The biggest challenge creating a work for Dances for a Small Stage is usually… Well, the small stage. Downsizing a piece to the little platform at the ANZA Club is hard for people used to choreographing big physical work for larger venues.
That was a struggle for Nela Hallwas (who goes by Nela H) for her company’s first appearance on the popular mixed program: her Surrey-based Diskordanse is known for theatrical spectacles, complete with elaborate props and costumes.
“I now have to take these five really physical dancers and shrink them,” the striking, platinum-haired choreographer says on a trip into town, sitting in an East Side café. “So the challenge has been for them to internalize their power. They’re so used to flying across the stage!”
But an even bigger struggle for her was the theme for Small Stage’s Valentine’s show: love and relationships. “I thought, ‘No, it’s so not what we do.’ We create fantasy worlds where there is no romance—it’s more athletic feats, really,” H says.
Master curator (and MovEnt artistic producer) Julie-anne Saroyan had asked all the choreographers taking part in this installment—impressive names like Nederlands Dans Theater alumna Lesley Telford, local flamenco star Karen Pitkethly, and acclaimed contemporary artist Josh Beamish—to come to the creative-planning meeting with a story about love. Even driving into town, H was unsure what she’d present. But then she started listening to news stories about Syrian refugees on the radio, and they triggered memories. “I was a refugee. My father was a political fighter against the Communist regime,” she begins, referring to Yugoslavia in the 1960s.
When the Serbo-Croatian H was just four, her father suddenly had to escape the country and disappeared. Communist officials interrogated her mother about her husband’s whereabouts, but to no avail: she had no idea where he was. They gave her a choice to hand over her travelling papers and stay in the country forever, or leave immediately and never return.
H’s mother chose the latter and, using her husband’s underground connections over a three-night journey, travelled with her daughter across Eastern Europe and eventually to Paris, where he was hiding. The emotional reunion left a lasting image in H’s mind.
“I remember seeing my father’s face over other people’s heads at the station, so I must have been held up,” H recalls.
She also remembers the chugging motion of the train while she curled up on the floor. And working from that movement and her parents’ experience, she crafted a piece for her young dancers for the Small Stage program. “It’s not literally about this story,” stresses H, who intends to dress her dancers in film-noir-styled clothing. “My mom could have stayed home. So for me it’s about the search and the belief in love.”
Eventually, H’s family settled in Canada, first in Montreal. And in the ensuing years, the artist has had an almost unimaginably varied artistic career that’s culminated in a school and a company that have had a big impact on the community here. In her teen years in Canada, H studied ballet and became a classical pianist. Later, she studied dance at SFU, played keyboards in a punk band, worked as a scriptwriter and feature-film editor, and produced short dance films. “I’m not a planner—things cross my path and I go for them,” she says with a smile.
But dance was always the through line, and when she founded XBa in 1999, Canada’s only dance-based, dry-land training centre for competitive figure skaters, it was the beginning of her own school. XBa DanceCo was established out of the facility in 2001, setting out a unique program that mixes ballet, modern, street, and other forms. These days, it also integrates at-risk youth who develop into teachers at the school. Then, in 2011, she launched the professional performance troupe Diskordanse there.
“Diskordanse was established to give our dancers work,” H explains. “It was also for me to let go of what was in here,” she says, patting her heart, “without the constraints of doing a show for children and families, which we do with the school.”
What was “in here” waiting to come out has turned out to be edgy, physically pummelling work that’s often torqued up by pulsing electronic music and dramatic lighting.
With that in mind, the as-yet-untitled piece for Small Stage should mark yet another new creative turn for H, who’s never really mined her distant past for her creations. It’s been a long journey that’s brought H to Dances for a Small Stage, and, despite her initial resistance to the subject matter, she’s pleased by where Saroyan’s love-story request has taken her. “It’s been an incredible process, actually,” she reflects, “and I’m grateful she triggered that in me.”
Dances for a Small Stage runs from Thursday to Sunday (February 11 to 14) at the ANZA Club.