort, Sarah Dowhun-Tompa, Miles Gosse, Niko Markakis and Denise Solleza. I decided to invite Alison to choreograph with me and asked HSE if they’d like to be involved in a creative exchange in which we make work with them and share in the workload and profits of the production.  A year ago right now I started working with them on the seeds of this work and I was having so much fun with them and compelled by working with a group of collaborators who were new to me and younger than me that I got excited about what more we could do and proposed the idea to DanceWorks. We went on to show a 15-minute seedling for the work at Toronto Fringe and then had a phase of further creation in December and we’re inside one right now, building towards the full work.

And yes, I would say it’s related somewhat to my research into community you’re referring to. That was kind of a scratching of the surface – more about getting some rust off the wheels after taking a break from choreographic work following having my daughter. I want to actually get back to some of that specific work at some point but also it did naturally  lead into my interest in this project.

LR: Now baby #2 is on the way, you're still on strike at York, you have a youngster at home...How are you managing all these facets of stress?

TN: If I’m honest, this has been a stressful period, especially since going on strike – we’re in week 7 of the strike right now. I knew this pregnancy would be different than the first obviously with less time to focus on being pregnant but it’s been unexpectedly stressful due to unexpected elements. In some kind of alliance with precarious workers or something my daughter, Pearl, stopped sleeping the night we went on strike. It’s been a weird 6 weeks of sleeping on Pearl’s floor, being completely out of routine and trying to dive into my production as much as possible. 

It’s not to say – boo hoo for me – but to say I’ve learned more about walls in this process. I’ve seen a clear example of what happens when people don’t communicate. This is the 4th strike I’ve been a part of at York between my time as an undergrad/grad student and contract faculty member. This one has been pretty ugly and heart-breaking. But it’s almost been moving in slow-motion from Aug 31 when our contract was actually up until now and it’s allowed me to look up close at how communication breaks down, old walls go up and all of a sudden I find myself very angry at the situation, the larger cultural implications, and how connected it is to our struggles of being taken seriously as artists. 

The same thing happened with Pearl, she turned 3, we went on strike and one night she just stopped sleeping. Formerly a fantastic sleeper, I wondered how could this just seemingly happen over night but of course the anxieties were likely building up for her below the surface for a while. And when you look at kids, as you know, it’s a real study in how quickly habits form. You lay with them one night and 7 weeks later you’re still there – the new normal. 

All this to say, I’m using some of the stress and set-backs as research into my current work.

LR: So amidst the stresses, what keeps you motivated to keep going?

TN: The people I work with keep me motivated… and the people I live with. I have a good support system at home. I work with people I feel lucky to be around every day. I teach with excellent colleagues and have the opportunity to work with young dancers who inspire me and keep me going on some days. 

I admit the process of coming back to my creative practice after having a child was not a smooth one for me. I’ve learned from it and hope it will help me this second time around. I went back to teaching when Pearl was 6 months but I really didn’t get going with my choreographic work until she was 2 years old (a year ago now) and once I was back working this way, it felt like I’d been missing a limb or something. I completely understood what I’d given up. 

That said, it was a good thing to go through and it made me hungry to be making things, working differently and proposing more modest productions that I could still sink my teeth into. Ego is not as present for me any more in my work. So I can attribute all of this to my daughter teaching me and having a partner, Craig, who understands the absolute importance of me continuing my practice.

LR: What specifically makes How to Tear Down a Wall a site specific work? What do you love and what challenges you about the Shaw street space?

TN: I believe that any time you think about the performance space and work as much as you can in the performance space, the work is site-specific. My MFA research was focused on connecting cartography and choreography – essentially how we map our processes and our spaces. Within this research I felt so connected to all of the research around the importance of place and space. 

I acknowledge that for others in their processes this isn’t so important. The same way my mind rarely goes to elements like costuming without being forced to. But since I was a small child I’ve always had this deep connection to my spaces and their ability to play a role in my mood and productivity. I am deeply affected by the spaces I work in and deeply invested in figuring out their character or history. 

Since walking into our Artscape studio almost 5 years ago, I had such a good feeling about it. It has positively affected many of us. I share the space with my collective, Intergalactic Arts Collective (IGAC) and it’s exciting to make work in the space and imagine this is the same space where people will witness the work. It’s limiting but also a feeling of the sky is the limit – this is our playground. We become intimately connected with each other in the process and also the space as a partner to that process.

LR: With so many processes you rehearse in one space and it affects how the rehearsals go, the material that develops the images that inform the work. And then you go stage it in another location. And you either have to conjure up new imagery, or work to rebuild those sensations without the sights, sounds, smells, textures being right there. I always feel that in my process, but never really considered it until just now.

So one thing I always want to know is what people are reading. I have a massive stack to get through but I'll make the pile higher...What are you reading now? Like you have time to read with everything that's going on!

TN: Yes, reading is a bit of a challenge right now but I still find time to read a few pages most days. Actually for the first year or two of my daughter’s life I read a lot because she was a marathon breast-feeder so I was flying through books! Right now I’ve just finished reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Your dear friend and my colleague, Jen Bolt, has done a lot of research into growth mindset and I became really interested in it and when I inherited a group of her students this year I decided to continue on this work with them that she’d started. The results were fantastic and Dweck’s research has become a personal interest for me. 

I also recently read The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad which was a really interesting look into how we fought for our weekends, only to allow them to be snatched back up because of precarious work, lacking boundaries in our work and shifting priorities. I have a lot to do before I can truly retrieve my weekends but when I do have a weekend focused on culture, nature and family I immediately see the effects of it on my week and how I am with others. That whole “busy is a decision” thing we could all realize more. 

I also recently read The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary, which is so much more than a parenting book. It’s a really beautiful book that looks at our struggles with power, our own family history and finding our essence as adults before we can possibly parent in a way that encourages our child’s essence to flourish. Seems like I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately! I can see how all of these link to my creative processes lately and how I work with people. More than ever, I feel more clear about really listening to others’ voices in process but not losing my own. I think some of this reading has influenced that.

LR: Can you illuminate for me what draws you to each of the performers in your work? They are a really wonderful group of people!

TN:  Yes – they are a great group of people I get to work with right now. When we started working together a year ago for our first project together, they came as a package deal. They are part of a collective, Half Second Echo, which they founded upon finishing school 5 years ago. Niko is no longer a part of the collective, but I wanted him in this process and they all still work together well. I knew all of them before this last year of making work together but this was the first time we’d worked together in this way. Like I mentioned above, it just felt right when we started working together and I wanted to keep pushing them and myself, thus our continued work on this project and upcoming projects for Montreal and Toronto Fringe. 

To get specific, I love how different they all are but how well they work together and in that millennial way really appreciate and encourage their differences, I think more so than my generation. 

Denise is this beautiful soul and it emanates through her. She is comfortable on stage in an almost eerie way. I could watch her stand on stage with her eyes closed for 10 minutes and be satisfied. I also appreciate how she is wise and paces herself in process, bringing out her full physicality only when needed. 


Justine is a powerhouse and capable of so much. I remember seeing her perform for the first time when she was probably 19 and I was wowed by her. Physically she’s able to accomplish so much but she’s also such a generous person who thanks everyone when she leaves rehearsal and has gone out of her way to help me behind the scenes. 

Sarah is strong and keeps her head down and works when the going gets tough. She’s been dealing with a serious injury for some time and finds a way to rise above. She’s one of those dancers who will offer you multiple ways to do something or find a way to correct something before you really realized it was going wrong. 

Niko is athletic, fierce and complex. He throws himself into his dancing and literally into walls and windows in our piece! He is kind and intelligent and I feel like I could ask him to do anything and he’d try it at least once. 

And last but not least is Miles. Miles is the sweetest person who I feel is super connected to his essence in the way I was just talking about with that parenting book. When I watch him work I feel like I see the child in him still, in the most positive sense, and I wish we could all hold onto this. He knows who he is and as a tribute to that everyone loves him. I ask a lot of him in this piece and he has willingly gone there from day.


Julia Sasso has been my outside eye/mentor, teaching colleague, and dear friend for almost a decade. It’s so funny because she’s so honest and there’s this vibe when she walks into the room in which I feel dancers are nervous and want to impress her… but for me she’s built me up and supported me more than anyone. She’s so complex but communicates so simply and I always just “get” what she’s saying. She’s picked me up when things go wrong and sometimes I process things like negative news about funding really quickly (I think it’s a defense mechanism) and she’s more pissed off than me or fighting for me when I don’t even think to fight. I realize how much she cares in these moments and that I aspire to be that person for others.


Tracey is an aspirational person herself -- calm and thoughtful through stressful times, immensely intelligent and generous.

I guarantee however she tears down that wall, it will be with kindness.

How To Tear Down a Wall
A DanceWorks CoWorks Series Event
April 24-29, 2018 @8pm
World Premiere
Artscape Youngplace, Studio 103
Featuring: Justine Comfort, Sarah Dowhun, Miles Gosse, Niko Markakis & Denise Solleza
Lighting Designer: Gabriel Cropley
Tickets $18-$25 


all photos by Craig Chambers courtesy of Tracey Norman


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