Dances for a Small Stage tackles the aging process

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Noam Gagnon has created work for countless dancers’ bodies, from the rocking muscular forms of Holy Body Tattoo, to the 17 young performers he’s just worked with back East as an associate dance artist at the National Arts Centre, to his own sinewy physique in solo works like Thank You, You’re Not Welcome. For a show in May at the Cultch, the busy choreographer is even working with bharata natyam expert Nova Bhattacharya.

But for the upcoming Dances for a Small Stage, the artistic director of Vision Impure has conjured a short piece for two people who break the expected norms for dancers: Patti Allan and James Fagan Tait are both veteran actors from the local theatre scene.

Gagnon’s new work finds the performers in hospital gowns, an instant metaphor for the process of aging. It’s a subject Gagnon has had on his mind a lot lately—but not necessarily with all the negative connotations you would expect.

“I’m entering my 50s and maybe I’m looking at my mortality,” admits the affable, preternaturally young-looking artist, speaking to the Straight over the phone between rehearsals. “I want to create a landscape to show the beauty of aging, the fragility.” A mature body, he’s found, can express a lifetime of experiences in ways a young one can’t.

The mixed program of Dances for a Small Stage, located in its casual, homey new setting at the Ukrainian Centre off Main Street, offers a forum for Gagnon to take chances with a work like this. He and Holy Body Tattoo were involved in the very first Small Stage event in 2002, and over the years he’s frequently used it as a place to experiment and have fun.

In the case of the new piece, Tait, an old friend from theatrical circles and a collaborating dramaturge and playwright on Thank You, invited him to create the short
work for himself and long-time friend Allan.

“I felt honoured to be able to find something that shows you’re only as good as your history—and how you’ve faced the turmoil and ups and downs,” Gagnon says. “As actors, they work from intuition, not sensation, and that makes things real.”

The soundtrack grew out of another experience that had Gagnon thinking about aging lately: a recent visit to the aunt who raised him in Montreal. “I could barely recognize her; she has Alzheimer’s and had a stroke. It is so saddening to think you work so hard all your life and it just takes a moment for it to disappear. You just feel like there’s only one life. It really formed the desire I have to do something about respecting our elders and respecting our age.”

To reach into those fond memories of the woman, Gagnon is using old Quebec folksongs that his aunt and mother used to sing to him when he was young. They’re tunes that came after the first and second world wars, and express a time of loss, he explains.

In the end, Dust should provide a small, thoughtful contrast to other pieces on the Small Stage program—which, for its Valentine’s Day–themed rendition, includes everyone from So You Think You Can Dance choreographer and former Crystal Pite/Kidd Pivot dancer Peter Chu to tap dancer Jim Hibbard. But chances are Tait and Allan will be showing almost as much skin as any of their younger counterparts on the Ukrainian Centre stage.

Of the famously gaping hospital gowns, Gagnon explains: “I had to say to them, ‘Your body is beautiful. It’s the way I’m framing it.’ ”

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