Dance and crafts intermingle in Joe Ink's trip through the Stone, Bronze, and Iron ages

What began as a research-based project has blossomed into a full-blown production

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      For dance company Joe Ink’s latest production, Dance:Craft, Vancouver choreographer Joe Laughlin did something highly unusual beforehand.

      He and dancer Heather Dotto visited several artists’ studios in a range of disciplines. It was part of a research-based project, launched in 2017, investigating the relationship of dancers to art objects.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Laughlin recalls receiving a lesson from ceramic artist Debra Sloan on how to pour slip moulds. Laughlin and Dotto created little “minibabies”, which they turned into sculptures.

      “It was really very childlike what we experienced in doing that,” Laughlin says.

      At Hope Forstenzer’s glass-blowing studio, they made a paperweight. That’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

      “You have to go into the crucible of 2,000 ° C,” Laughlin says. “Your mother always told you not to play with fire, but she’s telling us to go into the crucible and draw the glass out. What? What? Oh, my god, it’s so hot.”

      Laughlin and Dotto were able to pull out the melted glass with a long pole.

      “We were so viscerally excited,” he says, “and when we came out of that experience, we were just kind of vibrating.”

      Carpet and textile artist Deborah Dumka educated them about making felt for rugs. According to Laughlin, she said that this was a process of “pressure, water, agitation, and repetition”.

      “I thought about that for a moment,” Laughlin says. “I said to her, ‘That’s how we make a dancer.’ Totally—pressure, water, sweat, agitation—you know, that happens to your body. And certainly repetition.”

      Wood designer Patrick Christie and metal artist and blacksmith Stefanie Dueck also collaborated with the dance company on the project.

      Michael Slobodian

      Movements devised in response to objects

      Joe Ink’s board chair is Raine McKay, executive director of the Craft Council of B.C., who had been providing Laughlin with insights into this area for several years.

      Laughlin then decided to invite the craft artists into his studio to discuss making objects that could be informed by dance and his company’s practice.

      In the fall of 2019, Laughlin recruited Calgary dancer Joey Matt to come aboard, with the goal of creating a project with the artists that included a community-dance element.

      “I probably made 45 minutes of dances—I called them ‘studies’,” he says.

      One set of movements was in response to a metal object, another to ceramics, et cetera.

      “The plan was to move into a warehouse kind of space and build this art installation,” Laughlin reveals. “That way, the audience could have a hands-on experience.”

      There were going to be craft artists in the performance, as well as a kind of Greek chorus. He called it a “moving art installation”.

      But just as things were getting underway, the pandemic hit. And Laughlin realized that this dream would have to be put on hold for a while. Laughlin will turn 61 at the end of May, and he was in no mood to catch COVID-19. He remained in isolation, learning how to make videos as an outlet for his creative urges.

      He’s already won his share of awards, including the Canada Council Jacqueline Lemieux Prize, the Clifford E. Lee Choreography Award, and B.C.’s Isadora Award for choreography. So it made sense for SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs to partner with his company when it came time to resume live performances.

      In the fall, he started planning a show and the craft artists resumed making objects. At the beginning of March, the two dancers started working on movements in association with the crafts, including the ceramic masks. Once they could rehearse at SFU Woodward’s, they could also work with larger wood blocks and a metal sculpture.

      To Laughlin, this isn’t just a show about objects. It’s also a reflection on the brain’s limbic system, molecular memories, and the continued erosion of the body.

      “I’m very cognizant of the decline of my body,” he says. “And I was just thinking this yesterday: Heather and Joey are just beautiful. They’re going to blow people away. They have an incredible synchronicity and chemistry together.”

      Michael Slobodian

      An evolutionary time line

      His newfound passion for video is also incorporated in the production. Dumka’s daughter, Claire Sanford, created virtual-reality productions of the artists in their studios, which will be available to the audience when they show up at the reconfigured Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre.

      Laughlin describes Dance:Craft as an “evolutionary time line”.

      “It’s kind of a trip to the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age,” he says.

      According to many scholars, the Iron Age ended around 550 BC. Political philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, has suggested that it continues into present times through modern motorization, in which “human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel”.

      Laughlin also believes that the Iron Age is still with us.

      “Now, I feel like we have to move out of the Iron Age in order for us to survive as a species,” he says.

      In partnership with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, Joe Ink will present the world premiere of Dance:Craft at the Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at 7 p.m. from May 20 to 22. For more information, visit the Joe Ink website.