Barbara Bourget's Solo Choreography Workshop
During her Dance Centre residency 2011-12, Barbara Bourget developed a new solo performance for herself with music by her son Joseph Hirabayashi, which premiered in June 2012. She also worked with a group of Vancouver dance artists (Tracy Dietrich, Gail Lotenberg, Josh Martin and Deanna Peters) in her Solo Choreography Workshop, where the participants came together once a month to examine the art of the solo and develop their own new pieces. These new solos were performed as part of the annual Scotiabank Dance Centre Open House on Saturday September 15, 2012.
Prior to the September performances, Andreas Kahre interviewed Barbara about her work, the creative process, the project and the presentation, and each of the four participants provided their perspective on their experiences learning about the solo form.
An Interview with Barbara Bourget: The Solo Project
Andreas Kahre (AK): Will you be introducing the process of the solo project?
Barbara Bourget (BB): Yes, I believe it is important to talk about the process, because people can get a little lost, especially if they think that the artistic process is mysterious. I believe that it can create magic but otherwise it is not that complicated: you just work hard until you get an idea. I also like talking about the process because it is my life, and even after choreographing for all these years, I feel that I have so much to learn. Part of the reason I went to work as artist-in-residence at the Dance Centre was that I wanted to create a solo for myself, but at the same time I wanted to share the experience with the community, and with people who were working on a similar kind of process, because on that ground we could have a true exchange and discuss things that only people who are sharing the same kind of terror can discuss. Other people can listen with a sympathetic ear, if you say "I am really lonely in the studio", but they can't really know how much being alone in the studio can overwhelm you with a sense of isolation and loneliness. It becomes very hard to look at yourself in the mirror, and you find all sorts of ways to distract yourself. It can be exhausting work.
AK: How did you proceed?
BB: We met monthly, and showed each other what we had been working on. I saw myself as a peer, and as an instigator more than as a teacher in the process, and we all shared comments, criticism, and provocations. We tried to push people beyond the point at which they had felt comfortable. We listened to everybody's story of what it had been like in the studio for the past month and we shared the questions we all faced: how do you make a solo? We always tried to return to the physical domain, and to balance conceptual concerns with the dynamic image. In April, when I was gearing up for my solo performance in June, I could feel that a little malaise was setting in among the participants. We had now been meeting for eight months and there seemed to be no end in sight. So I thought a good way to create closure would be to set a date for a workshop performance, and they all jumped at the chance. It served to lift up their process at the same time that I was gearing up, and so over the summer they all worked hard, we met a few more times and now we are about to share the process, which is really exciting for me.
AK: Are you satisfied with the way the project unfolded?
BB: I really enjoyed the process, because it reaffirmed my notions about choreographic craft and at the same time really challenged them. So for me personally it was very successful and from reading the participants' writings I think they seem to have experienced a similar process. I am sad it's over because I really enjoyed meeting them and getting to know them.
AK: If you were to do it again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
BB: I think I would have a little more structure. I had something of a plan at the beginning, but plans always change, and I thought I should respond more to what the dynamic of the room was. If I did it again, I think I would have a little more structure from the start without being too overbearing about it, and I think I would make it a shorter process, with a workshop performance already set to help raise the stakes a little bit earlier in the process. Eight months, especially with meetings a month or more apart, is a long time to maintain energy.
AK: When we spoke in January you told me that none of the participants used an outside eye. Did it stay that way?
BB: Yes, as far as I know. They did have me and five other participants to work with, and I don't believe they felt the need for anyone from the outside. I believe Gail will work a little with Chick Snipper because she is using text, and she had originally wanted to free herself up and use another dancer, but I wanted her to invest in herself as a choreographer, and she stuck to that.
AK: Did anyone use music, or objects or any other 'partners' in the process?
BB: No. As far as I know there are no sets or props in any of the pieces. Three pieces will have music, but that changed several times.
AK: Did the process take the participants closer to what they were searching, or did it surprise them by taking them outside of what they knew?
BB: There were a variety of experiences. I think everyone in their own way had epiphanies, which we talked a lot about. I believe you have to work to the point where you see a little bit clearer in order to push the process forward, because if you are stuck doing the same thing all the time you never get that sense of freedom that lifts the work to a different level. I think we all had days when we experienced epiphanies, and I think we all had times when we got stuck for two and a half months. I don't think anything external, like music, played a central role in this experience; everyone respected the idea of trying to find the essence of what this choreographic craft could be in solo form. For example, one of Josh's epiphanies related to the fact that he missed the people he normally works with collaboratively, and finally began to be comfortable being alone in the studio and making a dance for himself.
AK: How did people resolve the relationship between improvisation and 'fixing' the choreography?
BB: I think the first step in choreography is improvisation, and I think we all, to varying degrees, improvise within the structures we create. I encountered this in working with my son. At the very beginning he decided he was going to compose everything perfectly. Then he realized it was going to take him ten years, so I said: "Just chart it and improvise. You are a jazz musician", and so we both did that and it was great. He pushed his own sense of what composing for dance might be.
AK: Was the length of the pieces set or did it emerge from the internal process?
BB: It emerged as an internal articulation of the process, of the ideas and how they explored them. They are between 7 and 15 minutes in length.
AK: Did the interaction change what and how they created?
BB: Yes, very much. Every time we met, we could see how whatever we had said before had been incorporated—or rejected—which was really satisfying. The dialogue from artist to artist, from peer to peer, looking into the choreographic process with other collaborators who share that internal perspective was really valuable to all of us.
AK: You said in January that some people abandoned their early approaches.
BB: They continued to change and experiment until April when I talked to The Dance Centre about a workshop performance, and then they all started to focus their work. A deadline is good.
AK: Do you think they will continue in this form and what do you hope the audiences might share with you?
BB: I hope the solos will have a life beyond the workshop presentation, but I mostly hope that we will get a lively audience and debate. I will perform my solo again in March at the Dance Festival, and then in Seattle in June. The work is never finished.
AK: Many thanks!
Shift of Mind
Response to Personal Creative Process
This workshop has made me aware of some of my movement habits and patterns such as my tendency for symmetry, staying centred, and repeating patterns. Feedback from Barbara and the other choreographers also challenged me to explore my awareness of space and different options for moving through space: being heavy, weightless, like water and so on. I found giving feedback to the other choreographers to be challenging at the beginning, but I believe I developed some useful skills, or observational tools, through this workshop. For example, through receiving feedback and listening to feedback given to others, I learned to focus on a particular aspect of choreography while watching, such as use of space, quality of movement, or eye focus. This workshop has also inspired deeper exploration of what I am trying to communicate through dance. This is important to me because I wanted to move beyond my commercial dance background toward dance that is more meaningful to me.
I had wanted to create a solo choreography for a very long before participating in this workshop. Through the mentorship process, I feel that I received the support, input, suggestions, and structure that I needed to actually work towards creating a solo. As I learned through this process, a dance may never be finished, but you may choose to stop working on it at some point. I started my choreography over several times based on feedback from Barbara and the others which was challenging, but I think a necessary and useful experience. The exercises and homework suggestions given by Barbara were eye opening and valuable. Choreographing without music was a suggestion that was new to me and has given me a completely new perspective on the creative process. Starting with and maintaining an ‘essence’ for the work was helpful. Also, a provocation exercise exploring things such as intention, images, and settings for our choreography helped me to break out of some of my movement habits. Although I believe I have a long way to go, and I’m still not completely sure what I am trying to communicate through this particular solo, I am doing it with optimism that it will become clearer over time. Thank you Barbara!
Some of my favourite sayings from Barbara:
Analysis is paralysis
Have faith that you know what you want to dance
All you need are discipline and commitment
Working in an extended creative process with Barbara, Josh, Deanna, Tracy (and Jennifer and Cara for a portion of the time) was a gift. Supportive yet never dishonest, what I think we accomplished was to guide each solo—through questioning and observation—to its larger promise. Our provocations pushed each artist to see what was actually in-the-making and to take it past its comfort zone.
Gut Reaction is a starkly honest and emotional piece. My intention in making the solo was to embody some basic principles of Restorative Justice as a means to righting wrongs. I wanted to experience physically a core concept of Restorative Justice, that to heal from deep wounds and injustices, we must tell our stories (sometimes over and over again). Rather than scarring over the violence, I have experienced what it feels like to heal the violence of a past experience and to move towards transformation. Having the company of the people in this workshop made it easier to look down the rabbit hole.
It’s awfully lonely in that studio. My work is most often part of some collaboration or shared effort with other dancers, and I’ve been curious for some time about how removal of these outside factors affect my approach to dance-making. This is the first solo process I’ve entered into (painfully) free from any restrictions, stipulations or required outcomes. So, I am grateful to have been part of this Solo Choreography Workshop with Barbara Bourget and the other artists, as its offered me a sort of self-inflicted peer pressure that I found to be completely necessary in order to keep making choices and keep moving forward.
I’m reminded of my eight year-old self standing on a dock as all the others stream past me, plunging into the seemingly freezing water. No one pays any attention to my awkward hesitation as they splash around, squealing in their shared discomfort. I eventually slip in quietly out of fear of not being allowed to join in on the shivering banter about the how we all bore the cold.
While some new vocabulary and great tools were introduced throughout our time, it was the tiny speck of responsibility I had to the other workshop participants - to check-in, report back, and be part of the larger conversation - that made the greatest impact in this process. Hearing others articulate my own same frustrations has been uplifting, and knowing they were treading water somewhere near me has made all the difference. The model created by this workshop has reinforced my already strong belief in peer-to-peer professional development, and gave the opportunity to be creating alone - without being too alone.
Leftovers (a work-in-progress)
This solo work began as an investigation surrounding an idea that the body holds a separate memory bank. Muscle tissue, bones, tendons and organs all storing their own accounts of past events, actions and trauma, with this collected information not readily shared or easily accessed by the mind. The process has led me into exploring how to consistently find, enter, and work within, different states, rather than solely remembering sequences of steps and shapes. I’ve become interested in externalizing moments of body recall, and surprising myself with what gets churned up in the retrieval.
scratchin’ gravel…is what it has been like for me making this solo. I have created solos on myself before, but this time is different.
To date, the majority of my experiences as a dance artist have been in collaborating with others. When creating on my own, I have drawn upon images from literature, visual art, music, film, philosophy and psychology. I experience these influences as another form of collaboration—a rather one-sided form, but again looking outside of myself for inspiration.
As an artist I want to communicate through collective realities and my collaborative processes have served me to date. However, in reflecting upon my work at the end of 2010, I noticed a large gap in my artistic approach. I recognized that I was creating primarily from external ideas. This realization led me to seek out new methods of training. It also inspired me to commit, in my application for the Solo Choreography Workshop, to create a solo on myself solely from internal sources.
I have found that a more personal way of working has increased my ability to communicate. Today I am looking for the experiential; for the connection of inner to outer; the sensing and the feeling of action and its expressive potential.
I have also found that a more personal way of working can be very confusing. What is an internal source? What is from inside me? How am I affected by my environment, by society, by my experiences? How do I take into account my lifelong technical dance training, recent somatic studies and the pure joy I get from social dancing? What belongs on the stage?
I am still at a loss to definitively answer any of these questions, but the Workshop, and the contribution of all those involved, has led me to realize that I have just completed a small leg of a long journey. This past year has been less about creating a dance and more about discovering a process. Starting down this path has brought about many firsts for me.
I have never been so alone in the studio for so many days. I know now that I just need to go to the studio—I do not have to bring anything with me, I can come just as I am, even in street clothes.
I have never before spent so much time improvising. This has taught me to stop worrying about remembering or ‘keeping’ what I have done, but rather to start immersing myself in the moment. With this, I began to notice that certain movements, qualities, pathways, kept arising. This brought about more questions.
I have never before noticed such large and unpredictable shifts in my connection to what I was working on. Just as I was really starting to dig my days alone in the studio came a looming awareness of the deadline of a performance date. I have been rehearsing for 9 months, how do I not have a dance? How do I make a dance of all of this movement? Why should I include one movement over another?
I have never before felt that I have such ability to imbue movement with meaning…for me. I have never before enjoyed moving so much, but will an audience care? When should I start worrying about what the audience thinks, feels or sees?
I would not consider my pre-Workshop self to be totally neurotic, but over this past year I am less sure of myself. I have had such trouble choosing what to put in my solo; committing to ideas; staying on task; preparing material; caring about deadlines, etc., etc., etc.
I would like to thank Barbara and the other Workshop participants for keeping me afloat—from giving up entirely. I would also like to thank Helen Walkley for her mentorship from a somatic base. Often it was not the long discussions or proclamations that spurred me, but rather a word, suggestion or reaction from someone that totally stuck with me and shifted my point of view. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to mirror my process and struggles with senior artists and my peers. Their generosity has facilitated a deeper exploration of myself. For now, it inspires me to continually start anew.