Dancing on the Edge artists talk shifting gears and innovating in pandemic times

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      When the Dancing on the Edge festival takes place this week, it won’t look anything like it has over its 32-year history.

      That’s because, of course, COVID-19 means all performances have to adhere to social-distancing measures. But the fest is still managing to present a full roster of online and even in-person contemporary-dance works.

      We reached out to three artists boldly venturing into new terrain for the event.

      Company 605’s Josh Martin debuts the solo dance film Brimming, shot by David Cooper, as part of the mixed Edge 6 program (July 7 and 11on YouTube). He says it started by exploring the body as a container—“something that both shapes and holds us”.

      He conjured images of a container that was becoming overfilled—“sloshing, leaking, its frame beginning to warp and bend under pressure,” he tells the Straight.

      “Fittingly, when I began to approach this as a solo last year, I happened to be invited to share some research at Boombox, which is a performance space housed within a commercial container truck,” he says. “I think working in that confined space really helped me explore a sense of an interior process pushing up against an exterior wall. There is this saying of ‘Get out of yourself’ that feels relevant, imagining this rigid structure and what might spill out of it.”

      Action at a Distance’s Vanessa Goodman has created the new solo video piece Solvent in collaboration with musician Scott Morgan (Loscil), premiering it as part of the Edge One program (July 3 and 6 on YouTube). She says the work overlaps with the aquatic themes of Never Still, which premiered at the Firehall in 2018 and included vivid video imagery of dancers plunging into water. “Circulatory systems, both internally and externally, are a structural inspiration,” she says.

      And O.Dela Arts’ Olivia C. Davies will be premiering a live performance of Wishing Well to a small audience in the Firehall Arts Centre courtyard (which will also be live-streamed). The healing, meditative piece is an outdoor performance installation that draws from Gidaashi: The Wind That Takes Us, a duet created by Davies and Vuntut-Gwichin poet Melissa Frost, and features them with three other dancers—Rianne Svelnis, Ziyian Kwan, and Kelly McInnes. Blending poetry, movement, and storytelling, it’s about being stripped of cultural identity and the reassertion of language, protocol, and ceremony. It’s deeply connected to Davies and Frost’s experience of creating and performing Gidaashi (from the verb zaagidaashin, which means “to be tossed out of the whirlwind” in Anishinaabemowin), as well as to ideas of kinship and sisterhood.

      Here’s what the artists had to say about what it was like venturing into pandemic-times performance, and the innovation and resilience it took to get there.

      Company 605's Josh Martin in a still from Brimming.
      Diego Romero


      Was this a live work that you had to “pivot” to turn digital, and what was that like?

      JM: “My original proposal to Dancing on the Edge was, of course, a work imagined for a live performance setting. But with all the uncertainty and such reduced ability to control that type of audience experience for this year’s festival, I was much more drawn to the option of contributing screen-based work. It seemed like an opportunity to exercise a different type of choreographic lens to interrogate the original impetus and movement research, which in many ways felt like starting a new creation process from scratch.

      "I still very much intend to someday make the stage piece in the way I had originally envisioned, and I see this film as something else. So—I wouldn’t say that the work itself has had to pivot per se, but I have certainly felt myself pivoting, almost daily since April, grieving for the work I want to be doing while forcing myself to redirect my practice and get excited by all the other possibilities available.”

      VG: “I began to experiment with videos exploring themes that Scott and I have been collaborating on for several years. Even though there’s some overlap with the live work we’ve created, this presentation at DOTE is a standalone, video-specific piece. Scott and I often work online, sending each other music and movement footage as part of our process. Time in the studio is definitely a significant component of how we work together, but this digital pivot is not a huge stretch for us.”

      OD:Gidaashi: The Wind That Takes Us would have been presented as an ensemble work with elements of close-quarter-movement and moments of skin-to-skin contact between dancers. We were working in-studio to build the foundation of the work, which includes a ‘wishing well’ choreographic score right up until mid-March, when lockdown measures came into effect. Unwilling to let the dream die, I continued to imagine different possibilities of expressing the work. I shared a drawn-out 54-minute solo from inside my living room for #nacperforms as a live Facebook feed on April 1, where I worked in a four-foot-by-four-foot frame lit with bicycle lights and did what I could to invoke the other collaborators and the work we had only just recently left behind. It was exhausting and felt so lonely. Moving into May, I recognized how an outdoor performance might be possible through the Firehall’s courtyard and approached [DOTE festival producer] Donna Spencer with my pitch to share an adapted version for a small audience.”

      Melissa Frost and Olivia C. Davies.
      Chris Randle

      How do dancers or creative teams rehearse during COVID-19?

      JM: “It was fortunate that this project was already a solo, and already being created for a small enclosed space. So, aside from the child-care issues, the rehearsal aspect was a relatively easy in my case. Just find a flat surface and move. But I have certainly felt the longing for more face-to-face interaction with my collaborators throughout, and the complexity of communicating artistic notions becomes when that physical, in-person transmission is absent. I am an introverted person, but I really want to feel connected when working with others, and I’m learning how simply sharing the same space makes that feeling so much more achievable.”

      OD: “The original ensemble members are all working on their scores individually in their own spaces. Early on in the planning stages for this engagement, our conversations centred around sanitation and other precautions that would be taken by both the venue and O.Dela Arts to ensure the dancers and crew would be kept safe during performances. Choices to maintain safe distance between dancers throughout the piece were made as part of the artistic direction of the work.

      "This is one challenge that can actually be easily managed with the specific venue of the Firehall’s courtyard—it is quite a spacious, open-air space where audience members can be distanced without losing access or sightlines to the performance space. Other ways the work is being reimagined is through the creation process itself, moving more directly into the hands of the dancers. As choreographer-director, I have provided them each with a score that was devised in our earlier creation sessions that will now be further developed on their own.

      "I recognize that this is a process that requires an implicit trust in each collaborator to uphold the original vision and intention of the work and manifest their own artistry through their devising. We will all come together for the final rehearsals, and it is here where I will witness their work and make any final adjustments before we share with audiences.”

      Vanessa Goodman, of Action at a Distance, in Solvent.

      What are some of the biggest challenges taking dance into film or online? Have you found benefits or new opportunities for expression?

      VG: “I have always enjoyed editing my work into short trailers or archival documentation—especially because the footage I am working with is usually shot by David Cooper, who is an incredibly talented videographer who always manages to capture the spirit of the work. The main challenge with this project is that the majority of the footage is self-shot, which can be a tricky way to gather footage. It’s difficult not to be able to work with all of my usual collaborators. I am filming most of this material at home with a very modest lighting setup. Since I am used to working with lights in a very interactive way with James Proudfoot, there’s a limitation doing it myself. On the other hand, the DIY approach has led to some creative results that I might not have found otherwise.”

      JM: “I don’t really see it as a need to ‘take dance into film’, as though there is a conversion somewhere. I think making live dance is challenging, and I think showing dance on a screen is challenging, but they are separate problems to solve with their own opportunities, and each deserve their own choreographic intention. For me, the challenge is to just fully turn on that part of my brain—the part that sees in 16:9 and remembers a completely different palette of tools and capabilities are available. Simultaneously, I have to let go of any expectations of that kinesthetic transference I count on in live shows, which I think will never quite drift the same way through a screen. However, I really enjoy how my imagination and creative logic are accessed in a different way, and how my inexperience with the medium is actually energizing to the work.”

      A still from Company 605's Brimming.
      Zahra Shahab

      JM: “We’ve been involved in dance film projects here and there for over a decade, so this hasn’t been an entirely new endeavour, but I do see digital content growing into a larger portion of our future creative activity—not because of COVID-19, really, but because there is a true curiosity about what this brings to the dialogue of contemporary dance. I think this time will have lasting effects, yes. I think we are likely going to lose some would-be dance artists and audiences as the entire arts and culture sector experiences this halt in a variety of negative ways.

      "I also think that any time people are confronted with limitations and obstructions, the arts community will always show how adaptive and innovative it really is, leading to new creative paths and many positive outcomes. I do worry about how the perceived value of performing arts may shift as new work flows more readily into the vast sea of online content, competing for attention in ways it never should need to, but I also have high hopes about how a return to live performance may feel novel again, like we’ve all been taking it for granted, and how this absence is hopefully making the heart grow fonder.”

      VG: “A lot of my practice incorporates video work. Even though this feels like a distilled, self-reliant extension of work I have already been creating, it has put a very fine point on how much I value and appreciate collaborating face-to-face. I don’t think it will be possible to take a theatre experience with a live audience for granted after the pandemics restrictions are over. That’s hopefully a positive long-term impact of this time: appreciating aspects of our art forms that have been easy to overlook.” g

      The Dancing on the Edge festival runs from Thursday to next Saturday (July 2 to 11) at the Firehall Arts Centre and via online platforms; see the full schedule at dancingontheedge.org/.