The Dance Histories Project is an initiative of Dance Centre Artist-in-Residence Justine A. Chambers, writer/dance artist Alexa Mardon and SFU professor Peter Dickinson, which investigates the recent history of contemporary dance in Vancouver. This shared email dialogue illuminates the origins of the project and some of its rich ideas and themes:
Justine A. Chambers
to Peter, Alexa
Good morning Peter and Alexa,
First, I want to officially thank you both for agreeing to collaborate with me on this part pseudo-ethnography, part installation, part publication, part performance, part archiving project. Its possibilities seem endless, and with each interview we do I become more excited (and more overwhelmed) by its potential. I continue to be astounded by the rich stories of our colleagues and the great distances their histories extend.
Let's start with the project's origins:
When and how did you get involved with this project?
Over to you.
to Justine, Peter
Hi Justine and Peter!
Justine, I get excited and overwhelmed by this project every week, too. It is a living, shifting, organism because, of course, it's made up of people and their pasts, presents, and futures. Which is so wonderful but also scary. So thank YOU for trusting me to work on something with you when you didn't know quite what it was.. Which brings me to my origin story, so to speak. In November 2014 I was in California, staying at [Alexa’s partner] Perrin's aunt's house, on a bit of property she's sort of illegally sub-divided and shares with a crew of older hippies, gardeners, resisters, ageing radicals and the like. The place is on this beautiful, raggedly lush hill at the top of a redwood-forested backroad, overlooking Santa Cruz County. Vancouver and Vancouver dance were feeling very far away when I got a bit of cell service and checked my email. You'd written to me, saying that you had been thinking about what your friend, and now mine, Marie Claire Forté had said about wanting to "write her own dance history," and you asked if I might be interested in working on something with you - part performance, part documentation, all research. I read the email many times and had a little cry to Perrin... I was very happy you'd asked. We started the back and forth of writing a description of the project, for a grant due a few weeks later. I wrote my end of the document at a Starbucks in the San Francisco airport and was so absorbed that we almost missed our flight home. A few months later, we began a shared weekly reading hour in the SPLAY space... and things got busy, Max [Justine’s son] became a part of the picture, and Peter got wrangled in, our project now a complete trifecta with someone whose practice is so truly documenting the shifting shape of our community, of archiving performance and investigating the performing archive...
So, my question to you two is the next up on our "questions list" - the who. Who is involved in this project? And/or who are you in relation to the project and its subject matter, its reach?
looking even more forward to our meeting Friday after writing this...
to Alexa, Justine
Hi you two!
I’ve been thinking about who I am in relation to this project ever since Justine invited me to be a part of the process. That was back in November of last year, over a lovely dinner of moules et frites at Jules, in Gastown. Although, if I’m to be worth my salt as an archivist of our shared history, I should note that there was an earlier conversation, in July 2015, at Matchstick Coffee on East Georgia, just a month or so before Max’s birth. (As food and drink is such an important part of our working method, it does seem important to note these locations—certainly they will forever after be part of my dance spaces in the city.) Justine and I had only just met (which seems crazy), at a showing of Rob Kitsos’s Saudade, in which Alexa was appearing (Rob, my colleague at SFU, would later become our first official interview subject—oh, the circle of life!).
At Matchstick, Justine and I talked and talked and talked: about Family Dinner: The Lexicon, which had blown me away at Dancing on the Edge; about Vancouver dance aesthetics more generally; about different modes of dance presentation and curation; about dance writing; about the social choreography of the city; and on and on and on. My participation in the Vancouver dance histories project may have been vaguely broached at that time, but it wasn’t until the dinner at Jules in November that the invitation to join Justine and Alexa on this journey became explicit. And by explicit I mean that it was in November that I learned I wasn’t just coming on board as a researcher and writer (roles with which I am fairly comfortable, given my academic training), but as a performer in whatever potential live work we might develop at the end of our process.
The panic I experienced then does bring me back, finally, to Alexa's question of WHO. Who am I in relation to this history we are seeking to document? A fan, a critic, a sometimes talkback facilitator, an occasional outside eye, a friend. In the past decade of attending, observing, and writing about Vancouver dance, I have become more and more immersed in the community. But it had never occurred to me to think that I was a part of that community. Because, of course, I’m not a dancer. (Never mind that collaboration with Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, or last year’s Wreck Beach Butoh, or the other community dance projects, or the fact that I’m now taking semi-weekly class with Barbara Bourget.)
All of which is to say that in coming on board this project I had initially made the mistake of thinking I could practice what my colleague in Anthropology at SFU, Dara Culhane, would call old-school ethnography. That is, I would just coolly observe from a distance, and not really participate. I was here to collect and transcribe the stories of Vancouver dance artists; at most, this would involve a bunch of interviews, perhaps some studio observation, maybe a bit of embedded critical writing. However, what Justine and Alexa have taught me is that to tell the movement histories of the artists in this city whom I so admire, I would also, eventually, have to tell my own and that—more to the point—both acts of telling could only really be set in motion by accepting the risk of moving differently than I’m used to in this world.
Not that any of this means I’m any more comfortable with the thought of eventually doing something on stage. But on the vexing subject of whether or not I am even qualified to be part of this project, let me take a page from Alexa’s reading of Claire Bishop on “de-skilling” and the “aesthetics of amateurism.” That is, with the help of Justine and Alexa, and above all as a result of the incredible stories we have so far collected, I am more and more coming round to eschewing the question of whether I can do this, and trying to focus instead on why I would even want to do this—and what might be productively generated as a result. If my movement history has been enriched over the past decade as a result of all of the incredible dance artists in this city—the cherished Whos in my Whoville—then this is my very small gift back to them.
Which sort of relates to WHAT, collectively, we might be trying to accomplish with this project. That’s the next question on our list…
Justine A. Chambers
to Alexa, Peter
I must add a few details:
I was at 8 DAYS III, and Marie Claire (mc) Forté and I were sitting on the beach. We were discussing the documentation we (the entire population of 8 DAYS) do about/for the gathering and how we would work on it. I was blabbing about how few dance publications are written by the artists themselves...how our documentation of 8 DAYS is special and important because there is no one interpreting our thoughts. mc said (and I paraphrase) she wants to be responsible for writing her own dance history. I thought this was courageous....I still do.
Alexa, you and I met at Six Acres and sat on the 2nd floor and shared a meal to discuss this behemoth project. I remember feeling somewhat intimidated because I didn't really know what I was proposing, I just knew I wanted you to be a part of it.
Peter, I remember that you were going to Nicli for Pizza after we met at Matchstick. The more I read you, the more I wanted you to join this project. This is where the formal invitation came at Jules. That was one of my first outings sans Max - I must've been so distracted because I remember my mind kept wandering in accordance with the "let down" sensation I would have in my breasts.
Through your writing it has always been clear to me how much you love dance and dancers. This moves me.
The Who not the band
Who is Making?
Alexa, Peter, me and quite possibly the entire Vancouver dance community.
Who Am I? All of a sudden I hear Les Misérables in my head
I was listening to Freakonomics last night. It was an interview with Malcom Gladwell. Mr. 10,000 hours. Sometimes I think of him as the Dr. Phil of productivity, and I must admit I haven't read any of his books. Although I was ready to roll my eyes at most of what he said, he made an excellent point. He spoke about how anyone with great skill and some sort of natural talent (back to the 10,000 hours) doesn't become that talented and skilled person in a vacuum. He rejects the idea of the lone genius. There is sacrifice, support and effort made by a large constellation of people to make that individual thrive. This is what I'm getting at with this project. Our interconnectedness is critical component to our experience, success and position in a community.
In effect, I'm saying that my work doesn't exist without context - which is my community - and I mean community in the largest sense which includes family, friends, children, baristas, audiences, colleagues, institutions, funding bodies/juries, historical figures, artists from other disciplines, curators, programmers, and on and on. I hypothesize that everyone in this community probably has something to do with what each artist is doing/making/teaching/researching right now.
Peter has proposed the What....good question....what exactly are we doing?
More to come.
to Justine, Peter
Hi you two,
Ah, the dinner at Six Acres! How could I forget. I had a beet salad with too-sweet candied walnuts. Okay.. Justine, I think you answered the who is involved in this pretty perfectly -- and the image of the constellation is a beautiful one. So who am I in relation to this project? Well... I suppose this project really, really appeals to the part of me that loves to observe, to put together parts of a quietly unfolding pattern, allowing others to click into place as if almost by magic. This is my writerly sense, I suppose, and to apply this eye to a community of people I love, respect, am intimidated and inspired by, at times am frustrated with and am often surprised by was a prospect which ignited both my excitement and discomfort. As an 'emerging' artist, I have connectivity to the dance community mostly through my training, my friendships and my professional relationships (the boundaries between which are becoming more joyfully blurred), and am usually only privy to the surfacely visible joinery that binds us. To be able to see further into my communities' pasts, presents, and futures, can only deepen my understanding around what I am working on, and why.
So what are we working on? We are working on collaboration, and Justine's definition of a new thing forming, not just an amalgamation of each collaborator's "strengths". We are working on a sprawling, living, installation, a research project with no hypothesis and no conclusion, a sociological experiment in which we are both the scientist and the subject. Yes, it will also be a performance, but as we know, performance can't just live in the moment of being performed. It gathers up people and paperwork and love and questions and complexities and leaves behind a trail, a trace for others to happen upon.
Which leads me to ask: Where does this project unfold?
to Alexa, Justine
Hello J and A,
It’s dull and grey and wet outside this morning, but how nice to wake up to such warm and bright thoughts from the two of you. Starting with that Copernican image of the constellation, which I agree is the perfect metaphor for what we’re doing. Like the community we are documenting, the capaciousness of which Justine describes so well, our project is a mosaic of interacting ideas and forms and events that undergo perpetual transformation in relation to each other, and that can be subdivided into smaller points or tasks or moments in time, but that can never be viewed as separate or autonomous sites of exchange. Which sounds like a pretty good definition of dance itself.
I may or may not have told you two that I’m going to be part of a roundtable on dance research in Canada at the University of Calgary at the end of this month, and that as part of my contribution to the discussion I will partly be addressing our project. Here is how I described WHAT we are doing: "Our Present Dance Histories is a multi-platform research investigation being conducted under the auspices of Justine Chambers’ two-year artist residency at The Dance Centre. Part living archive, part dance ethnography, part an exercise in kinaesthetic mapping and performance kinship, the collaboration involves a series of video interviews with several dance artists in order to document the stories of Vancouver dance over the past decade. We are also developing a web-based forum for supplementary writing (both ethnographic and fictional) related to these interviews. And, finally, we expect to create both an installation and a performance based on all of this material.”
All well and dryly academic, but that doesn’t really get at the pulsing heartbeat of this “new thing forming,” this "sociological experiment”—which, to go back to the idea of the constellation, is for me partly about bending and extending time in relation to what we think of as the eventness of dance. We’ve inherited this notion, largely from ballet, that dance is a timeless art form that unfolds magically (and effortlessly!) in the moment on stage. But that idea depends on the willful erasure of all the unseen time and labour that goes into producing the dance: the years of training; the hours of rehearsal; the routine of class and conversation and grant-writing and coffee-drinking and subway-riding and on and on and on. That’s partly what I’ve so revelled in in our conversations with our interview subjects: their general descriptions of what I’ll call "the dailiness of dance”—from what they’re doing in their kitchens, to what goes on backstage, to the unseen disasters (like costume malfunctions or projectile vomiting in the wings) they’re dealing with “in the moment” on stage (I am getting to the WHERE question, I promise).
And I feel like when the three of us sit down in the sixth floor AIR office of the Dance Centre and open our notebooks (in perfect unison, of course) and press record on our various devices, we become part of all of that—that the dance continues in our writing and talking and mapping of it; that in this way we’re stretching time, elastically, backwards and forwards. So, for me, that office that we’ve managed to colonize is a big part of the WHERE of this project’s unfolding, if only as the most regular location of our conversations with our interview subjects and ourselves—and, I have to say, signing in weekly at reception and confidently pushing the sixth floor button in the elevator (going up in that building to the offices and studios to work rather than down to the Faris performance space to watch) has transformed how I view myself in relation not just to that building, but to the Vancouver dance community as a whole.
But I’m also writing this on my computer at home, which, like so many of our interviewees, I cannot exclude from my dance sites—not least in relation to this project. That dialectical relationship between material and virtual worlds is important, I think. If part of what we’re doing in documenting the stories of our peers is mapping a space of “vicarious intimacy” (a term I borrow from my super smart student, Alana Gerecke), in which we—and others who choose to listen to our retellings—are momentarily transported to EDAM or the Firehall or the Roundhouse or Harbour Dance or Starbucks (!) and can feel ourselves moving, or being moved by, what we hear is going on in those spaces, then I think we have to agree that WHERE, in this case, is always going to be a confluence of the real and the imagined, the what has happened and the horizon of what is to come.
Because, as so many folks way smarter than me have noted, in performance the stage is always haunted.
And if that’s the case, WHY would we want to raise up its ghosts?
Justine A. Chambers
to Peter, Alexa
My dear friends,
As I sit in my home, with [partner] Josh and Max to my left on the couch, the sun shines bright. Max has just had a tumble (and tears) and is enjoying a bottle in Josh's arms while holding his foot with his hands. My where and who extends to my family and home. Much of my thinking around this project happens in the middle of the night after the 3am feeding or at 6am while the house is quiet and the men in my life sleep. The where includes stroller walks to and from The Dance Centre, but also those moments that I get out to see dance, speak about dance, facilitate dance and teach dance. Like Alexa said it is sprawling and it is living.
WHY do this project? Perhaps precisely because of what you said Peter - the invisible labour. I am unwilling to erase the work, the time, the practice and the relentless perseverance. Dance artists aren't magical creatures that emerge fully formed. Heroic perhaps, but not void of effort. I am committed to allowing these artists to represent themselves - and to then use that as a material for the construction of an art work. I am also seduced by the playfulness that comes with working with the slippage between truths. At the beginning of my career I danced for Desrosiers Dance Theatre, and we were a wild (and fashionable) bunch. Someone once said I should write a book about our "adventures"....perhaps this project is a version of that book, but almost 20 years later it feels necessary to include every wild bunch in town and bring their ghosts along for the ride.
There is also something about how many of the artists we interview share ghosts. Although I haven't been interviewed yet, I am having the pleasure of reliving many of the stories brought to the AIR office by the interviewees. Our memories are almost the same, and it is in this 'almost' that I find the most delight.
And how do we situate ourselves and this project in the FUTURE?
to Justine, Peter
Hello both of you,
I recently moved my desk to another part of my apartment. From here, I can look up from my screen and see a bit of the North Shore's deep, layered blues: mostly mountains, the Burrard Inlet underlining them. In this new working place, I can look up from my desk and see a cue to remember that I am living, working, building friendships, dancing, and asking questions in a place whose ghosts are much, much further reaching than the span of my lifetime. As a guest on the traditional, unceded territories of the Sḵwxwú7mesh, Tsleil-waututh, and Musqueam Nations, the unrest and the potentiality of where we live, a framework we've all talked about in relation to the where of this project, is a context we'll always move through and with. I keep going back to that image of the children's book (Zoom by Istvan Banyai) that Justine mentioned in one of our first meetings, where each picture zooms further out on a scene, revealing more and more of the image. The Dance Histories project feels both like all of the minute to minute details that accumulate to make a world -- which the book encompasses in its entirety, and also of a close up, the specific moment we're researching the detail of the rooster's feather in a view of Earth from space. This feeling of being a part of something tiny but meaningful nonetheless is moving to me.
The whys are continually revealing themselves to me. The focus on the "metadata," or invisible labour of dance, is a big one for me, too. Other whys: because I want to more fully understand my environment, because I want to be surprised by what I think I know, because I want to investigate what it means to be an artist who values dance and writing as equally important in her practice, because I want to collaborate with two people who intimidate me intellectually... yes, that was a big one going in!
The future of this project is really exciting to me. I'm already beginning to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information we've accumulated, but I know we are starting to form ways of working through it, talking about it, and translating it between the three of us. The little breakthrough moments where we begin to imagine how the performance might take shape are so wonderful, sharing a set of eyes for a second then bringing that new perspective back to our individual work. I must say, one of my "wheres" is during any performance I'm not enjoying. I do my best choreographing/set designing in those moments, and I have spent some of them imagining this piece in all its stage-rigged, complex patterned glory.
I'm also excited to see how our personal contexts seep into this work, as we navigate changes in our family lives, work on other projects, and growing friendships with each other. Peter, your shift in relationship to the Dance Centre as a way of seeing yourself is quite striking, and this project feels like a way for me to investigate how I see myself as an artist, as well. And if Max continues to get heartbreakingly cuter at his current rate, that's something to look forward to, too.
to Alexa, Justine
Dear Alexa and Justine,
The sun has returned (sort of), which is surely a good sign. Alexa, thank you for reminding us of Justine’s Zoom reference, which I think is another important way of encapsulating the dual synchronic and diachronic nature of this project—how these stories we’re collecting are giving us individual snapshots in time (this momentous performance, that influential period of training, this difficult bit of personal “stuff,” etc), but that together open up onto, or get montaged into, this wider angle view (sorry if I mixing my visual metaphors).
And what stories!
Notwithstanding the by now familiar trope of dancers talking on stage (thank you, Jérôme Bel!), I think the myth of dance artists being mute physical instruments persists (see, again, Bel’s Véronique Doisneau for more on that). But so many of the dancers and choreographers I know in this city are such great talkers! And they have so many fascinating things to say: about dance, yes, but also about life and politics and friendship and the city and just generally, to quote TCF, “how to be.” And if, as I am increasingly inclined to think, how to be in this world boils down to some version of an embodied practice of technique—in the sense of acquiring a set of skills re how to move with, respond to, and learn from others’ co-habitation of this planet—then surely dancers, who practice their technique on a daily basis, have something to teach us. (There’s a bit of the wisdom of Ben Spatz, Judith Hamera and our interview with Lee Su-Feh woven into that last sentence—sorry, the academic in me can’t completely forgo the bibliographic citations!).
That’s a big part of the WHY for me: avowing, after Hamera, that a key part of the infrastructure of this city—any city—is its dance history. For so many cultures—starting with the Coast Salish nations that Alexa rightly cites as forming the literal ground of this project—movement repertoires are not ancillary to the story of a place, they are foundational. Why shouldn’t we apply that same principle to how we are reading the admittedly not unproblematic idea of the “contemporary” in relation to both Vancouver and dance?
As for the FUTURE of this project, I admit that a part of me is very much stuck on the immediate future of next year and what it is that we might be creating by way of a performance as a result of our research. This fills me with panic, but also, if I’m honest, with a great deal of excitement. Because, of course, the material is so rich. And I’m working with such amazing artists—talk about feeling intimidated!
Whatever artifacts—a performance, an installation, hours of interview footage, our notebooks and writings and scores, food scraps, maybe even some bruised bones and egos—we leave at the end of this process, I hope they will continue to cede other possible future futures: for us, for others; contestatory, reclamatory; who knows? Because when you arrive at the future, it’s not the future anymore. Just like the present very quickly becomes the past. Time bends, and time binds (see Elizabeth Freeman on the latter topic). Among the many things this project has so far taught me is that this temporal connection is fundamentally corporeal, and that dancers know that better than anyone.
Over to you, Justine, for last words, and see you both tomorrow.
Justine A. Chambers
to Peter, Alexa
As I sit here pumping with one hand and typing with the other (a choreographic feat of its own), I am stuck on a question that Mique’l Dangeli (the other associate artist to The Dance Centre) deposited in my mind when I first met her a few years ago at a reception during a Canadian public arts funders gathering/conference in Vancouver. We had both been invited to speak to a group of federal, provincial and municipal arts officers during their conference sessions. Mique’l spoke to them about First Nations dance practice and I was invited to speak about collaborative practice - sadly, artists were not invited to these meetings. The question she brought forward was: WHOSE dance history? A question that asks that we interrogate definitions of contemporary dance and also what is valued within the milieu. This question carves space for the individual to define their origins, their movement practice and their general context.
When I teach, I often ask that students to play dumb....or more eloquently (and borrowed from the buddhists) arrive with a beginner's mind or shoshin - enthusiasm, openness and most importantly a lack of preconceptions. If I assume I don't know, there is room for me to learn something new. It invites fluidity, curiosity, inclusivity and a sense of wonder.
The future of this project - yes, it includes the immediacy of pulling all of the material through the mill to create a performance, more writing, an installation and whatever else shows up. I also hope that it allows us and all who encounter the project to feel the kaleidoscopic nature of dance communities - how all of the histories co-exist, merge, diverge, fragment and shift if we continue to shift the lens.
Well, the breasts have been pumped, Max is awake and climbing up my legs so that's my cue to wrap it up.
My thanks to you both for the interview.
The Dance Histories Project will continue through 2016-2017.
Follow the project blog here.