It’s hard not to notice dance artist Julianne Chapple’s work in a mixed program. At last year’s Dances for a Small Stage, she appeared like a broken-limbed ghost, swishing her hair in a transparent, spotlit bowl of water, splattering droplets as she flailed. Set to a creepy soundtrack of people remembering dreams about drowning, sea/unseen had a feel somewhere between a Japanese horror movie and Emily Brontë.
If the artist’s visions are often surreally different from other pieces out there, it’s probably due in part to her nontraditional journey to local stages.
Chapple went to the acclaimed Langley Fine Arts School from kindergarten to Grade 12, specializing in her secondary years in music, while taking ballet and jazz dance outside the facility. The urge to choreograph came early, when she was 12 or 13.
“One of the first times I was dancing on a stage, I forgot the dance steps, and I just kept dancing, as you’re supposed to do,” says the fair-skinned, dark-haired artist, relaxing in a Main Street coffee shop. “And I went, ‘Why don’t I do this all the time? Why do I need someone else to choreograph for me?’ ”
When she graduated, she moved to Vancouver, working with Modus Operandi and others, and staged her own creations at local art galleries.
An injury led her and her partner, interdisciplinary artist Ed Spence, to travel through Europe in 2012. Their first plan was to move to Berlin, but Italy’s 33 Officina Creativa in Toffia soon accepted her application to work there.
“It was in a medieval church that they had converted into an arts centre in this tiny town, and they were completely open to anything we wanted to do. We were really up in the mountains. There were no restaurants, one grocery store,” she says. “It was an amazing time to be away from distractions and I had a studio—well, the hall of this church—to myself all day for two months. We didn’t have our cellphones or the Internet or anything.”
That isolation made her think about the way technology affects our lives and our bodies—a theme she explored in work there and will continue investigating at the Dance Centre’s DanceLab this fall with Spence. “We’re building sculptures right now that integrate into and attach to the body,” says Chapple, who describes the creations as having the look of glossy high-tech consumer products—“as if Apple were to design body parts”.
Her time in Europe has influenced her work in other ways, too, opening her up to collaborations with visual artists and musicians. Of Berlin, where she lived for months after Italy, she says: “I feel like there weren’t those boundaries [between art forms] there.”
Back in Vancouver, she’s since made impressions at Small Stage, including this summer’s site-specific ghost story on the front porch of historic Ceperley House, and at last year’s Launch festival. Now, along with putting together the piece with Spence, she’s working on a duet for dancers who move like they’re part of the same mechanism. “It’s just this visual language I’m stuck on right now: thinking of the body as a machine.”
Through it all, Chapple is aware she’s taking an unconventional route—and it’s working to her advantage.
“Most choreographers start as dancers at big companies,” she says, “and I knew I didn’t really fit into that. That’s also why I’ve gravitated toward visual artists as influences: they can come from anywhere and produce whatever they want.”