Ziyian Kwan finds a feminist camaraderie in Public and Private

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      Dance artist Ziyian Kwan, like uncountable others, was inspired by the ripple effects of the #MeToo movement—by women across the continent raising their voices, pushing back, and speaking out like never before.

      All that material made her start to wonder what kind of feminist she was. And it prompted her to start exploring her ideas in a studio—not alone, as the artistic director of dumb instrument Dance does in solo work like her the neck to fall, but with other female-bodied performers.

      “Who am I in this beautiful movement and how are we encouraged?” she asks, sitting in a café around the corner from the Left of Main studio where her work Public and Private soon debuts. “The solution to me is to be in a room together with people and talking about it—looking at how we lean on each other and encourage each other.…And it’s surprising to me how connected I feel.”

      She gathered some dancers she knew well—Deanna Peters and Delia Brett—and two others she would get to know, Erika Mitsuhashi and Hayley Gawthrop. And she has set them all in a room at the tiny Left of Main studio with the thundering sounds of Eileen Kage’s taiko drums, under the watchful eye of dramaturge Heidi Taylor. The tight bond the group has formed is obvious from even a brief visit to the Chinatown studio.

      Eileen Kage's thundering taiko drums fill the small room where Erika Mitsuhashi and other dancers perform in Public and Private.
      David Cooper

      The day the Straight is there, the artists open rehearsal with their own ritual: sitting in a circle, they take turns saying what they’ve brought to give and what they hope to take away from the day. Sometimes the answers are as simple as “inspiration” and “garlic breath”; the point is, they’re sharing private things—and that flows naturally into Kwan’s collaborative creative process, in which everyone reveals a little of herself in the public realm.

      Once rehearsal begins, the artists speak and holler, rearrange each other’s limbs, embrace and intertwine, holding hands. In developing the eclectic piece, Kwan has had to work through their different perceptions of what it means to be a feminist today, what it means to move for the female gaze instead of the male gaze, and what empowerment might look like.

      For Kwan, it’s also meant digging at her own private history.

      “With Left of Main being in Chinatown, I can’t escape the fact that my feminism relates to being Chinese-Canadian,” says Kwan, who has reconnected with the neighbourhood and collected local Mandarin papers and flyers to paste along the windows of the upstairs Left of Main space as a bit of set decoration for the work. “My feminism was rooted in my mother, who raised two children pretty much on her own while getting an English degree, while also working as a secretary. So my life is rooted in feminism. But what is the intersection of that with the people in the room?”

      In Public and Private, the dancers invite the viewers into that room with them and their taiko drummer. The space allows for just about 25 people to sit in chairs along the wall.

      “It was an intimate piece and I wanted an intimate space,” Kwan says of her first self-produced work. “It’s about intimacy and it’s about camaraderie.”

      Public and Private takes place at Left of Main (144 Keefer Street) from Tuesday to next Saturday (November 13 to 17), and from November 20 to 24.