Choreographer Calder White describes his upcoming show at the 34th annual Dancing on the Edge as a “full-circle moment”.
BABY, in which he will perform a solo with puppets, will mark the first time that a festival presenter is bringing one of his original works to the stage. The production also includes a duet with Toronto-based dancers Rakeem Hardy and Jessica Mak.
“Dancing on the Edge holds a very near and dear spot to my heart because it was the first festival that I ever saw when I moved to Vancouver four years ago,” White tells the Straight by phone. “And I’ve performed in it every year since moving to Vancouver.”
Last year, he appeared in three Dancing on the Edge shows: Rachel Meyer’s Mama, do we die when we sleep?; Wen Wei Dance’s Two; and Shay Kuebler/Radical System Art’s M.O.I. - Momentum of Isolation. The latter two were themed around isolation, as is BABY.
Its origins go back to White pondering whether it would be moral to ask two dancers to be touching or engaging with each other—and how to create a group work that was also ethical in the pandemic.
“My answer to both of those things was to increase the number of ‘nonreal’ bodies on-stage,” he explains. “That’s kind of where the puppets come into it. I wanted to fill the space with bodies and try to do that in the safest way possible.”
But these are not your everyday lovable, cheerful puppets that you might see on Sesame Street. Quite the opposite.
“I’m working at the intersection of anonymity, intimacy, and horror,” White declares.
He adds that horror—along the lines of what's seen in films like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th—is not normally a part of dance work.
So in BABY, he wanted to play with aspects of this genre by introducing some of these elements. They include a hooded figure seen from a distance staring at the observer and a lonely creature who surrounds himself with nonliving bodies to keep himself company.
“There are a lot of horror tropes,” White says. “I’m a huge horror fan myself when it comes to film and literature.”
Queer experiences underlie BABY
He emphasizes that anonymity, intimacy, and horror are not elements of all queer lives. However, he acknowledges, they have been integral to his experience as a gay man.
“So that’s kind of underlying the whole work—how to engage with these other bodies,” White says.
He credits Kuebler as having a “big impact on his creative focus” because Kuebler works in such a theatrical way with many characters.
“It was through Shay that I found the carpenter [Chris White] who made the puppets for me that are seen in the promotional images and will be seen in the show,” White says. “One of the main motives for this piece is to kind of alter the audience’s perception of the number of performers on stage. That goes beyond just the puppets.”
White also praises Stéphanie Cyr for providing dramaturgy in Vancouver, as well as old friends Clarke Blair and Tia Kushniruk for helping him when he was in Toronto.
White is hooded in his solo, so it would have been impossible to pull it off without their eyes assisting him.
“I don’t know where this piece would be without them,” he says.
Maria Kofman oversaw costume design and wardrobe and Stefan Nazarevich was responsible for the music.
“It’s my biggest piece to date,” White says with pride. “With the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts, I’m able to make some interesting costume choices that hopefully will have some cool effects for the audience.”