About two years ago, Joe Laughlin saw his day turn into night. When he came through the dark, the long-time local choreographer had a new view on life, and a new approach to dance that will be viscerally on view at the pending premiere of dusk.
Late in 2009, at just 47, he had a heart attack—a diagnosis he could hardly believe, despite his weak state, when he got word in the emergency department. He pulled through the ordeal to find out he had genetic heart disease and faced a regime of strict eating, medications, and lowering stress. While he recovered, his close friend and much-respected fellow choreographer Lola McLaughlin was dying of cancer, and his own father was facing a triple bypass. You get the feeling the period was more difficult than the upbeat Laughlin would ever let on, but he emphasizes he saw an opportunity amid all the darkness to take a new kick at dance.
“A heart attack just sort of stops you in your tracks, and after that you re-evaluate your life and what’s important,” says the artistic director of Joe Ink, looking as healthy and energetic as ever as he relaxes in a coffee shop by the Dance Centre before rehearsals for dusk. “I rethought everything about how I wanted to work and I restructured my company.”¦I wanted to work on choreographic process and I looked at the body in a different way. I really was interested in the language of the body and exploring myself as a choreographer.”
The result is a piece that brings together all the technique that Laughlin has soaked up over the years, and one that looks radically different from anything he’s done before. Laughlin is well-known for a background that spans competitive gymnastics, ballet, and African dance; in recent years, he’s explored everything from baroque ballet amid a chessboardlike grid (Timber/Timbre) to the shape-shifting metal racks and ideas of home in (in)habitat. But dusk is about pure movement, of bodies carving out space in thrilling, virtuosic, and aesthetically beautiful ways.
“I was refocusing as a dancemaker—I really wanted to simplify and get back to the language of the body and push that. I was really interested in virtuosity, and the dancers I’m working with—they got chops.”
He calls the five-member troupe he’s collected a “dream team”: Katherine Cowie, Tara Dyberg, Kevin Tookey, Jeannie Vandekerkhove, and Matthew Waldie. Their experience is varied but strong, from Cowie’s recent experience with the ultra-hot Hofesh Shechter Company to Waldie’s seven seasons with Toronto Dance Theatre.
“They’re very experienced and the process has just been great with them,” says Laughlin, adding that the creation has been one of his most collaborative. “They’re very engaged, very intelligent people, and very nice, warmhearted people, and it’s just a joyous experience in the studio, even though the work is a little bit dark.”
Through the process, which has included works in progress at both the EDAM and at Dancing on the Edge last year, Laughlin has come to reassess the meaning of dusk—a word that was sticking with him after his recovery and was a starting point in the studio. With sets and costumes cast in the purply blues and greys of sunset and a mesmerizing score by musician Jesse Zubot, the piece wavers between reality and a dreamlike atmosphere.
“Dusk is a time when the light is leaving and night is approaching, but I think I also realized dusk is about leaving one world and going into another world,” Laughlin says. “Night is its own kind of world and day is its own kind of world.”
The whole experience of coming through the dusk has helped Laughlin create a major new work, but it’s also reaffirmed his commitment to his art form. “I didn’t die from my heart attack and I could have. Now, I’m like, ”˜Whoa! Life is about being very present in the moment,’ ” he says. “And I think dance is like that. It’s such an ephemeral form. It’s so much about really being in the present. We talk about that in the studio: you’ve got to be present in your body to move it, to engage it in space, and especially to engage with other people. You have to be right there.”