Artists Ziyian Kwan and Kirsten Wicklund face fears at Dancing on the Edge

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      Over its 31-year history, Dancing on the Edge has offered artists a chance to show a different side of themselves.

      And that will be especially true of the 2019 festival, as two well-known local dancers break bold new ground.

      In the past, Ziyian Kwan’s eclectic work has riffed on everything from the punk poetry of Patti Smith to feminist camaraderie, employing props as unexpected as vintage suitcases, animal masks, and giant balls with the word LOVE on them. But at the Edge, the Dumb Instrument Dance artistic director is venturing into more vulnerable, personal territory for the first time, mining painful experiences from her Vancouver childhood.

      And while audiences are used to seeing Kirsten Wicklund carve up the stage on and off pointe as one of the athletic and expressive standouts in Ballet BC, she’s exploring her emerging choreographic voice at the fest.

      Here’s what they had to tell the Straight about their new works, which share a double bill in the Edge Six program.

      In true form, Ziyian Kwan has playfully abstracted stories from her childhood.
      David Cooper

      Ziyian Kwan

      The Odd Volume

      Kwan’s new piece is autobiographical, drawing from her experiences while immigrating here from Hong Kong in the 1970s, and the sense of displacement she grew up with in Vancouver at that time. And this artist who’s so fearless on-stage is now finding it difficult to journey back into those memories.

      “It’s probably one of the hardest pieces for me to talk about that I’ve done, because it’s related to the racialization I’ve faced,” she reveals over the phone to the Straight. “It’s been an unsilencing of some of the self-imposed silence. And it’s coming to terms with how much of me has been shaped by being an immigrant and trying to fit and wanting to belong, but not feeling that I’ve arrived.”

      Memories formed between the ages of four and 10 started surfacing as Kwan researched and explored the subject with a group of young female artists over the last year. To Kwan’s own surprise, their conversations in the studio kept circling back to 1973, when Kwan’s family arrived here.

      “Vancouver was so different then: at my school there were only three people of colour,” she recalls. “I remember coming home and looking in the mirror and feeling aghast.

      “But it [The Odd Volume] is not even really about facing those things, but more about who I am as a result and how I reacted,” she stresses. “What’s the new relationship I can have with this displacement and destabilization?”

      In true Kwan form, that’s meant playfully abstracting stories from her childhood—especially one about piano lessons. The piano becomes a symbol for some of her marginalization—and how she finally finds belonging through creativity. Kwan plays a real, full-sized piano here, but a keyboard appears in miniature form as well. Expect other quirky Kwan touches in the solo: “There are worlds from the last 50 years in the piece,” she hints, not wanting to give away too much.

      The title plays with the idea of raising her voice, but also on the word volume as a measure of space. “It’s how much I as a person of colour take up space differently—or perceive that I do,” she says. The word odd captures the struggle to fit in, and the awkwardness she has felt in talking about these issues—at least until now.

      “I’m trying to give a sense to the audience of the impact of those things and also how unsilencing and untrapping those things is a way to erase the negativity,” she says.

      Ballet BC dancer Kirsten Wicklund has found a dark and gritty choreographic voice.
      Cindi Wicklund

      Kirsten Wicklund

      Afloat amidst the steam of my combustion

      When the Straight reaches Kirsten Wicklund, she’s in Massachusetts, performing with Ballet BC at the buzzing contemporary-dance hub that is the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Next, she and the troupe will head to a prized spot at the Grec Festival de Barcelona in Spain and the COLOURS International Dance Festival in Stuttgart, Germany, and arrive back in Vancouver the day before her Dancing on the Edge performances. All of this raises the question: how and where does this busy dancer find time to rehearse her new solo?

      “I’ve always done extra projects—it’s just kind of in my personality as a creator. But logistically it’s been very difficult,” the upbeat artist admits. “Our days are so jam-packed. I had a day off down here and rented the conference room at the hotel and worked there, and then there’s the big lawn at Jacob’s Pillow—I used that. I just go with the flow.”

      Her work at Ballet BC inspires Wicklund, even while she blazes her own trail in choreography. “What I’m working on as an artist at Ballet BC is totally relevant to what I’m doing with my own work,” she explains. “I’m really encouraged to bring myself to what we’re working on here [at Ballet BC]. But I really like to explore new things in the work I do.”

      Afloat amidst the steam of my combustion has evolved over the past year, first as a solo last summer for dancer Lara Barclay at the Dance Deck series (an intimate back-yard project by Ballet BC alumnus Sylvain Senez and current Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher). Now Wicklund performs the intense piece herself.

      “It’s my first time putting anything in a proper theatre space,” she says. “I’ve shifted things in the space completely, reimagining the environment.”

      Wicklund drew inspiration from images in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, instilling them with female energy and exploring themes of history repeating and relentless change. “The passage of time in some of these [Homer’s] stories spans many, many lifetimes,” she observes.

      She has also been exploring ideas of barriers, emotional and spatial—through the use of light and plastic sheets. In the trailer for the abstract piece (filmed by Ballet BC colleague Peter Smida), Wicklund reveals a different, turbulent side of herself—convulsing, cramped by space, sweating and jittery. The intensity is heightened by hot-pink light and the throbbing, choppy percussion of electronica artist Forest Swords, as well as the breathless sounds of sax expressionist Colin Stetson.

      “The trailer inspired more of a dark feeling,” she says, comparing it to the sunlit performance at Dance Deck. “It feels like I’m moving the piece from daylight to underground. It’s more gritty.…It’s hard, but I’m just trying to be more fearless.”

      Edge Six is at the Firehall Arts Centre on July 12 and 13. The Dancing on the Edge Festival runs from Thursday (July 4) to July 13.