Wunderkind Josh Beamish grows up

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      This season, Josh Beamish has taken his MOVE: the company to New York and back. Hard to believe he founded it at just 17

      To understand the fast rise of dance phenomenon Josh Beamish, you need only look at what he manages to pack into the day the Straight talks to him. The artistic director of MOVE: the company started this sunny but frigid spring morning, as he often does, by driving his van around downtown to pick up some of his dancers and transport them out to Burnaby’s Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, where the 21-year-old choreographer-performer is artist in residence.

      Then, in one of its studios, they work on his ambitious new premiere, The Cell, a collaboration with seven other local choreographers. By 2 p.m., a handful of dancers climbs into his van again for a school performance and an overnight in Kelowna on the way to a performance in Nelson.

      If it seems like a busy day for the wunderkind, it has nothing on the rest of the season. In the fall and early winter, MOVE took its Trap Door Party on a tour that included Toronto and New York’s esteemed Joyce Theater, and then in January debuted a new version of his Zero (based on Bret Easton Ellis’s book Less Than Zero) in Montreal. As a performer, Beamish danced in Amber Funk Barton’s Risk in December and Simone Orlando’s Relí¢che in January. Up this spring: two straight weeks of shows for ArtStarts in Schools in April. That, and a lot of shuttling around in the van.

      He’s accomplished a lot in a few short years, and so it’s surprising to find Beamish feeling like he can’t get respect. “In New York and Montreal, the audiences were so different: everyone was so into the work, with really full houses. But here I feel like I’m always fighting—even fighting to have other dancers see the show,” the normally upbeat Beamish allows, taking a break in a Shadbolt coffee lounge. Beamish started his company at 17, and in many ways, the community has witnessed him growing up. “In Toronto, too, they were just responding to the work I’d done. They didn’t know I was 21. But hopefully I’m past that point now. Hopefully people will start judging me for what I’m doing now.”

      Things may start to change with the debut of The Cell, a work for 14 dancers that runs Wednesday to Saturday (March 25 to 28) at the Shadbolt as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival. In it, he’s worked with six other choreographers to create different pieces that riff on the meanings of the word cell. Beamish invited artists with a range of experience, from newcomers Heather Dotto and Crystal Wills to bigger names like Amber Funk Barton, Alison Denham, and Ballet B.C.’s Simone Orlando.

      The reason people of this calibre choose to work with Beamish, and why he gets so many gigs, is that he has the talent to back up the ambition. He has developed a unique vocabulary that seems impossible for such a young age: the gestures of contemporary, ballet, hip-hop, jazz, and even martial arts meld into hyper-fast, staccato fragments. In his choreography, arms mechanically chop the air, fingers jitter like they’re electrified, and feet awkwardly turn inward, but there is a flow that’s almost balletic.

      On this day, in the Shadbolt studio, he’s working on a section of The Cell that finds dancer Tiffany Tregarthen curling herself up ever smaller, as if she were in an invisible shrinking box. Her long limbs and feet push at its unseen borders, and, coaxed on by her eager choreographer, she finally crumples in a tangle.

      At Beamish’s age, most dancers are busy developing their performing careers, with choreography and teaching a distant future. Not Beamish. After all, he’s been dancing since he was two years old; his mother taught ballet in Edmonton and then Kelowna, where he spent his youth.

      “I was choreographing from age 12,” he explains. “In Kelowna, I didn’t have the opportunity to take classes in contemporary and jazz”¦but I was teaching all my friends and choreographing all our dances for competitions. Dancing in front of a live audience is a distant second to creating my work.”

      The isolation of the Interior may have been part of the reason his style is so different. “I didn’t go to a university dance program and nobody taught me ”˜This is what a dance move is,’ ” he says.

      Straight out of high school, Beamish headed to Vancouver, where he pursued ballet training at Pacific DanceArts and studied jazz, hip-hop, and other urban forms at Harbour Dance.

      He quickly gained roles as a dancer or choreographer for films such as The Wicker Man, but it wasn’t enough. “I was 17 and didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I thought, ”˜I could wait for the one film job that comes into Vancouver once a year or just make my own company.’ I started with 18 or 20 dancers; I paid for all the costumes and everything.”

      By 2005, MOVE had performed at the Cultch and Judith Marcuse Projects’ Earth: The World Urban Festival, and in January ’06 had a piece in the Dances for a Small Stage program. From there, MOVE scored work with ArtStarts’ school shows and the Dancing on the Edge festival. As for nailing that Joyce Theater gig in SoHo, it’s another example of Beamish’s chutzpah: on a trip to New York, he just walked into the head office and asked if they’d be interested in presenting his work. He was told to submit a video, and on its strength, MOVE was one of only 30 groups chosen out of 225 applying to show at the theatre this season.

      Of all the work Beamish has done so far, The Cell is perhaps the most challenging. He’s had to work with the choreographers to forge a cohesive whole out of their visions for nine dancers. “I really wanted to go beyond making my own work,” he says.

      He’s planning to take the collaboration concept even further with The Telephone Project, a pending piece that will involve 18 choreographers from across the country. Playing on the childhood game of whispering a phrase around a circle, Beamish will kick off the process with his own three-minute creation: he’ll mail a video of it to the next choreographer, who will create his own three-minute follow-up, and so on, till the work comes back to Beamish and he wraps up with a final chapter. It’s a logistical puzzle that would make artists twice his age wince.

      “Challenge is what I’m about. I’m a pretty ambitious person,” admits Beamish. “If I ever get settled, that’s sort of the end. Then I should do something else.”