Choreographer Joe Laughlin looks back at 25 years of wildly diverse dance

For his 25th-anniversary retrospective, the Vancouver choreographer remounts some of his favourite works, both witty and dark
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It must be a surreal, somewhat out-of-body experience to watch another dancer interpret a solo you once performed. Choreographer Joe Laughlin has been getting used to that sensation as he sets his 2003 work Left, a contemplative pas de deux between a man and a teacup, on dancer Kevin Tookey.

The piece is part of the Vancouver dance icon’s 25th-anniversary retrospective, and it has him thinking a lot about how the body changes with time. Here, a quarter-century after he launched his company Joe Ink, Laughlin seems to have come to terms with the fact that it is time to pass the work on.

“I adapted Left for him because he can do things that I couldn’t do,” the upbeat choreographer tells the Straight, sitting at a coffee shop within sight of the Scotiabank Dance Centre. “With him it’s been a pleasurable process to watch him do it.…I had never seen it because I was always doing it.”

Assembling the show Retrospective: 25 Years has clearly put Laughlin in a more reflective mood than usual. He has accomplished a lot in two-and-a-half decades—especially when you consider he never set out to be a dance artist, and started as a competitive gymnast instead. After an injury led him into the dance world, he never stopped, and he’s since worked at ballet companies like the Royal Winnipeg and Ballet B.C., and in opera and theatre, as well as in South Africa with Moving Into Dance Mophatong. He’s one of the most versatile dance visionaries in town, staging everything from performers swinging from a giant steel grid (Scaffolding) to a baroque ballet that unfolds on a chessboard grid (Timber/Timbre). He’s overcome knee surgery and even a heart attack that hit him in 2009, at just 47.

These days, however, he seems stronger and more focused than ever. “I feel my eye is keener and I have learned to work without my body and to articulate, to verbalize what I want,” he says of choreographing. “I can’t show it anymore.”

Laughlin says choosing the three pieces for the program was easy: they’re his favourites.

Of all of them, his 1997 work Harold, Billy, Stan, and Jack might best bring together his signature style. A caper set to film-noir music that finds four female dancers dressed as men in suits, bounding around on a couch, it features such key Laughlin touches as athletic movement, gender play, witty humour, and theatrical use of characters.

“Often, when I look at my work, it appears simplistic to me—and not in a bad way. But within that there’s a lot of hard work of the dancers going on,” Laughlin explains, and then adds of Harold: “They have to be a character, they have to do difficult movement, they have to have this huge prop, they need to have this cigar and light it.”

Harold, like the remounting of Left, has made Laughlin realize he’s reconciled with his age in an artistic field that champions youth. “It’s making me remember that athleticism that I used to do, and I’m quite far away from that now. It’s all momentum and impulse,” Laughlin says. “When we started remounting it, I couldn’t do these things anymore—I couldn’t jump over the couch. But I’ve had a lot of joy in watching them in the dances and I don’t want to do that anymore. I don’t miss performing—maybe because I’m in the studio all the time with dancers.”

Laughlin says coming to terms with the end of his dancing career wasn’t always easy. “I think I did struggle with it for sure. The thing about dancing is the whole key to it is for the audience to think there’s a natural ease to the performer, but behind it is all this struggle.…When you’re older you think you might not have done that with your body. I was a very kinetic dancer and I was into pushing physical boundaries.”

The show wraps up with Laughlin’s recent dreamlike dusk, a shadowy piece that seems to embody life and death, with its shuddering, swooning forms. It signifies, the choreographer admits, his coming through the trauma of his heart attack and the loss of his close friend, fellow choreographer Lola McLaughlin. For this performance, he’s tried to shorten it down to its very essence, he says.

By no means, though, should Laughlin’s retrospective be seen as the end of a career. The choreographer has many more dances to create. And the fact that he’s survived this long in an underfunded arts scene is proof he’s no quitter.

“I love dance, I love being with dancers in the studio, and I kind of made a commitment to the form,” he says before heading to the studio. “I just had to do my four-year plan. And I have a lot of plans.” 

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