In town as part of this year’s Festival of New Dance, renowned Canadian contemporary dancer Peggy Baker talks to Elling Lien about work, dance, and her silent, solo work, Portal.
I was thinking about how as people work indoors more and more, people are losing contact with their bodies. I thought it would be interesting to talk to you about that, since as a dancer you know your body really well. What do you think?
Oh boy. Well, I think it’s a shame for one thing. The less variety we have on a physical level -– it seems to me that people are still very physical but their relationship is extremely narrow. Think visually how much time people spend looking at screens now as opposed to actual, real objects. Or the amount of print that we look at, as opposed to engaging in real time conversations with somebody we’re sharing space with.
The same thing goes for our bodies. We do less and less things with them. We have a narrower repertoire of physical activities. A lot of people don’t do any labour with their body at all. That’s all dance is. It’s just labour. It’s work. It’s work on the very, very bottom line. I feel very grateful that I can exert my body in that way because it has things to teach me.
One of the reasons people are getting carpal tunnel syndrome now at computers is because there’s no resistance from the keyboard. That was one of the things about an actual typewriter. The whole mechanism of it was a more healthy interaction. I’m not saying I don’t have the same fascination, but I’m very, very lucky that my life is a bit more complicated than that, and my physical life is primary.
I wanted to mention that watching your videos online, your body reminds me a lot of my mother’s body. She’s been a farmer her entire life. She’s still working and she’s not a young person any more. She’s got long arms, and her hands are, well… You can see that they’ve worked really hard. I can see a real similarity.
The kind of dancing that I’ve done has nurtured a particular kind of body. It’s an extremely different from a ballet dancer, for example. The aesthetic is very, very different.
You’re not afraid to build up your arms, for example…
No, definitely. If we just think of ballet and the way that arms are used in ballet, it’s actually a very narrow vocabulary of movements for classical dancers. The men, of course, have a much broader vocabulary because they’re actually lifting people and moving people around and manipulating. The women, the actual vocabulary for their arms is extremely narrow. In contemporary dance that’s one of the most expansive elements of the vocabulary.
You’ve been teaching at the National Ballet School for twenty years now. What kind of place does contemporary dance have there? Are you squeezing in there, or is it fairly respected?
It’s absolutely an integral part of the curriculum there. It’s changed a little bit –- I’ve been there for twenty years and it has shifted tremendously over that time, but it still shifts a little bit every year. It’s a very dynamic curriculum that’s still being developed and discovered. It’s changing just like everything else in the world.
Students assume now that they’re going to join a company that doesn’t only do classic ballet, even if it’s what they train in with their company class every morning, they all understand very clearly that it’s the last century. Most people say contemporary dance now because modern dance, which was really based in the techniques and in the companies of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross. Even Lester Horton. Those were the modern dance techniques. The lives of those creators are over, and their legacy is already and has been for many decades now. Dance has already been transformed and reinvigorated from a broader point of view. The principles that they discovered and developed, those have now become integrated in the broader dance world. There’s nothing more that can be done with their work. Those bodies of work already exist and creators now must also be doing their own work.
It’s like as if rock and roll stopped at the Beatles or Elvis…
Yes, exactly. They’re still really important to reflect on, and without them, we wouldn’t have arrived where we are now. It’s the very same thing. That’s actually a great analogy. People didn’t stop making pop music and rock and roll when the Beatles disbanded. Everyone didn’t say, “that’s it for pop music!”
“That’s as far as we can go! We have nothing left to say!”
It goes back to the brilliance of that time: Popular culture was being turned on its ear. These crucial creators in modern dance did the very same thing, but every so often somebody else is able to break through and offer some brand new ideas.
One of the reasons people have a hard time connecting with contemporary dance is they don’t know what the purpose is. What do you think?
Yeah, they assume it’s going to be something very concrete because we do things for reasons in our lives. I think dance, especially contemporary dance, it’s this very unusual balance between abstract and actual. They’re not necessarily related. I don’t believe that when people are listening to music they’re looking for meaning. They’re assuming an experience of music. The same thing when they look at contemporary art. It’s the mystery of the mind and sensibility that brought those elements together and the strange conflicts and the possibilities for meaning. It’s not a singular meaning. Actually, I believe that the meaning the audience receives is the actual meaning. They’re completing the work by their own perception of it. I think that people are too caught up in whether they liked it or not. I think they feel they’re supposed to be able to judge how good it was by how much they liked it. To me, those are the least important questions.
“I give it two thumbs up!”
[laughs] Yes, I think if people would just ask themselves, “What did I see?” they’d realize that they actually received something very unique to themselves.
So how do you get people to understand how to appreciate contemporary dance?
I think that’s part of the role of people who are publishing about dance. It’s the role of the presenter to provide pre-show talks or program notes or events that are public.
What kinds of things could the dance community and the publicity folks be doing differently?
I’ll just give you an example of things I do. I do every year in Toronto a series of free performances. They happen in unusual places at unusual times of day. So maybe at a theatre that’s not a dance theatre, or at the museum, or at the art gallery, or at a seniors’ home. Sometimes they’re over lunchtime or they’re on a Sunday afternoon. They’re free, and I call them Inside the Art. People who come to these performances hear me talking about the work and showing dances. Then we engage in a conversation about the work. I’ve been doing that for at least 10 years and that’s part of how I try to connect with my audience in Toronto.
How did you decide to do that kind of thing?
I just needed to. I felt almost like I wasn’t able to expand my reach into the community that I am a part of. I don’t mean the dance community—I mean the community that I live in, like my neighborhood and the city that I live in. When I performed in Calgary a couple years ago, I actually came out and talked to the audience for the first 10 minutes of my show. I know that it’s really demanding to look at one person dance for an hour. You’re wondering ‘what is this?’ So I told them a little bit about each dance and the various choreographers. I tried to free them up to be able to receive the performance. We need to be able to not be afraid to speak literally to the audience.
I’m doing in a dance called Portal in St. John’s. It’s a very, very stark dance. There’s no music.
I’m really sharing this darkened theater space with the audience. I’m on the stage but we’re sharing the pressure of the silence, and the uncertainty. The lights keep going out and I reappear somewhere else on the stage in a different lighting effect. It really plays with perspective. Sometimes I look gigantic. Other times I look very, very small. It doesn’t have any of the markers for us to understand beginning, middle and end because there’s no music, there’s no arc for the music, and because there’s all these blackouts all the way along. I think it ends up being really, really exciting for the audience. The uncertainty that we often feel when we’re seeing contemporary performance is amplified and becomes obvious that it’s part of the whole idea of the piece. For me, this idea of Portal, which is a threshold to someplace brand new, becomes a metaphor for the stage space, for the experience and performance, for each tiny little segment of the dance itself.
So by making the work silent, it seems like you’re confronting the audience, in a way. Raw contemporary dance.
I don’t feel that it’s confronting. I feel that it’s just breaking down one more barrier. To me it feels like a dance that’s very close to the bone. I’m taking away anything around it that would obscure the dance itself, and letting people just see what the dance is.
I just finished teaching a workshop in which everybody worked on their dance every single day, and we never used any of the music. We worked in silence. It’s just amazing how much more clear the dance is without the complication and scaffolding of the music. You are seeing the dance. When you reduce it down that far you can start to see what it is you’re giving people and what are they receiving. The music often tells you how important or what the tone is, or if it’s funny or sad or conflicted. The music is setting that up. When you don’t have the music and the dancer needs to bring that clarity and precision to what they’re doing, it’s super exciting.
By the end of the week we didn’t miss the music at all. We felt that we were receiving the dancing.
How could you see that in the students?
By their insightful comments about what they were looking at and the heightened precision and clarity of their dancing.
So they weren’t doing a certain thing on a certain beat? They didn’t have that to rely on. Is that right?
Right. They had to embody the tempo and dynamics. A lot of times dancers think they’re doing things because the music is doing it. They think that their dancing is becoming exciting. Actually it hasn’t changed at all. The music has become more exciting, but they haven’t done anything with their dancing. I think the dancers lean on music far too much. I don’t mean that we’d all be better off if dance had no music. No. But dancers spend too much time dancing to music and not enough time simply dancing.
You did an interview on CBC’s Q last year, in the spring. You were talking about Portal, and you mentioned that at that time when you were working on the show, you said at the beginning you were afraid of doing it in silence. Why were you afraid?
It takes you a while to understand what a dance is. The choreographer and the dancer are discovering what the dance is. Hopefully they discover what it is before the audience step into their discovery! As things are being made or as they’re being embodied, there’s a process of them coming to light and the choreographer as they understand what the work is hopefully is going to clear out elements that obscure it and not just keep everything because they made it that way as they go along. Things reveal themselves. I now understand what this dance is and so I’m not afraid of doing it in silence. At first I wasn’t assuming I would make a dance that wouldn’t have music.
It ended up, as I understood what it was, that it was a dance in silence. It revealed itself as I worked on it. I actually started working from a book of haiku. Each haiku had a photograph of a lotus –- it was a gift actually from a friend whose cottage I’m visiting right now. She gave me that book. I think it was a Christmas gift.
I took the book into the studio as a starting point, and I started making material that was inspired by these photographs and also by these haiku. Then I started experimenting with different music. It was quite a long process, as most dance is. At a certain point I brought in a book of photographs by Diane Arbus because certain things about the lilies -– the lotuses were so pristine and perfect and they started to drive me crazy. So I brought in a book of Diane Arbus photographs because they’re all about your discomfort with the predicament of the person you’re looking at in the photograph.
What about the lotuses was making you crazy?
They were sort of these hyper-perfect photos. Real lotuses don’t even look that perfect! It was sort of like food photography, once you realize that every plate at the dinner table is not going to look like that. It’s all been staged. So I brought in this book of Diane Arbus photographs. It was one of the last books and it was of people in an asylum. They’re very amazing photographs but they’re very disturbing. They really helped me because they started to give me this idea of this sort of fragmented world view.
We all have quite a narrow world view, but people who can’t even take care of themselves have an even narrower world view. They don’t understand all the mechanisms that are supporting their care, for example. So this started giving me this idea of this fragmented experience where scale keeps shifting and where the locations are dislocated; there’s not any continuity.
Because one of the most striking things in this book were photographs of these extremely, extremely mentally disabled people dressed up for Halloween. They were dressed up in funny or scary costumes, but they already were on a certain level funny or scary. It was such a tremendous amplification of the way that they’ve been looked at by people who don’t know them. It was just very extreme and a very unusual and extreme body and physical expression. As we all get socialized we learn what’s acceptable ways for sitting, standing, walking, eating. Anyway, it was a reverse universe to the lotuses.
So it came from the starkness and individuality of these lotuses and these haiku (the kind of perception and balance of those ideas that are expressed in those very few syllables.) Then flipping to this reverse universe of looking at these Diane Arbus photographs.
It’s really interesting that it comes from haiku as well. Haiku are very short but they’re very precise and they’re very stark. They’re usually about fleeting moments. They’re also usually very accessible, even though poetry generally isn’t considered accessible..
Right. Someone looked at Portal and decided to write what they saw in each of these little windows of light, it would have the same quality as a haiku. Even if people see something that looks like a “distant, fluttering,” that’s just what it is. When we can’t clearly see something, there’s still a wholeness to it.
It is a tremendous mystery why we make music, why we make poetry, why we dance, why we do these things that are completely unnecessary to our survival, on a certain level. But these things must be answering some deeper human need. These quandaries that are particular to humans –- ethical, moral, abstract –- they’re one of the biggest things in our lives. We’re preoccupied by them. Whenever something really big happens to us –- a birth, a death, a displacement of some kind — this is what’s on our minds. These sort of imponderables. People need to reflect on these mysteries through painting, music, poetry, and dance.
Well, I’m excited to see your show.
The opportunities to perform are less and less frequent. I am so thrilled to be able to share this work, in particular, but also it’s quite amazing to me to be able to dance this long. It’s more and more precious the opportunities to still practice my art and to share it in a performance setting. I’m really excited and it’s even more wonderful to be part of a festival, because there’s an excitement generated around the breadth of the activity.
It’s a feast!
Well, I really enjoyed talking with you Peggy.
Likewise. Thanks for calling.
Peggy Baker will be performing Portal as part of the Festival of New Dance at the LSPU Hall on Monday September 20 & Tuesday, September 21at 8pm. Special light design by Marc Parent. Lee Su-Feh’s The Whole Beast, another solo work, is also on the bill. Tickets are $15+/$20+ and are available at LSPU Hall—3 Victoria Street 753-4531. For more information about the Festival of New Dance, visit their website at http://www.neighbourhooddanceworks.com