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In this guest post, dance artist Walter Kubanek writes about his project Where’s Walter Working, and three encounters with three very different artists working in completely different dance genres: contemporary, classical Japanese, and flamenco:
I was at a dinner a while back with my wife and some friends. The topic of conversation was a new grant. There was some heated talk. “Oh,” someone said “what if someone proposed a project where a dance artist gets a grant to walk into dance rehearsals and say “I’m here! What can I do!””? Everyone got excited, the banter continued and then someone said “you know who should do that? Walter!”
As this conversation continued I found myself feeling nervous, enjoying the attention but also feeling a bit embarrassed, a little uncertain if my friends were serious or ironic in their playful banter. In the end their sincerity became clear and I became hooked on this odd idea. Their idea was I would do a project where I would go into other people’s dance rehearsals with minimal warning, offer to join in the project in that moment, and see what happened.
Their idea slowly evolved over time into a project that I named ‘Where’s Walter Working?’ After some delays I was able to start a pilot version of my project with the generous support of the team at The Dance Centre. Here are some first impressions.
In March, I walked into three rehearsals of three different dance artists working at Scotiabank Dance Centre: Rosario Ancer, Amber Funk Barton and Colleen Lanki. The Dance Centre team and I thought it would be valuable to record these experiences, so we filmed our first few minutes together and broadcast them live on The Dance Centre’s Facebook page. I found the videos fun to make and I had a great time talking and dancing with Amber, Colleen and Rosario. I appreciated the opportunity to talk shop with these three fascinating and unique artists.
Walter's Facebook Live meet with Amber
The first artist I met was Amber Funk Barton. She was with a posse of collaborators and they all gave me a warm welcome. As it was a rare Vancouver snow day we kvetched about the weather, and that and the warm welcome I received lent the whole affair not the sense of being a downtown dance studio but of being in the woods at Grandmother’s house. The feeling of being Little Red Riding Hood, snowed in & sans-Wolf, stayed as I talked to Amber and later as I sat through a run of her 45-minute solo and then through the run notes.
“Look at the snow,” said Amber. We were sitting by the window. I asked her about her work, and about her interest in Carl Sagan, as he was mentioned briefly in her write up for her solo show, titled VAST, that was opening the next week at the Vancouver International Dance Festival.
Amber said it wasn’t that she was necessarily inspired to unlock the cosmos through her art. It was more about looking at the dualism of things, how the big has the little in it and the other way around. She said, “look at the snow. Each flake is so tiny but together they create this big problem that shuts down the city.”
Amber talked about how she she sees her piece like a dream, how she wants to make performance that is for an audience, but also on behalf of them as well. Even though she is the soloist she feels like she wants to dance on behalf of people, be their representative so that they might feel seen. She seemed to suggest that the need to be seen was, like thirst or hunger, a universal human need.
Amber talked about how she feels constant gratitude for her opportunity to be a professional dance artist. She said she didn’t imagine when she was young and starting out it would be possible to dance and create for as long as she had. I had first met Amber a long time ago when we were younger and working with Judith Marcuse. Now she talked about getting older, of the feeling that her years of pushing her body to its limits were numbered and she wanted to savor her remaining time as a ‘virtuosic’ dancer. It was interesting for me to hear her talk of ageing then watch her rehearse her incredible dance solo for the better part of an hour with unstoppable youthful energy. She looked to me 20 years younger than I feel. The contrast I saw and heard between the ideas of age and youth was for me, another dualism, kin to the idea that Amber first presented in response to my question.
I stayed and watched a run of her solo. She had her lovely team of people there. It was amazing to me the work that she must have put in, in order to build that team, that network of support.
Her solo, a lovely, varied and meditative 45 minutes of dance work, was an exciting and mysterious epilogue to my experience of entering the studio and my conversation with Amber. I had gotten the sense of endings from talking with Amber, of letting go. While endings are often sad, they can contain all the promise of new beginnings and adventures as well. I imagine Amber is methodically planning a new adventure now, crafting her plan, finding what’s next.
Walter's Facebook Live meet with Colleen
I met with Colleen knowing nothing about her or Nihon Buyoh, Japanese classical dance. I noticed a few things very quickly about Colleen. She struck me as a very lively and articulate person, smart and quick. It also became quite clear as we talked that I had found an artist in the middle of a challenging time. Let me explain:
Colleen is preparing dances for a show being presented in May. She is consolidating a long period of research where she had taken possession of cardboard boxes containing pictures, writings and vhs tapes of now her deceased Nihon Buyoh teacher, Fujima Yuko. Colleen explained the situation that led her to this work in detail, and I encourage you to read more about it on The Dance Centre’s blog.
The impression I got was of someone trying to construct a meal from an old family recipe. Colleen seemed to be attempting to bring the past into the present. A resurrection of a mentor’s work. It didn’t seem to me that Colleen was fully, freely choosing this path. There seemed to be the sense of duty, of fidelity to her teacher. It was important to understand, Colleen said, that in Nihon Buyoh it takes many years to train to be a performer, then many more to be a teacher. The practice is normally passed down within the family either to biological children who studied for many years or to trusted students. In Yuko’s story her student, the artist who was going to carry on her artistic legacy, passed away suddenly. When Yuko died there was really only Colleen left. Colleen studied for many years with Yuko. She not Yuko’s biological daughter, nor is she Japanese, yet here she is putting the pieces together in order to share dance work that might do justice to the lineage of a teacher, so the traditions and creations that she taught and lived might live on and are not lost.
Nihon Buyoh and my own dance practice are different. The Nihon Buyoh that Colleen described has an adherence to form, a precise movement and stance language meant to convey narrative, very prescribed training, lineage, costuming. I am tempted to say that a traditional form like this is the polar opposite of my contemporary dance practice, but I think that’s not quite accurate. I would rather say that there are many aspects that differ but in the end it’s all dance. I felt a very strong, quick kinship with Colleen. I could empathize with the herculean task she had taken on.
One of the under layers that I believe happens in dance performance is the struggle of a person to meet a need. Often there is this sense of risk, of vulnerability, of the possibility of failing. I’ve heard it said performance works best when people are themselves dealing with what’s in front of them, even if what is front of them is imaginary so to speak, like a choreography or a dance.
Will Colleen succeed in bringing her teachers work back to life? I don’t know. It seems so hard. And not for lack of trying. Colleen is obviously working hard and is smart and very conscientious and educated. She is an artist in the middle of her career, taking on the seemingly impossible, climbing the metaphorical mountain. I’m not sure where her adventure will end.
Walter's Facebook Live meet with Rosario
One of my favorite things is meeting a new person who I can connect with over a shared interest. This happened when I met flamenco dance artist Rosario Ancer.
I confess I didn’t actually show up unannounced at any of the rehearsals with Colleen, Amber and Rosario, ambushing these choreographers with my audacious generosity. In the interest of not wasting their time we contacted them first, and since I had never met Colleen or Rosario before deciding to walk in to their studio, I asked Colleen and Rosario to meet me ahead of time.
So here Rosario and I were, in her little office in Scotiabank Dance Centre, saying hi. What I found when I met her was a flamenco dance artist who had been teaching and creating and performing in Vancouver for over 30 years. She has this experience and maturity yet talked with the energy of an artist who is starting new projects, receiving new support, feeling free and unencumbered and brave. In Rosario I found someone looking ahead at challenges and opportunities with clear-eyed optimism.
I had never taken a flamenco class, and I chose to ask her how she would be willing to compare other categories of dance to the art of flamenco. She generously offered that although flamenco might be called contemporary, flamenco dance was really its own beast, too different and mysterious and grounded in its history in Spain to be called contemporary, too vital and alive to be called classical, too globally popular to be called folk. She explained some of the very basics of its rhythmic structure, and we connected very quickly playing with polyrhythm. Talking of time, when we looked at the time we realized we had talked for three times as long we had planned.
Being in the studio and dancing with Rosario was fun because I could feel my dance brain and my music brain turn on as we went through the beginning movements and rhythms. She described the rhythm being divided in 12, like a clock but divided unequally, into 3-3-2-2-2 . This structure, I don’t know what to call it, a kind of a polyrhythm, reminded me of my music studies. I felt light bulbs going on, recognizing the familiar rhythmic structures in this novel experience. If flamenco has a groove then I fell into it. I think I may need to go take some flamenco classes with Rosario.
So there you have it. Some thoughts on my experience with three very dance artists and dance forms. In summary I would like to thank The Dance Centre and all the artists involved. I had fun.
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