Legendary dancer Margie Gillis follows a new Thread
A modern-dance icon, Margie Gillis is in demand all over the globe. She regularly tours Europe, teaches at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, and has performed her striking solos everywhere from Beijing to Beirut. So what drives the Order of Canada member to visit Vancouver in the dark of February?
“I have a community to serve,” the Montreal-based Gillis says in an interview at a Granville Island café during her most recent West Coast trip, during which she taught improvisation to dance students at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts. “The demand is there. It’s a social responsibility.”
She also works frequently with members of Ballet British Columbia. (She’s a mentor and close friend of its artistic director, Emily Molnar.) Despite the sopping weather, Gillis says she’s happy to be in Vancouver and to be contributing to its dance scene. She’s just glad she doesn’t live here.
“I’m so grateful to be from Quebec,” says Gillis, who’s just been named one of this year’s laureates of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for lifetime artistic achievement. “Finances are so difficult here. There, art is a necessity. The guy who goes to tractor pulls supports the theatre.”¦Art is part of the culture, the quality of life. People understand that. Even if they don’t give money, they give support. It’s seen as essential.”
The arts unite people of all different backgrounds, and the ties that bind are at the heart of Gillis’s latest work. “It’s about threads of thought, threads of consciousness, heart strings,” she says of Thread, which she’s bringing to the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. “There are threads that bind, break, and get tangled.”
Expect the kind of emotional wallop Gillis is renowned for in the piece, which reflects on youth, aging, death, and rebirth. For nearly four decades now she has plumbed her past and relived her deepest torments and most intimate moments onstage, alone, often moving audiences to tears.
Thread is a departure for the artist who’s made a name for herself through her riveting solos. Here, she’s joined on-stage by two other dancers, Marc Daigle and Eleanor Duckworth. The latter is a 74-year-old human-rights activist and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and, in Gillis’s words, a “kick-ass mover”.
Gillis, however, downplays the shift, noting she’s performed in many other group works, such as Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ Dracula and several created by her brother, the late Christopher Gillis, for the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Plus, her choreography still stems from the depths of her soul.
“The work is done very privately,” she says. “Dance is my prayer.”
Spirituality and solace also come to her through nature, which informs the movement of Thread: “I get my inspiration from this landscape, the Canadian landscape,” says Gillis, who also teaches at the Hollyhock Educational Retreat Centre on Cortes Island. “There’s a wildness in my soul that relates to the wildness in the land. I love being in the wilderness, taking lessons from the land.
“The body is a wonderful piece of nature,” she adds. “We are nature.”
She’s equally inspired by the older women around her, role models like Duckworth and Gillis’s mother, a former Olympic skier who still downhills at age 89. Gillis, 57, doesn’t shy away from the reality of her own aging.
“I see the way my mom keeps developing new interests,” she says. “It’s not ”˜When’s my demise?’ It’s ”˜What’s my next opportunity?’ I don’t hide my age. Screw that. I’m letting my hair go grey.”