Joe Laughlin's (in)habitat creates shelter in homeless times

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      Local choreographer Joe Laughlin misses Lola MacLaughlin terribly. The Vancouver dance icon died earlier this year, and Laughlin was not only a big fan of her work but also a dear friend. Last fall he visited her frequently in the hospital, where she was dealing with cancer, and the two would talk for hours about all kinds of subjects, some deep and others not so much. It was MacLaughlin who encouraged Laughlin to make a simple yet lasting change in his life.

      “For once I’ve made my home more comfortable for me,” says Laughlin, 48, in an interview over coffee. “I’ve always felt transient in a way and never really paid much attention to the importance of that place. But talking with Lola, she said, ”˜Joe, you’ve got to make a list and get what you want.’

      “She had an understanding of the limitation of time,” he adds. “So I did exactly what she said.”

      Gone is the old furniture that his late cat had ripped to shreds, and his home is now cozier than ever before. Laughlin knows he’s just lucky to have a roof over his head, living in one of the most expensive cities in Canada. Thousands of people in Vancouver aren’t so fortunate.

      Having long weighed heavily on his mind, concepts relating to home—shelter as a basic need, the emotional connection to place, and feeling at ease in one’s own skin—gave rise to the Joe Ink artistic director’s newest work.

      (In)habitat plays at the Firehall Arts Centre tonight through Saturday (October 15 to 17), during Metro Vancouver’s Homelessness Action Week. That the piece for Chengxin Wei and Tara Dyberg happens to premiere during the politically charged campaign is pure coincidence. It’s one that Laughlin says couldn’t be more fortuitous.

      “It’s very hard to have a home here; rents are so expensive,” he says. “Having a home isn’t a right anymore. We all need to wake up to that.”

      He’s witnessed the effects of poverty on living conditions elsewhere, most notably in South Africa, where earlier this decade he worked with integrated company Moving Into Dance Mophatong and visited various townships. “There were one-room huts with mud floors, and there was only one pot, but everything was clean and they offered you food. They had house pride. Even if it’s a tiny shack, people took whatever they had and made a home of it,” says Laughlin.

      Although it’s only been lately that Laughlin has found more solace in his own home, physical structure has always played an important role in the former gymnast’s highly athletic choreography—the most striking example being works made during his “scaffolding period”. In the mid- to late-’90s he incorporated huge metal objects for dancers to climb up and dangle from. “I’ve always liked the way outside forces affect the choreographic process and how set and props change the vocabulary,” says Laughlin.

      “With TIMBER/Timbre, Alice Mansell created functional costumes that turned into props; they became little sets,” he says, referring to his 2007 work in which dancers wore shape-shifting pliable sculptures.

      He wanted to continue collaborating with visual artist Mansell. For (in)habitat, she has used parachutelike material to make a giant cloak and metal to build a big rack. Together, they play an integral role in the work.

      “The set piece is really a third partner for the performers,” he explains. “It defines the playing space; it’s a garment, a house, a tent. It transforms throughout, and the dancers discover its different uses. It speaks to the creativity of human beings and our need to belong.”¦How do we or don’t we fit into the structures around us?”

      Clearly, Laughlin’s learning ever-more-soothing ways of settling into his own space. MacLaughlin—whose last work, Provincial Essays, is at the Cultch from Tuesday to next Saturday (October 20 to 24)—would approve.

      During Homelessness Action Week, the Firehall Arts Centre will donate $1 from each ticket for Joe Ink’s show and Serge Bennathan’s The Strange Adventure of Myself to the Gratitude Campaign to fix up two Downtown Eastside buildings.




      Dec 11, 2009 at 11:34pm