In May of 1969, when Helen Walkley was 13, her 23-year-old brother John went missing, never to be seen or heard from again. That profound loss eventually led Walkley to conceive the dance/theatre piece John, a memoir of her sibling that played to sold-out crowds when it premiered at the 2019 Dancing on the Edge Festival.
“It’s a very long process that led me to creating this work,” the dancer/choreographer explains on the phone from her Mount Pleasant home. “It wasn’t like I went to the studio and said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna make a piece about the disappearance of my brother.’ It was more like an accumulation over time.”
In early 2016, Walkley had a writing practice with a colleague, in which they wrote spontaneously, sourcing from prompts. The writing that arose revolved around transients, something that is missing, and her family. Back in 2010, after her father had died, she’d received an archive of letters that were sent from her parents to her brother John, and from John to her parents and family. The archive also included correspondences from doctors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
“I’d had these letters for six years and I hadn’t read them,” she says, “and when I had done this series of writings that I realized were about transients and related to my family, that’s when I decided, ‘Okay, these letters and my writings will be the focus of the piece, the point of departure for the work.’
“That’s an accumulation of gathering information over time to receive the focal point,” she adds. “So, for example, in that first phase of research, there were actually two dancers, an actor, and a harpist—they had a harp in the space and a harpist. And when I realized the focal point of the work, that’s when I scaled it down to a duet, with [dancers] Billy Marchenski and Josh Martin.”
Walkley first came in contact with Marchenski in the mid-’90s, when he was doing an undergraduate degree in theatre at SFU at the same time as she was getting her master's in interdisciplinary studies.
“We’d just cross paths sometimes,” she recalls. “We didn’t know each other; we’d just grin at each other.” Then in 2004, when Walkley was an artist in residence at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, she choreographed a duet Marchenski performed with Andrew Olewine.
“Billy is both an actor and a dancer,” Walkley says, “so he is speaking text, the letters, and there’s also some recorded piece of text that he spoke that’s a piece of my writing. But it’s a very collaborative process, and [Marchenski and Martin are] both just very talented guys, so it was a very illustrious process.”
As Walkley speaks, it’s still three days before rehearsals for the remount of John begin, and she’s interested to see where things will lead.
“I think that we’re all pretty curious to go back into the studio and to just start moving through this work again,” she says. “But, of course, two and a half years have transpired, so it’s also likely that there could be some changes. And there could be some changes, for example, in the sound score that James Maxwell composed.”
Walkley and composer Maxwell have a long history of working together, having first collaborated back in 1997. Also on display with Maxwell’s music will be the lighting design of James Proudfoot.
“Both with the light and with the sound, they bring in their voice to the work. So it’s not as if I prescribe something; it’s more they look and listen to what I and we are doing and they bring in their own voice. So in that sense, then, the work is composite; it’s the voices of everyone—and by voice, I mean the quality of expression, their way of being, their presence in the work and what they bring to it.
“And something that did come up in the process of making the work was how the participants were touched by the story, if you will, of having a brother that was diagnosed with some mental illness and subsequently disappeared. How that touched them in their own lives, how they have experience of that in their own lives, in their own family.”
Donna Spencer, artistic producer at the Firehall Arts Centre, where John will be remounted next month, describes it as “such a powerful, intimate piece that you are left feeling like you know this mysterious person”. So was that one of the goals of the project for Walkley, to have audiences feel like they know her brother?
“That wasn’t a way that I specifically thought as I/we created the work,” she replies after a long silence, “but we all came close to it. We all came through these letters. Like there’s excerpts, I think, of maybe nine letters, but the entire archive is more like a hundred letters, which we all read. That’s where we started—I sent them copies of these letters. So I think it just had to do with the ability of all of us to meet at the same point. I don’t know how else to describe it.
“I mean, this is a life experience that is very impacting, and it’s something that I carried with me and felt very aware of throughout the course of my life, from a young teenager to today. There was a way that it was always kind of bubbling up in me, and I was processing it. And I think that the nature of this work is that we are, in fact, all in the same room, we all have very impactful life experiences, and sharing that vulnerability is deep and touching.”