Elling Lien speaks with Canadian modern dancer Margie Gillis just before her debut performance in Newfoundland on October 11 at the Festival of New Dance.
She has been called a courageous and free-spirited pioneer of modern dance, and Margie Gillis is already internationally renowned for her solo work, but this year, her fame has been kicked up a notch by two things:
1. In May of this year she received the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award Foundation. Her career has spanned more than 35 years.
2. In June she bore the brunt of a hostile interview by Sun News Network’s Krista Erickson. As Globe columnist John Doyle put it, Erickson “accosted dancer Margie Gillis on air about arts funding and tried to beat her up, verbally.” Erickson demanded to know why Gillis and her dance foundation had, over the past 13 years, received what she said was $1.2-million of grants from taxpayers. She then mocked her arm gestures and told Gillis she had no right to talk about art when Canadian soldiers were dying in Afghanistan. It was pretty weird. And for the arts community in Canada, it sparked a bright white anger. People wrote so many letters of complaint to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council—twice more than they usually receive in a whole year—that the organization was overwhelmed.
During and after the interview, Margie Gillis remains as composed and calm as ever.
I caught up with her by phone to talk about her work and the Sun News Network debacle.
I wanted to first wish you congratulations on your Governor General’s Award.
Thank you. It really, really is wonderful, but a lot in our life is like getting out of the limousine and not having money for the subway. It’s a very wonderful combination of extremes. I am utterly and completely delighted by the award, of course, and by the recognition from my country.
You know, I just love the human body in motion. It just thrills the heck out of me. I was teaching three classes here in New York yesterday. I teach very intensely and someone said, “How are you going to do it?” and I said, “Curiosity.”
I just get excited, I get totally enamoured each time with a new group of people and what they are doing and how their minds affect their bodies. The whole inner landscape becomes manifest. It’s like reading great literature or poetry. Something tremendously revealing and exciting. So it thrills me.
What are you working on these days?
Recently I’m involved quite excitedly and heavily in a project called Dancing at the Crossroads which is investigating the use of dance and movement as a way of conflict resolution, the premise being that “knowing is not enough.” Often our minds will know a certain thing is good or right for us, but we just can’t
Also, in conflict resolution there’s an awful lot of luggage, or ghosts. A person can represent a community or a family or a history, so how do you bring that to the table?
And often by going into abstraction it becomes non-threatening.
How did you get your start in dance?
My background was very untraditional in the dance world. I was one might say voted most likely to fail.
I was just a mess as a child, but I loved to dance. I was not the right height, I was not the right weight, I was pigeon-toed, I was way emotionally… I needed to release emotion and not control it, so any kind of controlling was really an explosive event for me.
Ballet was not for you, then.
Not for me, no. Not one of those kids. So how I worked with that was through dancing. It calmed my mind.
At this point, knowing what I know as an older woman and what’s happened recently, I would say thank God that I didn’t end up on Ritalin and that I was able to go along with the adventure and find my own solutions for my own problems, through dance. I started performing thinking it would be a failure, but it was this phenomenal success. I was able to travel all over the world, I was able to represent my country, I was able to touch people’s lives very deeply and I still do and I love it.
Then I began to realize, “Hey, I actually can teach this to other people” and people started coming to me, mainly dancers at first, and I was the only modern dancer on the ballet circuit. It’s just a strange, strange thing to be [laugh] but there you have it.
Going back to conflict resolution—can you tell me about what the Sun News interview was like? How did it happen?
After the Governor General’s Award they had phoned my office for about two weeks. I was politically very opposed to what I referred to as Fox News North, because it came out of the Murdoch affiliate, but I was told that there was deep respect for me and that they wished me to come and give another point of view and I thought, well, maybe in Canada it will be different. And after being assured by my administrator that for two weeks they had been phoning every day, being extremely flattering, really wanting to offer me a chance to speak, and that there would be a few difficult questions but it was about the arts in Canada, funding for the arts in Canada, I said yes. And indeed of course she never even asked one question about funding the arts, she was just right at me.
I think that people think that dancers are just pushovers. I think they think we are a fun little group of I don’t know what.
So you didn’t have any idea that the interview was going to proceed as it did?
I knew I was going to a conservative interview, but I had been assured, absolutely assured and in fact I was less angry or upset… like I don’t think I was really angry. I was shocked for a few hours, then I felt frightened.
Because I was in a room, alone. Because I know that this woman comes from a powerful group of people that really do believe that the arts are actually not… that they are a threat, and that her idea of disagreement is aggressive and that a lot of damage could be done. We live in a country where it’s not always acceptable to stand out in that way and my funding, my personal funding was being questioned.
Yes, the very first question was “What is the sum total of grants you received throughout your career?” [laugh]
Yeah, I knew I was being set up as a poster child for a certain amount of anger. I actually am not worried now. At the moment I thought it was really worrying, and now I’m really realizing that most people are not on board with this at all. The outpouring, not only from Canada but from around the world, but particularly from Canada and from Alberta, from the west of Canada, was just astonishing. People saying, you know, we want to be able to disagree, but not like this.
I do think it’s important to be brave, I do think it’s important to stand up and I do think it’s important to be respectful and proper.
How do you feel about it now?
I really don’t have any animosity towards Erickson. I feel very sorry for her. Somebody was speaking in her ear the entire time so it was not her interview per se, it was somebody else telling her what to do and how to go at me. I had something to hold my ground for, which is my community. And I also am really lucky to be in Quebec. We love and value the arts to a profound degree.
Just watching it myself again recently I can’t help but get angry again.
Yes, but it is intended to create anger, it’s intended to create aggression.
My Google Alerts thing is pretty wild. I get a note for every article. Some of it is aggressive, but the majority of it is incredibly pro arts… not necessarily pro Margie Gillis. I’m not looking for that. This is about community, this is about humanity, this is about who we are as a society, how we treat each other and how we express ourselves within and to the world, so I feel very reinforced in being appropriate and kind and strong. That does not mean not being wild. I do think being wild is important, but I think being wild and appropriate can co-exist, just as I think compassion and discernment can co-exist.
So how do you defend arts funding now?
Basically my fundamental thing is that the arts are about creation and that’s about ways of problem solving. The arts allow us to create places where we cast out what is possible for humanity. We play things out and we speak about our humanity. We can illuminate our humanity. It’s an area to reveal. Whether it’s literal or it’s abstract, or whatever form that takes, whatever form of art is created, whether it’s music or dance or visual art. It’s a testing ground.
You’ve say the arts in general, but thinking specifically about contemporary dance… If you could do the interview over and you could explain the value of contemporary dance, what would you answer?
Well, contemporary dance is researching what is possible for the human spirit within the body. It’s about ideas and feelings and thoughts and what the soul wants. All aspects of who we are turn into motion. We speak to our generation and we research what is going on with our generation. We research what is possible for the future. We research what’s happened in the past and whether and how it may have value.
A lot of what we reveal through the art becomes part of sports, it becomes part of the medical field. It becomes part of the philosophical field. We interact and share our knowledge and a lot of knowledge is experiential. That has been devalued over the years. Experiential knowledge is extremely important so, as I say, you can know something is important but you can’t quite get there. But if you can make the shift in experience your brain will reorganize to find the solution to revisit that place that you know deeply.
The arts create a place where people can dialogue safely about their big, large ideas.
I had a conversation with a man recently and he joked he only likes tractor pulls and has never been to the theatre. That’s what he loves, he said. I said, “Your money is going to fund the arts and to fund me. What do you think about that?”
And he said, “Well you know, just because I’m not sick doesn’t mean I don’t believe in medicine.” And my heart went big.
Well I really appreciate the time that you have given me today Margie.
My pleasure, and I am so looking forward to coming and performing. I have wanted to come to Newfoundland for a long, long time.
Margie Gillis will perform Voyages into the Interior Landscape as part of the opening gala for the Festival of New Dance at the LSPU Hall on Tuesday October 11.