Reflections on Purpose in 2 Parts: Margie Gillis and Lucy Rupert


My conversation with the world renowned artist, creator and teacher Margie Gillis (OC CQ) was intended to be about how she brings our art form to a greater audience, by using the inherent values and features of dance in non-dance, non-performative settings. Actually, my work with Margie was  supposed to be in person, in a studio, through her intensive retreat but world and personal circumstances have made that impossible for the time being.

Either way, we wound up at something more lively,  and something ultimately about the how the values and features of our art form can support us in uncertain times.

This is about dance, but also about purpose.
Rigour and mystery.

Opposition and balance.

These word pairs can seem at odds with one another. Balance is good, opposition is bad. Rigour is good and must be used to transform mystery. All that may be true, but is only part of the picture.

Mystery inspires rigour.

The perpetuity of mystery is really what compels dancers to their rigour, to keep at it day by day.

Some actors I have met are a bit mystified by the daily training, the daily practice of dance, given that dancers and actors are very similar in so many other ways. Acting and dance require observation of human nature, and physical rigour. But the physical rigour of dance subverts and abstracts naturalism.

The mysteriousness (elusiveness) of perfection and of subversion and abstraction can be prime drives in dancers.

Over my 3 years -- so far! -- of interviewing scientists I have found that this too is what drives them. Mystery.

We go into the mystery to figure something out, knowing full well that figuring will also open up new mysteries, the folded extra dimensions of space -- both their theoretical manifestations and the metaphoric.

Margie's insight and lifelong research into mystery and rigour takes us to a place of deep self-trust.

We don't necessarily have to work so hard to trust our embodied wisdom. We just need to experience and notice the channels that facilitate the wisdom. Those channels could be mystical, spiritual, physical, dietary. Anyone can do it.

Her workshops in conflict transformation are a testament to this:

It's already there.

We have what we need.

Obviously when pain, poverty, ill-health or trauma come into our lives, those channels can be blocked.

We can't all heal ourselves, but we always have more than we might realize.

What's driving a lot of us right now, whether we are able to continue working or not, is purpose. I don't think it's a blind need for busy-ness. Instability seems to flare up our engines of activity, our desires to contribute. The opposite can happen, we can fall into lethargy -- but I think it comes from the same place, this need to feel centred and part of something beyond our own skin.

I have witnessed this in friends since the lockdown began -- an old friend sent me an impassioned message to please find Jesus. I know this is her way of feeling she is contributing to a larger purpose when things are uncertain. She hasn't tried to save my soul for many years now. And I am touched that she keeps trying. Another friend (who is still working full time in a fairly stressful job) has been doing everything she can to sculpt and shape how online learning is happening with the school our kids attend.

I am not working - as in I have no paying gigs and have lost many --but I find myself working constantly. Finishing tasks I left behind months ago, but mostly developing, channelling, flinging myself at ideas that can connect my work to something bigger than just my imagination and the possibilities of my body (and of the bodies of the dancers who collaborate with me).

I need my skills and experience to contribute to a bigger idea. I need purpose.

I have always believed deeply in the value of art in any society. It is entertainment and aspiration and beautification and provocation, but it is also retreat into and expansion of what is already in there, in ourselves individually and collectively. Performing in dance gives me the clearest shot at inviting an audience to bypass the intellect and go into their viscera (Tim Gunn! (if you know what I mean here, then you are a Project Runway fan too!)) in witnessing a performance. A vicarious retreat and expansion, if I let myself be vulnerable and articulate on stage.

If I hadn't had dance -- even though I was a terrible, undisciplined dancer until the age of 18 -- I don't think I would have made it through high school. I don't mean academically.

Dance provided me with a retreat into myself and an expansion beyond what I thought was possible and what I thought I was worthy of.  When I left high school and pursued a degree in dance at the University of Waterloo, it became my goal, for a long time subconsciously, to encourage others to do the same.

When I graduated I started investigating not how I could make a compelling expression of my feelings -- which were crazy and intense and important as it always goes in your 20s -- but of how my ability to embody those feelings could relieve, unsettle and change the audience.

I didn't by any stretch of the imagination have the capacity to put this into words beyond that sense of change in direction of my energy while performing. I used to try to pull the audience into me, and I found that energy had reversed, spiralling out to the audience.

This sense of purpose has deepened over the 25 years I have been dancing professionally. It is the subject of the research fellowship which has allowed me to interview scientists, do field work in the wilderness and in the studio over the past two years.

When I chatted with Margie on May 1st, she shared a similar understanding of dance's power. Seeing where her depth, wisdom and beauty have taken her into this sense of purpose has helped me find and will continue to help me find resilience in this crazy time when I am unable to work but must remain useful, ready to spring into action.

So, I sat down with Margie via Zoom, with the intention to ask her how she developed her work from choreography and performance into conflict transformation and training. But the conversation took it's own necessary trajectory.

It was already there.


LUCY: When I first saw you perform at Premiere (now Fleck) Dance Theatre somewhere around 1996 or 97 -- I felt an immediate attraction because everything you did transcended technique. I had been so obsessed with my perceived lack of technique, and I wanted to be a solo artist....I was riveted by how liberated and precise you were. It was not about showing technical virtuosity but there was physical virtuosity coming from someplace deeper.

MARGIE: I always had a sense of purpose. I never danced without that.

I came to dance from a sense of philosophy. I had a fear of audiences. But when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, I had a vision: dance. And I thought, "Oh fuck, no. People are not main creature and I don't want to do that."

I realized I was either going to run away from it or towards it. I had a lot of philosophies and ideas about human communication that I did want to test and try out. So I thought, "Ok, that's what I'll do."

I wanted it to be authentic and pure and if it would touch people deeply --  that was where it was going to be a success.  If it could provide a transformative experience, I didn't know to call it a transformative experience yet, but I had a real deep soul sense of "I'm going to do this and throw it right out there and let the thoughts and the emotions and the inner landscape of my being create the architecture. And I will not make the architecture unless it comes from those places, those imbued places.  And I want it to be real."

My tests were: How am I going to communication with others? Is it possible to communicate with others? Do people feel love at the same time? A lot of things that we know now about neuroscience. Nobody was out there dancing the way I wanted and I had no intention of becoming a dancer or a choreographer.

excerpts from Voyages Into the Inner Landscapes

But I put this out there and it was an incredible success. I thought I'd just put this out there and it would fail and I'd get back to being a teacher or involved in philosophy or psychology.

But it did work and it was touching people very, very deeply. I felt if I could be very close and honest and raw about what I was doing, that I could touch that part of other people. I was looking for the Jungian transpersonal state. To be as close to the essence as I could, so the sorrow wasn't about my sorrow, it was my understanding of sorrow. People would be very touched by the storylines, not because of my storyline within it but because of their own. They would see the motion or the story move through, the physicality of that, the storyline being embodied, allowed to come out in full physicality.

I, of course, was a wild child, and so I couldn't control myself. I needed to let things out rather than structure things. I was an oddball in that way. But that worked out just fine.

I have always come from a vantage point of problem solving, whether it's artistic or social or mathematical or physical -- there are all sorts of ways. Even with music, I've been interested in spoken work, silence, using music as an environment or as a partner. How is music touching the body, do you feel the music, it descending or rising? The myriad ways one can experience things...

It became apparent to me that dancers really take the music and make it vivid and seen in a certain kind of way. So I'd do tests, like take the music and play it three times and make a dance to the same piece of music played through three times and see if anyone would notice that was happening. They wouldn't.

One of my greatest compliments was people coming back stage [at a solo show] and wanting to meet the other dancers. My make up changes were changing the colour of my lipstick and possibly putting my hair into a ponytail. Nothing big. But I seemed to be multiple people.

LUCY: That's cool.

MARGIE: It was! They'd come backstage and say "Oh you were wonderful in your piece but I want to meet the dancer who did that other piece! Where is she?" I'm sitting there, short and wet and long-haired but they'd seen this really super tall woman. So much of my life has been people telling me "You look so much like Margie Gillis!"

The more I got through time, the more I got a hold of it, this thing I was trying to do. I only knew how to do it myself. I couldn't ask someone else to take that emotional risk. But I developed concepts about through and to, where "through" goes, where "to" goes in movement -- which is really important for times like now because you don't want to go "to" what sucks and stabilize. You want to go "through" what sucks and stabilize what's on the other side.

The psychology of movement, using movement to move people through their stuff, using it to problem solve, whatever the problem seems to be. I can't solve everything. But we can go into the mystery. And the rigour.

Sometimes ballet dancers, when they get older, approach me and want me to create something for them because they think they will suddenly be able. "Oh, I can do what she does now that I don't have my technique." But there is a technique to what I do, a strategy, a rigour. Not a discipline -- I never called it a discipline because I had a passion so there was no need for passion, just this thing I needed to do.

excerpts from A Stone's Poem

Like any science I researched my subject matter. I researched and researched and as I did I began to hone my understanding of nuance and excellence and art and quality, and I began to hone my intuition. Ultimately I could put all of this knowledge base at service and get hit by the inspiration: there's the problem, there's a solution. You don't own it, you just are in preparation to gather the information and the ideas together.

The one place I really had conflict with science, was the idea that it [intuition] all started in the brain. I was so excited when I heard Stephen Hawking say, "No, it starts in the stomach."

I'd been saying that for a long time. It comes from the centre of our being. It's not about us, it comes through us.We just have till the soil and be rigorous around curiosity and questioning and keeping ourselves vivid and alive to the subject. Then looking at it from another angle.

Constellations around the problem. I would do that with experiential wisdom. But I've always had a brain that wants to know everything yesterday.

LUCY: I can relate.

MARGIE: It was not good enough to be sitting there with a body that wanted to be roaring around. Another thing I super-love is the understanding that there is a place inside of us for sorting out that we are nature.

I love doing group solos so that everyone is doing the same thing on their own and over time it shifts and coalesces so that everyone fusing and doing it uniquely as well. That, to me, is that place of sorting out that we are part of nature.

LUCY: I just finished a big-cast project and it was really satisfying to see how little time it took for everyone to find their ecosystem together. We had so little time as a full ensemble in rehearsal.

MARGIE: Opportunities for big groups will be questioned very strongly in the coming period. People are going to have to do solos. The bigger companies will remain the bigger companies because it's just like society: if you've got the money.....Ballet BC lost something like $500,000 --but they have a good structure. People within the structure will help solve the problems.

Have you seen what Julliard did with video? It's just amazing. They released it on Wednesday. Of course they had major resources to make this happen. They have an astonishing editor. It's kick ass.

Julliard Bolero 

LUCY: I didn't see that but I'll look it up. I've found the Zoom concerts really inspiring. Just the attempt to be together particularly by symphony musicians. It really moves me.

MARGIE: Me too. The only people touring internationally before this happened -- it was really only 30 companies.  And only two Canadian groups. All from the ballet structure. Nothing really from the contemporary. There's so much going on that you can't really see anything.

It's going to be very interesting to see to how we adapt and change. We've really only gone through this for two months so if we do start coming out [from lockdown], and we have to go back in, we'll have a knowledge of how to go back in. It's going to have a rhythm and a wave to it and I imagine it's going to be about two years before we'll be in front of any kind of large audience.

Filming and incubation and cocooning is important right now. Waiting for your seeds to come to fruition. For dancers and choreographers it's a very important time to think "What do I want to say to my audience?" and "What kind of change do I want to put them through?".

The bigger questions are where do we go with the art when there only a few people in these big institutions who can support it and only a few people who decide what gets to be seen and not seen?

When the Canada Council started they had a discretionary fund so if somebody was really hot they would throw money at it, water it when it needed watering. Somebody recently I heard about had a really great program that people were crazy about and a tour across Canada, but they didn't get their funding for touring so it couldn't happen. That's insane. It's fucking insane.

It was an important thing about how the community grew back then -- this discretionary fund for when something caught the audience's imagination profoundly. But if you're going for ideas that you feel are not in the planet yet....


MARGIE: If you feel like "What I want is not here!" You have feel out the space for it and have the bravery to commit to it. But that's scary because the vision is so perfect and we're human and fallible, you have to make an incredible reconciliation. You have to hold opposites in such a horrifyingly big way. It's always been my experience that if you get 50% you're doing really good.

If 50% falls away from the high and low ends, it's good. It's important to say "I don't know." when you don't know. It doesn't mean that you actually don't know, it just means that your head hasn't organized it yet.

The knowing can be there before the head organizes it. That's what I love about dancers so much. The knowing is in the body already.

LUCY: That was a really hard thing for me on my last project because I was working with 12 dancers --including myself-- and a commissioned choreographer and a team. Most of the time we were rehearsing separately and only came together at the end. Through the whole process everyone was so lovely and generous and supportive that I felt comfortable saying "I don't know.....yet."

But in those last two weeks before the show opened when there still that generosity from all the collaborators saying "Lucy what about this? and this? and what about that?" I couldn't handle it...

I pride myself in being a very patient person and I try to create a very kind working environment, but in the pressure at the end I felt myself get a little snarky, saying "I don't know and you talking to me about it right now isn't helping."

I felt so terrible. But inside I was trying to tell myself "It's ok!! You still don't have to know everything." I should be allowed to not know. I should allow myself to feel ok about that.

The collaborators wanted to help find a solution because they were with me in what I was trying to do. This was a really good problem to have, but it was hard to recognize that in the moment.

We've all worked in those situations where we just sit back and wait for the choreographer to tell us what to do. I'm so glad that the team felt that collaborative spirit, even though I really did have to be responsible for executing the vision since it was my beast we were all riding.

MARGIE: From a spiritual perspective and Jungian view, you need to be centred in yourself and it's really valid to say "no" and say "back off and give me space". When we go up to into our heads  and don't connect to our bodies it does a profound thing to our movement quality and cognizance. You've got to be centred.

From the Jungian perspective it's discernment as opposed to criticism. This is a huge one for women. Discernment will give you everything criticism gives you, but it connects to your empathy and community. Criticism ostracizes you and your heart and everyone else. It's a pretty dumb tool.

It can create beautiful excellence, but you can have it through discernment, a feminine consciousness. It's a Jungian statement: Women in order to regain themselves in this world need to be discerning about their compassion, otherwise they are lost.


LUCY: Oh Pablo, come here and say hi to Margie Gillis, she is a world-renowned choreographer and dancer, and Margie's class was the first dance class I took after you were born.

[I pretty much cried all the way through from joy and the stimulation of so many body parts -- I think it was not quite two months after Pablo was born.]

PABLO: That's pretty cool.

LUCY: What did you want to tell me, Pablo?

PABLO: I beat every single boss in the Crystal Caverns. Can I play some more?

LUCY: Yes.

PABLO: Great!

LUCY: He's playing this game Prodigy where they are wizards and have to battle creatures, but the battles are math questions.

MARGIE: I've heard of it. It's fantastic.

LUCY: He plays with one of his classmates almost everyday. It really helps him normalize things right now. He's having some tough times.  When we're allowed to go back into the world I think child psychologists are going to have a lot of work on their hands.

Some days are better than others. But this morning he didn't want to do anything -- he didn't want to go to his online class. He just wanted to play cards with me. He said he didn't feel like himself, he didn't want to participate, he felt weird and angry.

I wish I could -- this is that criticism/discernment coupling -- I'm being very critical of myself because I wish I could to support him the way he needs in every moment but I don't know my way through this. I've not been through this before either.

MARGIE: You don't know. That's ok.

LUCY: A good thing I've learned -- from being a dancer -- is to go back to the body. When Pablo gets stressed out we talk about the heart softening, the lungs softening, the space behind your eyes softening. So when he gets upset I just hug him, even when he really doesn't want it -- but the attention to the body takes him back into his centre -- like you were saying! Now he knows when he feels weird he just comes over and hugs me. You know....

MARGIE: Yeah, I do know. I mean, I don't have a child, but I know...

LUCY: It's humanity, just a little version.

MARGIE: You just go through it in purity, in wisdom, in experience.

[Deep breath.]

LUCY: There are four words I'd offer out, sort of as a question. I was re-reading your essays in The Choreography of Resolution and a pair of words jumped out at me, coming from your writing that our health has balance and opposition. They struck me because so much of our society would see them as being --

MARGIE: Rigid.

LUCY: Well, I was thinking separate. Like balance is good and opposition is bad. But as dancers we know balance is opposition, it's not holding still but you have to have a sense of movement in opposite directions which creates balance.

MARGIE: I'm working a lot with the notion of resilient stability. If something is too rigid it breaks, if something is too flaccid it doesn't have any rigour or life and it pushes out. So what you are doing is working the opposites so that you can hold more. Counterbalance and holding centre, the deep heart, with an elasticity.

My main person in these dialogues about health is Irene Dowd. The elasticity of the body and what is the elasticity of the mind, the resilience? How do we meet life from a centred place?

What is that book? About Auschwitz? About who survived. It wasn't the strongest, it was the most resilient. What made them resilient? A strong sense of meaning.

LUCY: Oh, Viktor Frankl's book, "Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning".

MARGIE: Yes. Survival came from: Giving creative value, facing the situation and meeting life.

LUCY: Meeting each for itself and not generalizing the situation immediately.

MARGIE: Yes. Meeting this moment, this thing and then the next. Curiosity and a centred place moved people through. For me the centre is resilient and juicy. As we search for stability in this time, it will be holding space and stability that is lively that will help us through.

LUCY: Another two words you've used as a pair,  almost every scientist I've interviewed so far has also used: rigour and mystery. I think those two words are also thought to be separate in an popular understanding, but an interesting trait of both artists and scientists is that we understand good work gets done when there's rigour and mystery and that there's rigour when you venture into the mystery.  I think it's really remarkable that those two words keep coming up.

MARGIE: They are super, super, super important. Random motion is now being understood, improvisational motion and guided motion like Gaga and the way I teach, create new brain waves. More rigoured movement stabilizes what the brain waves already there. You need both.

Scientists and creators use their rigour to go forward but they have to be able to sit back and know that something is going to come through them. There's a globalization of questioning and energy and then from this clear blue Buddha mind, suddenly there's the whole landscape. It happens in an openness and a mystery.

There is a deep focus, a narrowing of vision, necessity vision, and then universal vision that opens up the view,  and finally economy vision which is the movement between the two of them. When you're playing between the two, you'll overdo one and then the other, and one and then the other. That means we have opened and reopened. There are times where we hit walls and then we take it out into an open perspective.

I see how scientists are on the chase for something and at some point something moves through them and gathers it all together, puts a universality or a mystery to it, it gets put in a larger perspective. It allows for the detail to come in

LUCY: There have been a lot of those stories in the scientists I've interviewed. Those moments of clarity when something bigger moves through them. Usually it's in a moment of letting go.

One person I interviewed, Matt Russo, is an amazing example. He went to Etobicoke School of the Arts and was an accomplished musician, got an undergraduate degree in jazz guitar performance. He kept a life as a musician on the side, as he continued his academic career in astrophysics. All the way through with a PhD, he kept those two veins of his life separate.

It was the discovery of the musicality in the Trappist planetary system that gave him that experience you are speaking of, when he realized his ability to make music and understand the physics of planets and stars gave him a unique opportunity to interpret and share the universe in a new way. His work has just taken off since then.

He just did a thing for NASA for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It's been an explosion for him, to bring these two aspects of his life together in a way that is meaningful and offering a different view or context to a wider range of people than a more purely academic work might not have.

When that clarity drops in, as you said, even if it is a tiny clarity, it seems like it has the potential to open up a huge amount possibilities.

MARGIE: One of the dynamics I've gotten into is the idea of the calling. Most of my life I've thought of it as something I'm searching for. That I'm going out there for it. I've come to understand if I don't know, I can call it to me. I thought of it as entering through the back and coming through me. But I can let it seep into me -- it's already there, like a parallel universe, I'm just drawing it in. It's a very good practice when I don't know what the next step is, or when I find myself in a real desire that's getting me into trouble.

[Big Laughter. Both of us.]

I'm just squeezing myself out of a toothpaste tube trying to be right for it and in doing that I get over the line, trying to call it to me. I have to let it call me too. I've done the work, the landscaping, and I'm ready for new stuff. What is my soul's purpose? Sometimes our soul's purpose is not something we really want to accept.

We are given desire and appetite to go on certain pathways.

LUCY: Margie, you have been so generous with your time. I can't tell you how much I needed this, how this is the perfect day for me to hear your words. And I miss you!

MARGIE: I miss you too.

LUCY: Thank you so much Margie. Have a beautiful afternoon.


The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation 

“Artistic expression is essential for the evolution of our collective wellbeing.” – Margie Gillis

Margie Gillis' career has spanned over 45 years, so far. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Knight of the Order nationale du Quebec and winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor General's Performing Arts Award Foundation, among countless other awards and honours.

Visit her website (above) to learn more about her work and her foundation.

Art + Science interviews are made possible with the generous support of the Chalmers Family Fund Fellowship program, administered by the Ontario Arts Council.


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