Renowned Vancouver dance artist Joshua Beamish has thought a great deal about the differences between being a choreographer and a dancer.
In a phone interview with the Straight, he describes choreography as “really intellectually demanding” because it involves understanding how to communicate with a dancer while learning how they work and what their body is capable of doing.
“So there’s a lot of investigation,” Beamish says. “It’s like scanning. I feel you’re constantly scanning through material, seeking things that are resonant or vital.”
He explains that dancers, on the other hand, “are kind of in an unknown state” as they set out to achieve the choreographer’s vision and decode certain requests.
“It’s also physically demanding on top of that,” Beamish says. “So there’s the physical exhaustion and preparation for your body to be able to exceed what the choreographer may want.”
To him, jumping back and forth between both roles is the most challenging because although dancers will get used to the routine, alternating between dancing and choreography makes him feel that he’s always having to get back into shape.
“I need to have taken ballet class; I need to have done Pilates; I need to have done yoga,” Beamish says. “There’s just a different preparation, and when I’m dancing, I’m so tired.”
Reflecting his dedication to his art form, he decided to embrace both choreography and dancing in his latest project, PROXIMITY—a collection of short works, which will be presented as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Consisting of five filmed pieces, each seven to 11 minutes long, PROXIMITY revolves around different encounters that he has with other artists.
In the title piece, Proximity, he choreographs a duet between himself and Renée Sigouin.
Inspired by the pandemic, they come ever so close to one another at times but do not touch; on another occasion, there’s a gaping stage between them, with the dance set to the music from the outer-space film Interstellar.
“That space can feel infinite when you can’t touch or be close to people that you care about—or you can’t see them, or you’re near them but you can’t hug them,” Beamish says.
As part of his research, Beamish explored the science behind what happens when two people come close to one another.
"There's a particular eletromagnetism that the heart gives off that can be felt in proximity," he says. "So in close proximity, you start receiving electromagnetism from another person's heart—and it transmits more than your brain."
In another piece, Lost Touch, Beamish choreographs a solo performance by Sigouin, inspired by the notion that people lose touch with one another for many reasons.
"What happens when you consciously determine that you want to lose touch with someone, to lose contact?" Beamish asks.
He adds that losing touch with someone can also relate to the idea of halting physical contact, even if the world still appears to be the same.
In Lost Touch, Sigouin faintly hears music coming from somewhere else.
"It’s kind of like a prompt for her to be kind of wrapped up in this dialogue with herself about losing touch.”
Lost Touch is the only one of the five short pieces that will be having its world premiere.
In later rehearsals, Beamish and Sigouin had to wear masks but they had special permission to remove them during filming.
He also had to wear masks when rehearsing on his own at the Dance Centre following one of the public health orders.
"It was very hard for me to run a 10-minute solo, start to finish, with a mask on," Beamish reveals. "Sometimes, it was like I was eating it."
In Falling Upward, Beamish choreographs and performs by himself; he and former Ballet BC dancer Scott Fowler codirect the film.
According to Beamish, Falling Upward was inspired by a quote from the Center for Action and Contemplation. He describes this as a moment in which pain, embarrassment, or failure cause a person to reevaluate their life and priorities as they move into the second phase of adulthood.
Two other pieces, Ablaze Amongst the Fragments of Your Sky and Redemption, involve Beamish dancing solo for choreographers Kirsten Wicklund of Ballet BC and Colombian-Belgian star Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, respectively.
There’s a reason why he chose Wicklund and Ochoa, beyond their impressive résumés.
“Kirsten, Annabelle, and I all generate our choreography on our own bodies,” Beamish explains. “So we all dance in the room as choreographers and make phrases.”
He adds that many choreographers he’s worked with prefer to create through theoretical ideas or tasks or have dancers generate movement. Then they thread that together into a coherent structure.
“Whereas this time, I was literally watching Annabelle and Kirsten and learning steps from them that they were coming up with from their bodies,” he says. “That in itself is a really different experience.”
Beamish founded MOVETHECOMPANY in 2005 and since then, he's risen to international stardom. One of his career highlights was the world premiere of @gisele at the Vancouver Playhouse in 2019, which included dancers from American Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada.
In 2017, Saudade premiered at the prestigious BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn. "That was a really significant achievement for me," he says. "It was the most personal work I've ever made."
His mother is a ballet teacher in Kelowna, as well as an examiner for the Royal Academy of Dance.
So what does she think of her son's success?
"You'd have to ask her," Beamish says, "but based on her Facebook, you'd probably think she's pretty proud."