Canadian dance icon Margie Gillis still vividly remembers the first time she walked into the studio of Winnipeg sculptor and painter Randal Newman, an artist known for his haunting images of grasping limbs.
“I entered his world and it was one of the most amazing places,” Gillis says, on the line from her hometown of Montreal. “There were all these arms and bodies reaching forward. And we suddenly wanted to work together.”
It took many years for Newman’s dangling arms to find their way into her work, though. The result, The Light Between, which features the sculptural canvas and paper limbs suspended above and amid the dancers, is coming to the Vancouver International Dance Festival. And it has been worth the wait, she feels.
“Those images have always stuck with me—images of arms hanging in space, where you’re not in our world or the afterworld, you’re in this liminal space.” To Gillis, that transitional space relates entirely to dance at its most powerful. “It’s when our stuck places are unstuck and our souls are opened up,” explains Gillis, who is as passionate about her art form as ever in the 40th year of her dance career. “I feel his images as clearly as I feel my own body.”
The Light Between is a bit of a departure for Gillis, not just because it integrates the work of a visual artist. Though she has occasionally danced with others and once performed duets with her late brother, Christopher, Gillis has made her name as a powerful solo artist. In fact, she’s performed more than 100 lone works. Here, she dances with colleagues Paola Styron and Marc Daigle. And don’t think just anyone can share the spotlight with her. “I take being on-stage very seriously. When I go on-stage, I want to be there with people I trust and who have a presence,” she explains. “I’m partnering with the audience and I want strong people with me.…So I get to work with people I adore and that I don’t have to worry about on-stage. I know they know how to dance from the inside out.”
Dancing from the inside out—erupting from the very core of her being into dance so emotional it sometimes makes audiences weep—is what the chestnut-maned artist is known for, and is an approach that she teaches around the globe. The Light Between reveals the dancers at their most sensitive and exposed as well. The dancers, Gillis explains, each embody the journey of the human, the spiritual, and the natural, and the connection between those three.
“It’s very vulnerable and lush,” Gillis says of the fluid, luminous work. “The whole first dance is an inquiry; curiosity is what you need to go through changes and transformations.”
And there again, thematically, those arms reaching out from another space and time tie into her inspirations for the piece. “I was also very moved when the tsunami happened in Japan and when 9/11 happened. You had people falling through the air, people moving through water—people moving from this world,” Gillis says with emotion. “I was with my brother the moment when his spirit left this world, and for the moment when my friend’s baby was born and he came into this world.”
Thirty-eight years into her career, it seems this Order of Canada recipient is still hugely invigorated by her art, and life. Making art does not seem to be a tormented affair for Gillis; witness her description of rehearsal earlier this day. “I was laughing with utter joy,” she recounts. “It’s the deliciousness of going further and further into it with the dancers, and into nuance. How tender should it be? A little more or a little less? How rough? A little more or a little less?”
Gillis’s attitude and her sense of joy and hope seep into The Light Between, into all her work, and into almost everything she does. The arms in her latest piece may all reach down, but Gillis is forever reaching up.
“Let’s get drunk on life. I’ve always been very passionate about things,” she says, and then enthuses about the world around her with the kind of conviction you might not believe if it came from anybody else. “Bumping into a wall, biting into a peach, feeling a sheet rustling against me, feeling my foot against the floor… The sensuality of life is so incredibly lush and rich.”