Notes on Reimagining Repertoire with Carol Anderson

This is the second in a series of posts tracking the progress of Reimagining Repertoire, TDT's multi-year project that looks at the potential of repertoire through several lenses. The following represents moderator Carol Anderson's reflections on the proceedings of TDT's Symposium on the Potential of Repertoire in Contemporary Dance Practice. A video of the proceedings is also available on TDT's blog. The first post in the series is posted on the blog.

Carol Anderson's career embraces dancing, choreography, teaching and writing. Author and editor of a growing body of writings on dance and other cultural themes, she is an Associate Professor in York University's Dance Department. Anderson was a founding member of Dancemakers in 1974. She performed with the company for 15 years and served as artistic director from 1985-1988. She has been nominated for three Dora Mavor Moore Awards, and published numerous books on prominent figures within the Canadian dance ecology. 

Notes on Reimagining Repertoire

reflections on
the Symposium on the potential of repertoire in contemporary dance practice,

January 15, 2017, 1-3 pm at The Winchester street theatre

 

“What if an existing repertoire were more than an archive of discrete works, but also a site for continuing artistic growth? What if we were to consider our repertoire as a toolbox, confronting the ephemerality of dance by using these works to inspire distillations, adaptations and responses that continue a vital conversation in our own practice and across our art form?”         – Christopher House

Panelists

  • Peggy Baker, Artistic Director, Peggy Baker Dance Projects;
  • Amy Bowring, Director of Collections and Research, Dance Collection Danse;
  • Brendan Healy, Artistic Director, Magnetic North Theatre;
  • Christopher House, Artistic Director, Toronto Dance Theatre;
  • Brandy Leary, Artistic Director Anandam Dancetheatre;
  • William Lau, Peking Opera artist.

Moderator and notes: Carol Anderson

The Reimagining Repertoire symposium marked the initiation of a dynamic conversation fueled by Christopher House’s artistic curiosity and investigation of the implications, potentials and issues of reimagining repertoire as a fertile ground for the ongoing cultivation of choreographic ideas–and for broadening discourse in the field of dance.

The symposium posed questions about the current attitudes toward dance company "remounts," from the perspective of audiences, funders and artists alike, who seem to share a sense of ambivalence toward remounted works in a milieu that privileges new creation.

Christopher House described several recent experiences that led him to propose the Reimagining Repertoire initiative. Consideration of the notion of “finished” work was provoked by his realization that he rarely remounts work without making changes. Entering a process intended to remount Persephone’s Lunch (2001) brought into relief the need to revisit the work’s topicality—in order not to view it as a “sealed artefact” of the time of its creation, but to reflect the zeitgeist as well. With Echo’s Object (2005), he harvested a new dance from this piece, creating a full-length work, Echo (2015), from two sections of the original twelve, and raising questions about excavating and re-shaping the artistic matter of existing work. 

Through Reimagining Repertoire, supported by the Metcalf Foundation, Toronto Dance Theatre will revisit and open up the following four repertoire works over the coming three years, allowing Christopher House to investigate various issues that emerge during the creative process:

  • Year 1 Chiasmata (2007) – distilling movement language and formal structure.
  • Year 2 Glass Houses (1983) – repertoire as a source for adaptation, remaking or response.
  • Year 3 Persephone’s Lunch (2001) – addressing content in relation to topicality.
  • Year 3 This Shape, We are In (2015) by Jeanine Durning– enhancing performance skills to bring a score-based work to its potential.

Throughout, these processes and performances will offer opportunities for deepening performance practice to expand the potential of work.

Questions driving Christopher’s research initiative include:

What makes ‘finished’ work? House remarked that his choreography finds its ‘finished’ form through performance, deepening into form and meaning in partnership with the performers who imbue it with their own "choreographic thinking" in response to his ongoing direction.

What does repertoire mean to an artist in the overall arc of their artistic development?

How can we change the thinking – audiences’, artists’ and funders’ – of the value of repertoire? The panelists were invited to share brief statements of their perceptions of the issues.

Amy Bowring – Director of Research and Collections, Dance Collection Danse

Bowring located her perspective on Canadian dance graphically, noting:

“I was born in 1971, just as the modern dance boom in Canada was really starting to take off and when companies such as the National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens were well established. I was a toddler when Trish Beatty staged Lessons in Another Language at the Banff Centre. I started kindergarten when Larry Gradus and Jacqueline Lemieux started touring Entre-Six. I began ballet lessons the year Paula Ross first staged Coming Together and Paul-André Fortier created Derrière la porte un mur. I was at grade school when Robert Desrosiers workshopped Bad Weather at Québec Été Danse, when Carol Anderson choreographed Windhover, and when Christopher House created Glass Houses. I had barely started high school when Jean-Pierre Perreault created Nuit. I have missed out on all but two Gweneth Lloyd works; I’ll never see anything Yoné Kvietys made. I missed Ann Ditchburn’s Mad Shadows and David Earle’s Ray Charles Suite, Ginette Laurin’s Chevy Dream, Judith Marcuse’s Four Working Songs and Edouard Lock’s Oranges. More importantly, if I missed these works, then so did choreographers aged 45 and younger.”

She declared that because of being "born too late," “I should not be denied access to my dance history.” We have to work to know our history, she noted, this responsibility directly affects our ability to appreciate dance, and situate it in the context of our dance history.

Bowring spoke of DCD’s intrepid work to document Canada’s rich dance heritage, and the resources available through DCD for education and research. She spoke of the ongoing need for work in the area of history, and questioned why many dance historians “theorize about work they’ve never seen.” Liveness in dance, she went on, is as important as artefacts, citing live dance as an example of Intangible Cultural Heritage. There are too many assumptions about this word remount - there is room in the ecology of dance for remounts.

“There is room on the stage for the museum artifact and for the reimagined work and, as we know, play is so important to art making. So do it, go play – especially if it’s not fashionable; others will catch up. Transformations in art come out of rebellion, so if remounting work is out of fashion, then rebel against it I say.”

 William Lau – Peking Opera artist, founder, Little Pear Garden

William Lau spoke about his experiential understanding that "traditional" Chinese dance is an evolution, based on oral traditions that maintain and transmit the form. Each generation of artists contributes to the development of work—he gave the example of the "Double Sword Dance." Chinese dance is a hierarchical star system, with individuals "holding" and performing particular roles—exclusivity that is determined by merit.

The development of roles comes through maintaining the essence of a role, while the rest is adapted–becoming a re-interpretation. Integrity is key to innovation, and to sustaining the relevance of the art, within the aesthetic of a particular school. The preservation of the artform and maintaining the lineage, rather than preserving the repertoire, are fundamental.

Within this dynamic overall development, particular roles remain specialized. Lau, acclaimed for his interpretations of young women noted, “in Peking Opera, I will always be a young woman.” 

Brendan Healy – Artistic Director, Magnetic North

Brendan Healy introduced his thoughts with the observation that theatre, as a text-based form, has a very different relationship to repertoire than dance. Dance, he noted, is “so complicated.”  He spoke about theatre’s relationship to the past, its relationship to the past/present continuum, and its potential for responsiveness to the zeitgeist. He noted four points about the idea of ‘source’:

  • Culture is based on the past.
  • The past tries to control the present.
  • If the past controls the present, the future becomes less free.
  • Limiting control of the past engenders future freedom.

He made observations about "museum" theatre, noting the potential value, in the overall spectrum, of this notion. He described an anthropological example of such work, noting such an approach can be disruptive.

“Art should be disruptive.”

Brandy Leary, Artistic Director, Anandam Dancetheatre

Brandy Leary introduced her remarks by describing a recent process in which participants were invited to describe what they were bringing into the room. She spoke of her own complex profile, as a contemporary dance artist working internationally, who also sustains an active practice as a contemporary circus performer. She observed that this time is an important juncture of "complex tradition:’ as we move into Canada 150 with shifting understandings of our diverse historical narratives. In this context, what are the responsibilities of reimagining repertoire? In de-colonizing art, how do we do things differently? In dance, primarily body-based art, how do we address/embrace/create nuance and meaning-making? What are the cultural lenses? How have these, and how can these continue to shift to embrace fundamental views beyond and beside ‘whiteness’? The exclusion and/or inclusion of bodies and spaces is part of the wider conversation around ‘repertoire’. In terms of repertoire, what does it mean to be a knowledge keeper?

“I am curious how we look at more subtle aspects revealed by our histories and repertoires as we unpack decolonization, particularly in a form such as dance where (mostly) the primary material is the body and presence and in this process how we open to different meanings, bodies and nuances of learning, sharing and meaning making in the contemporary realm.  Repertoire can be a history of a form, a cultural lens, a history of bodies and spaces and the inclusion/exclusion of bodies and spaces.”

She concluded with thoughts on the zeitgeist as a place of re-imagining:

“…how do you include voices that can bring forward their mostly beneficial relationships to current power structures in a human and honest way.
…repertoire can be a coded way of talking about power in the dance field.”

 Peggy Baker, Artistic Director, Peggy Baker Dance Projects

Peggy Baker spoke of the particular importance of repertoire to dance artists. She describedthe detailed and distinctive ways that work with specific artists has catalyzed, guided and changed her artistic growth and development. She introduced her thoughts by saying “my dance life has been based on repertoire.” She described formative influences and experiences. Encountering and working with Lar Lubovitch was profoundly important to her, experiencing his ways of working with ideals of equality within diversity, community and gender fluidity, and using distinctive organizing principles as sources of creation. “Entering the mind and world of a creator” as she did in her decade long association with the Lubovitch company, galvanized intense artistic growth. She acknowledged the role of repertoire as an integral, primary source in her own artistry. Performances of work by single creators Molissa Fenley, Paul-André Fortier, Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, Charlie Moulton, Tere O’Connor, and Doug Varone was one stream of artistic knowing. Developing through performing existing repertoire was another—she cited performing solos by soloists Molissa Fenley, Paul-André Fortier, Annabelle Gamson and Tedd Robinson. A third stream of development as a dancer and choreographer has been interpreting new works by master choreographers Christopher House, James Kudelka and Doug Varone.

Baker spoke of how, through immersion in choreography, learning and dancing repertoire, dancers embody and “migrate” artistic influences. She described the Choreographer’s Trust—  her legacy initiative, started in 2002, as “retrospect at a critical juncture.” During this project, the design of which is deeply appropriate to the experiential learning traditions of dance, she endowed six of her solos to twelve interpreters. She described witnessing these dances brought to life newly and outside her, allowing her to take stock of what she had made. She noted that “many of my own dances have been better performed by others.” These solos continue to evolve as the artists to whom she gifted the work transform them. She gave the example of Kate Holden, who learned and performed Brahm’s Waltzes freshly graduated from The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, and quite recently revisited and reinterpreted the work—‘excavating’ the dance, and allowing it to transform through her embodied memory.

Peggy Baker also spoke of reaching into her own rep for the core group of dancers with whom she works—allowing her, in site specific and durational situations, to adapt and create quickly and according to circumstance. She cited land | body | breath, performed with a vocal score in the Group of Seven galleries of the AGO as an example of a work that drew on the interpreters’ deep familiarity with her repertoire. This approach also allows her to work with community members, focusing more on performance than on creative process. She creates a stable choreographic score that invites dancers in—and inside this, dancers can develop performance. She remarked on the simultaneity of generations of Toronto dance and dancers. She spoke of work created throughout the whole phase of history here, and its relevance, from raw to burnished; Toronto has richness in dance that spans many generations.

“The cult of the original cast I think of as a confusion between performance and choreography.”

Christopher House, Artistic Director, Toronto Dance Theatre

Christopher House spoke about his current values around performance practice, in which process, becoming and liveness are in the foreground. The performance becomes more alive through the performers being aware of and responsive to the present moment.

He spoke about the project originating in and reflecting his own practice–in which the initial impulse, in earlier phases of his work, stemmed from his own body and his own kinesthetic engagement in performance. Changes in approach, and his own experience of continuing to dance into his 60s, have shifted his practice, to a process where others’ movement and creation has become more important.

Reflecting on an earlier conversation with Brandy Leary, he introduced the idea of a canon of work—a “lovely idea” he mused—and invited Leary for further thoughts.

Brandy Leary commented that “whiteness” (implying access/means/prevalent culture/funding) has dominated how we try to make meaning.

She queries: “How do we celebrate and let live?

Audience response was invited.

The conversation shifted toward political perspectives. One audience member raised points about access and inclusivity in relation to race, gender identity, sexuality and ability. Who was in the room? He asked, and how did they find out about the event? How accessible was the room, how was the information disseminated? He spoke of the perception of cultural erasure experienced by members of non-dominant cultures and backgrounds—indigenous people, and people of colour. He explained the lens of whiteness that often focuses work that is made. Another audience member made points about repertoire functioning as “knowledge-keeping,” in the context of and through the exclusion of varied modes of cultural transmission. She raised the denigration implied in the term “traditional” as a descriptor for non-repertoire dance. Another audience member spoke about her positive experience as a woman of colour and as a dancer—experiences of feeling welcomed and supported as an artist in the current milieu. Another respondent spoke about the ongoing need for education. At the moment of Canada 150, he also noted the youth of dance in Canada. As well, he commented that “contemporary dance”—like the term “modern dance”—has a particular time-specific designation.

The session concluded with thanks extended to the panelists, and to the audience members. Discussion ensued following the panel discussion.

Outcomes

Ongoing question:

  • How do we shift the perception of "repertoire" for audience members, artists and funders?

Areas for focus going forward:

  • Need for defining "repertoire"
  • Societal impact of the term “repertoire” now
  • Need for cultivation of understanding among artists and audience
  • Need for expansion/inclusivity of ways and means
  • Need for inclusion – how do we celebrate
  • Need for education – for artists and audience

Some reflections

Offering many facets of reflection to augment and further explore Christopher House’s particular artistic issues and questions around reimagining repertoire, the panelists offered their deeply considered perspectives and experiences in context of their complex artistic identities as choreographers, dancers, directors, historians, audience members. While this is not the intent of Christopher’s years' long investigation of artistic questions related to repertoire in contemporary dance, the symposium brought up issues of broader social focus. Audience response to the panel discussion foregrounded the importance of the artist as public intellectual, and of art itself as a reflection of, and platform for, discussion of social issues–essentially addressing the importance of art in civic society.

The symposium discussion moved into two streams. Reimagining possibilities for repertoire in individual artistic practice and company situations, its implications and potentials, is the most immediate focus. The other area of discussion were issues of social justice—how to expand inclusivity across the practice of dance.

An ongoing, underlying question (I believe) is the fundamental way Western culture views the body, considering physical ways of knowing and being as of inferior value to intellectual/mental value; embodied knowledge is viewed with wariness or incomprehension. Embodiment as a way of being, seeing, understanding, valuing, is not generally considered to have “currency,” or material value. Embedded in dance are values that are corporal, rather than corporate. Certainly dance is always resource-hungry and cash poor, relative to other art forms that ‘produce’ something—paintings, sculpture, musical scores, books. The text of dance—the dancing itself, the dancing body—is ephemeral. Amy Bowring made the point that dance falls into the category, despite or maybe because of this ephemerality, of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The legacy of dance exists, in significant part, as embodied archive, in the bodies, minds and memories of creators, audiences and interpreters. An ongoing paradox of dance is that it is, in practice, a “forward-looking” (Christopher House’s description), fluid, mercurial, barometer of now—a cultural flashpoint of how we live in our bodies, enhanced by the lens of physical virtuosity, imagination, artistic questioning and experimentation, augmented by the potential of technological investigation and partnering.

Peggy Baker noted that Lar Lubovitch often considered male dancers in his company poetically, women dancers dynamically, offering artists and audiences an equality of creative possibility. As a company, Toronto Dance Theatre has always reflected the diversity of dancing bodies. Dance is a sometimes visionary–though for audiences, often difficult to “see”—playground, a ground of the body, a place where societal assumptions can be, and often are, set aside; shared tests of strength, interpretation, agility, poetry, endurance are a levelling ground. Repertoire is provocative. Repertoire is a reservoir of artistic potential; it is timely to consider how it can and will transform, encompassing changing practice, uncovering a cache of evolving possibilities for ongoing artistic mining.  

We'd love to keep this conversation going. If you have any thoughts or comments about the meaning of repertoire or encounters with repertoire in your own practice, please share! Follow along with the conversation digitally by tweeting at #TDTSymposiumonRepertoire, or by contributing to our Notes on Reimagining Repertoire blog series. Send any contributions via email to info@tdt.org, or get in touch with us for more info about the project.