Sitting together in a café before rehearsals at the nearby Scotiabank Dance Centre, choreographer Joe Laughlin and dancer Kevin Tookey find themselves at turning points in their careers.
Laughlin, at 54, is about to take the stage to perform for the first time in 10 years in his new 4OUR. For Tookey, who’s about two decades younger than Laughlin, the show will mark the end of his dance career and the start of a new journey: only a couple days after the show ends, he begins studying joinery and cabinetry at BCIT to become a professional woodworker.
“This is a project I’m really passionate about. So it’s nice to go out with that,” says Tookey, who performs in 4OUR with dance veteran Gioconda Barbuto and Heather Dotto, as well as Laughlin. “I never wanted it to be a big deal. You never want to be forced out of what you love to do. I always wanted to have a backup plan.”
“It is a life milestone,” Laughlin adds of what is potentially the collaborators’ last project together. “And that matches the themes of the work.”
Laughlin started the work as a solo for Barbuto before it morphed into a quartet that meditates on memory, family, cross-generational relationships, and the moments that shape our lives. And something about it drove the former gymnast and Joe Ink founder to perform again.
“Something in me said, ‘I’m a dancer. I love this, I miss this,’ ” he says. “I don’t have to dance the way I used to. I feel like I’ve discovered a new quality in myself. Once I committed to it, I was really happy to dance again.
“I have these crushes on the dancers as a choreographer and here were three that I love, and it was hard not to want to go with them and play,” he adds with a smile. “They inspired me.”
The close relationship between all four dancers has influenced Laughlin’s deep new exploration of life and memory. Laughlin has watched Tookey dance since the younger performer was 17 at the Banff Centre for the Arts; as Tookey puts it, “If I had to pick a dance dad in Vancouver, it would be you,” and for a split second, sitting side by side and each sporting a shaved head and grizzled beard, they do resemble father and son. In fact, Tookey has danced one of Laughlin’s best-known solos, Left, a “duet with a teacup”. But all the dancers are close: Barbuto and Laughlin, for instance, go back decades, and Tookey says of Dotto, “My relationship with her is very similar to my relationship with my sister.”
4OUR has also been influenced by some difficult times in the past year or so: Laughlin’s father passed away after a long struggle with cancer. And Laughlin and Tookey worked through it in the studio.
“Then, three weeks later, Gio’s dad died and these guys [Tookey and Dotto] sort of parented us through that,” Laughlin reveals.
The result is a multilayered, multimedia work, with immersive video projections by James Proudfoot that are sometimes screened on the sculptural white costumes by Alice Mansell. The varied music consists of a lot of Johann Sebastian Bach, straight up and remixed.
Through the process, Laughlin has become more and more interested in how “mature” dancers move—and how much more life experience and depth they can bring to the stage. He jokes that he had to plead with the younger dancers during improvisations not to spend so much time getting up and down from the floor. “Gio and I laugh that we’re in this youth-oriented bungee-bodies art form. But there are more shows with older dancers these days—it’s a thing. More people are staying with it longer. It’s expanding the milieu of what a dancer is and what a dancer looks like and what they can do.
“I’ve come to realize as a younger choreographer you make up movement and you’re interested in controlling movement,” Laughlin reflects. “I’m 54, and I’m less interested in my movement and more in the whole piece and the connection with the audience.”
With dancers like Laughlin performing longer, Tookey has plenty of time in his life to return to dance if he wants. For now, he’s finding some similar rewards in dance and woodworking: “Both are artistic. Both have an attention to detail and improvising. And there’s digging in your feet, finding a solution to every problem.”
In an almost perfect sendoff, Tookey has crafted several wood pieces that appear on-stage in 4OUR—seating props and projection boxes that will give us a taste of what is to come from the artist in his new career.
Joe Ink’s 4OUR is at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (October 1 to 3).