July 8, 2016
Moderated by Waubgeshig Rice, the Indigenous Writers’ panel at the recent Canadian Writers’ Summit consisted of Tracey Lindberg, Lee Maracle and Kenneth Williams.
As I expected, these diverse individuals had very different things to say, but the discussion often circled back to one question: “How can white people in the literary community be better allies to Aboriginal writers?” Or maybe I was just focusing in on what I wanted to know.
Tracey Lindberg took the discussion to a whole new level, speaking with deep emotion about the contrast between her accomplishments in the world and her inner feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness.
Her novel Birdie, also goes straight to the heart. Lindberg hones in on the raw nerve of what violence and oppression do to a person’s mind and body and stays right on top of that nerve for the whole arc of the narrative.
Taking to her bed upstairs from the bakery where she works, Lindberg’s heroine Bernice/Birdie takes an internal journey through her traumatic past. Her cousin Freda and aunt Valene come to watch over her. The wrongs Birdie has suffered are unfathomably deep, and Lindberg is encyclopaedic in her description of the varieties and manifestations of her pain. Birdie has — as Lindberg puts it — a “palate for pain.” She divines the painful spots in the women in her life as if reading a map.
Boundaries between people are fluid; so are boundaries between thought and action, dream and waking, real time and memory. Birdie is an expert on the ways of trauma. “After any memory, after the thinking, it could take anywhere up to a week (if then) for her to even remember the incident that triggered the emotion.”
That this is Birdie’s internal landscape is horrifying, but there is strength in her very expertise. Lindberg has created a heroine whose resilience comes from living in her pain, not walking away from it. She is a survivor, not by mastering circumstances or by being rescued from them, but by finding her true resources, her true nourishment. There is no easy resolution but she emerges fortified and ready to take up the challenges of her life.
There are white allies in Lindberg’s book. They’re not allies for saying or even doing all the right things. At their best, they provide a space for Birdie’s process. In the pages devoted to Birdie’s foster parents, the Inglesons, Lindberg captures the brew of tenderness, gratitude, resentment and guilt she feels towards these “sweet” yet heedless and unconsciously privileged people. A scene where Birdie tries to decide on a prom dress is laden with irony. Thoughts and feelings roil beneath the surface for Birdie, while her foster mother (who has won an award for her foster parenting) sweetly — and disastrously — offers both dresses. With the Inglesons, Birdie has “moments of real tranquility, pieces of peace.” Yet she is always internally working, strategizing, translating.
Another white character, Lola unquestioningly takes in Birdie’s cousin and aunt as they tend to her through her long transformative process. Ultimately, Lola develops a close relationship with Birdie’s cousin Freda yet even here, we see Freda providing her with resolution, with a happy ending where Freda herself sees ambiguity. Freda is still doing a lot of work.
Back to the panel discussion:
Kenneth Williams suggested approaching elders and asking them questions, knowing that we will get things wrong, because we will.
I thought: That’s just it. We have got things wrong. We will continue to get them wrong.
Bernhard Schlink’s Guilt about the Past, came to mind as it often has in discussions of reconcilation. He’s a completely different sort of writer, but the simultaneously delicate and relentless probing quality of his thinking reminds me of Lindberg’s work.
Schlink writes: ” … during the soccer World Cup, I was watching a match in a beer garden in Berlin. When the German team scored its first goal, a worker my age threw his arms into the air and shouted, ‘Wir sind wieder wer!’ (‘We are somebody again!’) So even this worker saw himself under the long shadow of the past and experienced this moment as a liberation, as a chance to get back into the light.”
For Schlink, “The thought that the past could and should be mastered contains not only the yearning for freedom from it; it even asserts an entitlement to such an end. As with every task, whoever works hard at it expects that the task will eventually be completed, and then demands to be released from duty once the task is finished.”
There’s a fine line between becoming a good ally and demanding to get back into the light. I wonder if it’s possible to ever truly know the difference.
March 15, 2016
I only got to see Salt Water Moon at the Factory Theatre on the last weekend of the run. This makes me late to the party in rhapsodizing about it; still, better late than never.
It was nothing short of exquisite. This stripped-down version of David French’s 1984 play (under the direction of Ravi Jain) was part of the Factory’s Canadian Classics Re-Imagined season. With no props, no costumes, nothing on stage but a series of candles placed in the pattern of the firmament, a young couple, Jacob (played by Kawa Ada) and Mary (Mayko Nguyen) grapple with tough decisions about their future. Ania Soul enfolds the action in guitar music and singing, as well as reading stage directions.
Salt Water Moon is a story utterly particular to its time and place. The setting is Newfoundland, 1926, with the slaughter of World War One still fresh in memory, and tough economic realities rendering the couple’s future precarious. Mary experiences any young lover’s trepidations, jealousies and disappointments, but when it comes to choosing a mate, her stakes are astronomically high. Jacob is endearingly cocky, but his bluster comes off as bravery, knowing the rigid class system that he will confront in providing for a family. Their conversation evokes a close-knit – at times claustrophobic – community, the thousand details of daily life from pipes to stockings to cars, to sinister revelations of the fate of children whose parents cannot care for them.
Stripped of all visible signs of context, the production constantly acknowledged the original script, reminding us that we were one step removed from it. Not only was there no set; the stage directions did not correspond to what was going on. Costumes were described, which were different from what the actors wore, props were mentioned in the stage directions, their use only mimed on stage. The characters walked among candles meant to represent stars; Jacob laid his head on the ground to indicate listening at a door. Most spectacularly: the final stage directions have Mary howling out her pain while Nguyen stood poised in silent grief.
Why and how did this work? I don’t want to analyze it; all I know is that it was spellbinding. I felt as if I were having a miraculously enhanced experience of reading, in which I could conjure the scenes for myself, with a powerful and intimate performance playing out at one and the same time.
Salt Water Moon is all about trusting the imagination. This simple and elegant production did not so much seek universality as celebrate the power of the imagination to evoke the invisible and confront the unknown.
March 7, 2016
Words words words. I generate hundreds of them a week. Surely there must be a few I could put on my blog. I looked on m bookshelf for inspiration and found The Essential McLuhan, did a search on the word “essential” in my novel manuscript and came up with this scene (trimmed not to give too much away.) Enjoy!
From You’ll Know Even Then
Deverell drains his espresso and stands up. “Something to eat?”
“No.” She takes a gulp of her coffee, which burns her jumpy stomach. She dumps in two packs of sugar.
“Be right back.” Deverell goes to the display case and asks the waiter for a description of each of the pastries. Rebecca is glad for a few moments to herself. Not that she’d give Deverell credit for planning it this way. She thinks of the last Circle, where they talked about Marlin’s absence, the unknown future. A few of them sat cross-legged in the middle of the cavernous theatre, alone in a spot of light as if sitting around a fire. Their gathering together is primal, essential. SenseInSound cannot stop.
I don’t pick people up and drop them. This is true. Marlin has given her permanence over the years. Nor would he ever walk out on his company. This trip to Berlin can only be about SenseInSound. She doesn’t know what he’s planning, but she’s going to have to bluff.
Deverell sits down again, breaking a large cookie into sections, pushing the plate toward her. “Macadamia and white chocolate. Try it.”
February 29, 2016
Everything’s due, and everyone’s sick. What better time for a grant deadline? In this case, it’s the Toronto Arts Council’s Project grants for literary events, which we hope to continue to access to pay the authors who appear at the Draft Reading Series.
Last Sunday was the first edition of Draft for 2016, and we held it at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, a long, narrow black box in Leslieville which plays host to so much creativity that spending an hour there acts like a shot of good espresso.
Grant-writing for Draft is not onerous. It’s a matter of copying and pasting “Mandate” and “Artistic Goals” from our previous forms. Nothing has really changed. I started Draft because I love all things rough and imperfect, love sketches more than finished paintings, scales and scraps of melody more than virtuoso performances, workshops more than polished productions. I like to encounter people in moments of grappling, fumbling, engaging dynamically with craft, more than I like to see them selling their finished product. Draft is a way of lingering in with what — for me — is the best part.
Back to last week: Red Sandcastle was a new venue for us, and I was half-hoping we didn’t get too many people so we could iron out the wrinkles of setting up there. But when I arrived — slightly late — the place was already filling up with what became a standing-room-only crowd. After a few months’ break, I had forgotten about the raw excitement of hearing new and unpublished work read out loud. (April L. Ford, Sharon Kirsch, Sheila Murray and Jason Paradiso read this month.)
As usual, we commemmorated the event in a publication, also rough and ready, deliberately created at the last minute with all its irregularities that implies. Our designer, Ron Edding, consistently comes up with a new concept every month. To get the publication you have to be at the reading. It’s the only documentation we do, and it’s not a video or audio recording. It’s a compilation of what each participant — at this moment in time — means by “work-in-progress.” We don’t forbid recording; occasionally someone wants to take pictures or make a video, but a mostly our audiences wholeheartedly enter the spirit of Draft: being there. Lending attention.
Some people read polished manuscripts, and that’s also good, but I’m most excited to be there the first time an author has her work received by a live audience, the moment when the piece tips over from being something private to something shared. This can be more informative than hours of discussion, and it’s a privilege to be part of it. Sometimes, the work is rough, sometimes bad, sometimes boring; what’s exciting is to be part of the process of learning that. Last week, we actually had house lights to turn down, and — once we figured out how to do it — I thought, as I have many times: this is the best part.
And this is the best part, too. Setting the alarm early, imbibing some caffeine finding the words for something I still care about after all these years. Knowing that with everything that’s going on, there is still space for process.
February 20, 2016
What better way to spend Family Day than to stand before a wall of plastic kitchen gadgets, trying to select the spoons, spatulas and mixing bowls that will finally replace the cracked Melmac relics that we brought — separately — to our late marriage and kept all these years because they were PERFECTLY GOOD and we were NOT THAT KIND OF CONSUMERS.
And still aren’t.
We want long-lasting gadgets, but you can’t really tell, when they’re boxed up or tethered to their cardboard backings or charmingly displayed — as a set — in onion bags, whether they’re going to be any good. In the long run, I mean. The really long run. And there is so much choice. Should those mixing bowls be stone-wear, Pyrex, metal or … oh, they don’t have Melmac. Do they make that any more? Okay metal. Should they have rubber bases or no?
We stand earnestly, miming frying and stirring actions as if that would give us a preview of the next fifteen years of the various gadgets’ lives.
Well at least we’re not “trying” do to anything else. At least not in Bed, Bath and Beyond.
You know what “trying” means, these days, don’t you? Let’s just say it’s today’s young couples’ expression for something that should be fun.
Shopping should fun. Especially if you don’t have to try anything on. But there is something earnest about all the shoppers who surround us this Family Day. It is, after all, the place where you can start a registry not just for your wedding or child, but for going away to university. Where you try to predict, through the purchase of vessels and appliances, every mess that could potentially come your way. And contain it.
It is, after all, the place that offers lunch boxes so intricate and uncompromising they seem to demand their own variety of as-yet-undiscovered food. Maybe there’s a corresponding salad or sandwich you can buy in the neighbouring supermarket that fits in just such a lunch box. Despair haunts these bright green interlocking cubes. I can’t predict which one I’m going to need. And suspect I can’t possibly do it justice. It will languish in the cupboard, while leaky margerine containers continue to stain the pages of my notebooks with salad dressing and tomato sauce.
On to pillows. Old gadgets may be cumbersome and ugly, but old pillows are … scandalous. One should not sleep on old pillows.
On our way to look at pillows, we encounter a station displaying the Squatty Potty. It fits in front of your toilet and aids you to get into the proper position for colon health. Oh, and speed. So you can get back to work. It’s called “squatty” but really it simulates the position of squatting without the need to strengthen your thigh muscles. Bedecking the top of this display are bottles of Poo-Pourri, which you spray in the toilet in advance of a bowel movement to prevent smell. Gender norms have found their way to this, most equalizing function. Men’s scents have names like: “Trap a Crap” and women’s: “Poo la la.”
There are pillows which don’t mention it but must be menopause pillows, because they offer special cooling action. Poo, they’ll advertise; menopause is apparently still taboo.
There are firm pillows, soft pillows, down pillows, silk pillows, pillows that conceal a hideously fleshy-feeling core. This is the vaunted Memory Foam which you can now buy to line your shoes. Memory with an E, mind. There are mattresses topped with Memory Foam. You sink in and keep on sinking.
Let’s get out of here.
Dazed, we gather our plastic kitchen gadgets into plastic bags, lay down some plastic and get the stuff home. Where it still sits in a pile in the living-room, in the liminal zone between the bright possibilities of Bed, Bath and Beyond and the cracks, dents and scorches of everyday life.
February 12, 2016
It’s 1973. Six girls inhabit the front rows of a classroom at Jarvis Collegiate Institute, undertaking what some educators have called a Drill and Kill exercise. With a stentorian clickety-clack, the teacher activates a reel-to-real tape recorder. “Mutti, wo ist mein Mittagessen?” inquires a woman’s voice, imitating that of a child.
And we repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
Und oder aber sondern denn. Aus asser bei mit nach seit von zu. Bringen bringt brachte gebracht. Brechen, bricht, brach, gebrochen. Ich weiss nicht was sol es bedeuten. No “Space Oddity” for me. Rather, snippets of German grammar and poetry formed the sound-track of my teens.
I was ausgezeichnet. I was erstclassig. I was fabulhaft. But my status was hard-won. Our teacher was subject to violent bouts of rage. I memorized until late at night, copying out declensions, prepositions and conjugations, and after our weekly quiz, would awake with pounding heart, fearing that I had fallen short of my goal of 99 percent (allowing as I did for one inevitable careless mistake). It was not learning, it was sickness.
The precision of those days is gone. As I write this, my computer underlines many words in tell-tale red. Sometimes it changes the words for me. Reel to real, for instance. And Ich weiss nicht was soulless bedeuten.
But it’s not soulless at all; it’s calming, learning a language. I’d forgotten that. Despite the anxiety at falling short of fabulhaft, there was a meditative quality in copying out charts of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Studying grammar made me feel I could dip down to some essential level of thought which was – lo and behold – manageable. Utterly unlike the terrifying unpredictability of life.
Indeed it’s even more calming now my brain is ageing. Folks, in case you don’t know, brains get old just like joints get old. But deficiency of the brain doesn’t feel like less of anything. It’s like constant noise. Being in school again, I pride myself on being able to tolerate the long hours, the rigours of vast amounts of reading. (Please grant my feeble little body this one smidgen of machismo before osteoporosis sets in!) But language is another story.
Language learning is calming because there’s a right and a wrong answer, but it’s also implacable. I simply … can’t … learn … as … fast. My brain feels awash, the general mush of thoughts forever threatening to obscure the latest batch of case endings. And I’ve become sloppy, willing to let autocorrect take care of the details. Yet this exercise of copying out endings in my still-fair handwriting is so much sweeter now that it’s really, really hard.
Studying makes me feel old in another way. Flashbacks to high school bedamned, in our weekly classes I set aside books and computer and GET IT WRONG, knowing this is an essential step toward getting it right. My younger classmates sit behind their computers, clicking away at Google Translate and flipping back and forth to Facebook. And I want to tell them – Kids! Get it wrong til you get it right! Copy those verb charts! Your memory will never be this good again!
High-tech solutions are not all bad. I’ve been using the Duo Lingo program, which claims to allow me to learn like a native speaker. Where once I sat with an open grammar book, supplemented by the cast of characters on the Sprich Mal Deutsch! tapes — Herr and Frau Topolski and their son, Peter (or in Grade 13, Paul Brightman, voiced by a man trying to make himself sound like an adolescent but succeeding only in sounding like he was weeping) — now I get daily emails headed “GERMAN REMINDER.” In five-minute increments I translate sentences like: “The ducks eat oranges.” “She has cows.” Gone is the threat of the airborne dictionary, the cascade of invective. Instead I am met either with the green “ca-ching!” of success or the red “blap” of failure. But you always get another chance. Yet another proof that language-learning is so much better than real life.
After each lesson, there’s kind of flourish, and a cute little owl announces what percentage of fluency I’ve achieved. So far, I’m 18 percent fluent, which autocorrect just changed to “clueless.” Can fabulhaft be far behind?
February 4, 2016
I finished an essay this week, which meant I had the treat of dismantling a three-foot tower of books, pulling scores of coloured tabs off the pages and throwing them in Recycling, before returning the books to the library. And there it was at the bottom of the pile, a book I ordered at the start of 2016: Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One.
I picked up the book and paged through it, glimpsed images of boys on dormitory beds, of girls in white smocks standing in a row kneading bread. I rushed past them, not letting them fully register.
Not yet, I thought. It’s been a hard week, do I have to think about this today?
Isn’t that just the problem?
I get to leave these children’s stories under a pile of more pressing tasks for weeks on end. I can choose to think about them when I’m ready, skip past what is too painful. Most of all, I get to close the book when I want. Lucky me.
I opened the book again. All those rows of beds, the boys lying an identical position with their hands folded over their bellies. Orderly. Too orderly.
A couple of years ago I was in London, a tourist among tourists. A lady I met on a walking tour said, “Canada must be a lovely place to live.”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Such good people.”
“Yes, I mean we used to be, or at least – we used to think we were.”
“You have that mayor …”
“That’s not what I mean.” Where to start? “Have you heard of the residential schools?”
“Children – Indigenous children – were taken from their homes and families.”
The woman looked at me, shaking her head.
“Many of them were – badly treated. They were abused, actually. Sometimes they weren’t given enough to eat. They got sick. It was a crime. It went on for years.”
“In Canada? I’ve never heard anything like that.”
My mother left bombed-out London in the 1950s. Along with many others, she came to Canada for the opportunities it offered. And she came to forget. The Toronto I grew up in was the place people came to start new lives. Scary memories might have hovered over our breakfast table, but soon I made the short walk to Huron school and stood for the national anthem each morning, along with neighbours from Hungary, Portugal, Greece and Japan.
So You Want to be a Nurse! So You Want to be a Stewardess! Sexist: sure. But the covers of these books were so shiny. They offered us possible futures like sweets in bright wrappers. Growing up was a long way away, anyway. For now, all we had to do now was learn and play. School was a safe zone where our right to be children was protected.
I felt good at school – not just comfortable, but virtuous. Having a school like this – knowing everyone could have one – was part of why I was proud of Canada. I never imagined it could be any other way.
January 27, 2016
This blog has been afflicting me with panicked twinges of conscience for months!
What if someone looks me up and sees that tired, old entry sitting there? It’s akin to not taking out the garbage, forgetting to shave my legs! There will be whispers in the blogosphere: she’s letting herself go.
Or not. Maybe no one will notice.
Yes indeed, the day has come. What started as a way of taking charge, of making sure my own voice joined the chorus of opinions and ideas resounding through the internet twenty-four hours a day, has become nothing more than an obligation, a chore. Yet another unpaid task I must take on to avoid – what?
And what’s so bad about that?
Why spew out words just for the sake of it? Maybe it’s better to wait until there’s really something to say.
As an artist, I know good things come from silence. As a feminist, I know it’s something I need to fight. As a citizen, I know I need to think critically about the way people are becoming commodified and words are selling cheap. As a writer, I need to practice my craft by producing, yet respect that craft by not giving it away for free.
This year, I’ve considered closing down this blog, saving my time and energy for bigger projects. Trouble is, I don’t have time. It does take time to close a blog and decide what – if any – kind of online presence will replace it. So until I have the time and energy and money to do that, I’m going to try to post 300 words every Wednesday. Try. More trying.
But breaking silence opens the way for conversations. Let’s see how it goes.
June 9, 2015
In this section, I ask Fides Krucker for more details about her role as collaborator on the dance piece, locus plot by Peggy Baker Dance Projects, and about the implications of breaking the sound barrier in a dance piece.
What is a vocalographer?
Me! Peggy made up the word. I love it and don’t know why I never thought of it myself given my love of world play. When I started URGE (a music driven women’s collective founded in 1991) I always wanted us to create as if we were choreographers – on our feet and from our bodies. So the word really captures what I have been doing in different ways for quite some time! The largest cast I have done this on for full evening works is eighteen (Humber College graduating class) and the smallest is three (3 singers opera in Chicago).
I trust Peggy and we get along very well in rehearsal, without much conversation, actually. We just do things with the dancers passing the ball back and forth. I definitely consider her the lead artist and find it easy to flow with that. But at times I would make the dancers take on certain sounds and then wonder if I had wrecked Peggy’s choreography. But mostly she understood my impulses.
If not, she was not afraid to ask for something to be changed and I never felt threatened by this. I don’t remember the dancers ever resisting things but I really worked hard at making sure that it felt possible, through my body’s identification with what I was seeing them do, even if the ‘idea’ of a certain sound seemed a bit out there when I first proposed it.
Hopefully a lot of people reading this will have seen and heard the show, but if not, could you give us a sense of the sound palette you drew upon?
The sounds I use are not verbal. To some people, groans, roars, keening or sighs could appear illogical, but I find this ‘body tongue’ poetic and communicative. I think many dancers choose to dance so as not to speak. They are eloquent through the body and words can betray. So my non-verbal preoccupations might actually be a very good fit! The sounds l am moved by have a very first-degree in-the-body pleasure similar to what I experience watching a dancer move, and imagine they could be feeling too. Both movement and sounding extend in a way that can become artful, artistic. So maybe these sounds are more natural than words and don’t involve switching gears? I know that an extended, sung vowel is to a word what an extended arm is to the idea of reaching. Something mundane is magnified.
I think I caught sight of some gestures familiar from voice classes with you. Were there any other times when one discipline spilled in to another?
Yes. Peggy loved a few of the gestures I would use when teaching them the vocal principles. The gestures use our Peripheral Nervous System to foster new patterns in our Autonomic Nervous Systems. She found it beautiful that they were making such great sound and growing each and every week. So some gestures touched her and she encouraged the dancers to incorporate them as part of the performance language.
The voice drew me in, and created an emotional line that was compelling and easy to follow. I have to admit I often find modern dance pieces too long. Not this one. Fascinating, for a piece that inhabits the seemingly abstract world of math. Math and emotion … care to comment?
I think math and emotion make sense together. I am not good at math but I have a daughter who is. I think there is a sincere logic to math that includes imagination and expansion. I like to think that there is a sincere logic to emotion that includes imagination and hope – which is a kind of expansion. I think math and emotion are both real and a part of being human. So Peggy’s sticking to mathematical principles when making the movement patterns (macro and micro) came across to me as original and fresh when I first saw it in the rehearsal space.
Watching human beings is emotional for me. And a performer invites the external gaze. I breathe along with whoever I am watching (it is also how I teach) and so I felt like I was inside the dancers. Peggy’s invitation to set vocals on them let me want to reveal more about my own kinetic experience while watching and identifying.
The work seemed to hover on the edge of “story.” The vocalizing gave it a strong emotional line without many of the traditional elements of narrative.
I love the men’s duet for that – performed by Ric Brown and Sean Ling. They are busy doing some very precise arm movement that incorporate these huge lunges to the floor, while moving in and out of 4 squares taped out by two crossed lines on the Marley. I could feel that their throats were closed due to the demands of the movement. This led to the opening stuttering sound…a glottal stop repeated over and over again…coming from their throats as if they were trying to get someone’s attention, about to speak, but stopping themselves. Unable to communicate. Between these segments and linked to the movement pattern (sometimes they engaged with each other’s negative space and sometimes they did not) I had them close their mouths very obviously as if any avenue for communication was being cut off. That was usually when they were more ‘on their own’ within the squares.
As the movement intensified, and they interfered even more with each other’s negative space and finally had physical contact, I asked them to increase the voiceless ‘ah’ ‘ah’ ‘ah’ until it broke into a full fledged non-verbal roaring fight, the two men clasping each others’ arms, face to face, leaning and pulling away from each other, and finally falling back to the floor.
Then the vocal fight resumes with the two of them moving through these unusual embraces…based on math! Because the movement was so particular it could not become sentimental even though the emotional sound-thread might have on its own.
When they finally break apart Sean is left with these little high peeps and the opening arm work but is now alone – no longer interweaving with Ric who has stormed away. It is heartbreaking. Are they brothers, lovers? Just what were they ‘wrestling’ over? We don’t know but the underlying math somehow makes having that answered less important. It affords us a kind of ambiguity without a distancing effect.
What we do know is that they are two humans who want to communicate, end up fighting, and then despite their attempts, become isolated. We’ve all been there and get the story. And yet it is not at all predictable in its form and so for me it was not obvious or pat. I can hardly sit still when I watch that segment. The struggle feels real.
Did you have any concerns going into it?
Actually I was nervous when we went to the Canadian Opera Company with some excerpts and again on opening night. I did not question the art making – but I had no idea how an audience would react. Would it be too audacious? I thought I might get booed!
We take our forms seriously. They help us relax into a new piece. So breaking a form out of its mold is a bit risky. I am also asking an audience to take sounds we typically repress as serious and beautiful and communicative. And we love our mouths to make reasonable sounds like words. We think it represents the best of us…our minds…clarity. But I find these other sounds more trustworthy. I did not know if the audience would go on that ride. I did not feel the sounds as an imposition on the dancers but I really did not know if the audience would get into their own bodies while watching in a way that would allow them to appreciate this. Let’s face it, sometimes when a groan or roar has happened in real life it has meant bad things. So we would have good reasons to want to block these sounds.
I work hard to make the context for these sounds, within any piece, really well crafted. I now say, “Singing is impolite.” This thought helps me and as an instruction it helps those I work with.
We will work together again next fall for the piece Peggy is making to present in January. I have suggested that I make vocal portraits of the dancers as a point of departure – as part of the process – to learn more about each of them and develop what is so unique about each of them a little further through voice. I am really excited to take this hybrid work further. Because Peggy believes in creating as much of a company as possible – despite the economic difficulties of doing this right now in Canada – I think this will be wonderful ongoing development for all of us.
Also in June 2016 we will remount the AGO show – land/body/breath – at the National Gallery in Ottawa. I want to give the dancers a bit more to do with their voices! And of course Ciara Adams and I will be singing the hour-long score.
May 25, 2015
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing locus plot, a full-length work by Peggy Baker Dance Projects incorporating music composed by John Kameel Farah and vocalography by Fides Krucker. Baker found inspiration for the piece in mathematical diagrams, and worked with mathematician and playwright John Mighton to deepen her understanding of them.
The result is an astounding work of collaboration which got me thinking about how breath and sound relate to movement. I had an e-conversation with Fides, and it made sense, as things progressed, to consult with dancer Sarah Fregeau as well. I’m going to post the interview in two parts because it ended up being so comprehensive.
The thing that surprised me most about locus plot was how little it surprised me. Having voice integrated with the dance just made sense. Is that an illusion? Did the two simply flow into each other, or did you have the sense of crossing barriers or even taboos as you collaborated in this piece?
I am so happy to hear that. The end result feels very organic to me even though I chose or created the sounds that the dancers make. Yes, I did have a sense of crossing barriers but the ground work had been laid thanks to Peggy in order to do that sensibly. I have taught for two years in her summer intensive, held at the National Ballet School, and had also worked with all of these dancers in the AGO project (land/body/breath) in May 2014 so that gave me a good sense of the company … and we had some common language. I had already set a few things on them for land/body/breath – bird calls, moans, some words. We went in with trust and respect for one another. Excitement, too.
Can you say more about the nuts and bolts of the collaboration?
I am very intrigued at what goes on internally in the practice of a dancer and how that might differ from the practice of a singer. I am deeply interested in what is going on in the pelvic floor, the diaphragm, the lungs, the ribs, the throat and the mouth, even the eyes, of anyone breathing – which means everyone!
Peggy had made about half the choreography before I came into the December rehearsals. I thought I was going to be the dramaturge so when she turned to me and said, ‘What sounds would you like them to make?’ I was quietly stunned. I asked to see the women’s trio again and went with my gut. I realized as I stood up to give them instructions that I should choose sounds that would be reasonable to make even if difficult. So whispers and fragments of song and Sarah Fregeau’s extraordinary high-pitched trilling sound flooded into my imagination. It was sparse and very specific with regards to when and how it collaborated with the movement.
Often Peggy would feel something crack open for her after hearing the dancers sound while moving – I think this became a wordless emotional dramaturgy. She would be drawn in and build more movement from there or ask for specific interpretive things from the dancers and eventually from John as he composed the music.
I asked if I could warm the company up each day to further train specific vocal techniques and foster a sense of balance. I wanted them to feel great about what they were doing! Peggy was extremely generous and made time for this.
About a month before opening, she brought Sahara Morimoto back onstage, near the end of the second section, to weave through the other four dancers. I was satisfied with what I saw but Peggy wanted voice here. Immediately I knew that I wanted to hear Sahara’s low guttural roars used as sustained threads of sound … they were emerging more and more from her each day that we trained. The sound made for this unexpected and mysterious counterpoint. So, it was fascinating to watch a method evolve in front of us through the entire process.
As making sound became more ‘normal’ feeling the dancers would no longer ask to rehearse the movement separate from the sounds they were to make – the two had become fused and informed one another. So there was a natural integration that came out of their hard work.
Also, these dancers are real artists. They would go away after rehearsal and sleep on things. The next day the idea I gave them seemed better than it had the previous rehearsal. I loved collaborating with them by taking the evolution of the material in their bodies and hearts as a good thing. The growth of their sounds informed my overall shaping of voice in the piece.
Peggy champions dancers making the movement their own – while maintaining a very clear vision of what she wants. I think this is a healthy tension in art making.
These are obviously top-notch dancers, with or without singing, but the dancing struck me as particularly beautiful in this piece. The word I would use is luminous. Then I realized, of course, that the singing is setting up vibrations from within, and I think they’re actually visible from the audience. They give a shimmering quality, and a sense of fluidity. Were there any surprises for you about the way the vocal work interacted with the dance?
Thanks for saying those beautiful things about the dancers. They were stunning to watch and feel. About a month in, thanks to Kate Holden’s final and exquisite solo and the actual luminosity that required, I realized that I really wanted all of them to stay open inside their mouths and through the area behind the eyes. I wanted this transparency to infuse all the sounds and I could see the difference it made to the movement as well. It is actually part of my technique.
I think working with the dancers helped me take this further and understand it better. But, it is a hard one – as opening night gets closer we all want to lock down – I see this in singers as well – to get it right. I think adrenaline and worry do this quite naturally to a human being. Both Peggy and I wanted the work to stay real and personal and not something external that had to be achieved (though of course the movement and sound score was really really hard and they did their jobs perfectly).
I want performance to invite the audience into the nervous systems of those on stage and therefore into their own watching nervous systems through the mirror neurons we all have. When I credit the dancers with staying connected to one another and to themselves – and from this place of empathy they risked even more opening.
Let’s hear from one of the dancers about this. My next question is directed to Sarah Fregeau. Sarah, was it easier or harder to vocalize in combination with dance?
Adding the vocals to the choreography did require some internal shifts in what parts of my body I used to stabilize the movement. I found that I had to release certain areas that I had been using to control – mostly around the abdomen and ribcage – in order to produce the sounds we were asked to make.
And of course we had to change how we used our breath. I found it very interesting to learn that my breath had a lot to do with my ability to balance. I’m thinking of a particular moment where I was turning in a piked forward position while releasing sound, and the difference between going into that movement with relatively empty lungs and “closed” soft palette (no sound) and with full lungs about to release made it much more challenging.
These little discoveries were interesting and fit right into my dancers’ daily training life of learning more about my own habits and how to undo or change the ones that are not useful.
The voice work eventually became so integrated with the movement (because of all of the little shifts and accommodations we had made) that it would have been more difficult at that point to rehearse without the sound than with. It would have been like going through the choreography but not using one small part of our bodies – the two had become dependent on each other to function properly.
Would you say that the vocals affected your ensemble work?
I would say that they added a magical element that helped to give meaning – however abstract – to the choreography, which may or may not have brought us more onto the same page in how we approached the work.
Big thanks to you both. More on the role of vocalographer next week.