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Diving Deep: Valerie Calam

A series of conversations with mid-career contemporary dance artists By Danielle Baskerville
  • Valerie Calam in spitpop by Diane Borsato with Calam as part of Singular Bodies for Toronto Dance Theatre / Photo by Borsato

While in Europe in June and July of 2016, I spoke with contemporary dance artists in their mid-career and beyond about how they sustain themselves and how they move forward – physically, creatively, psychically, practically. I focused on Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin, Germany. I am continuing these conversations here, at home, with Canadian dance artists. Below is the beginning of a series of portraits of artists carrying out their lives in dance.

 

Monday, August 29, 2016.
Holy Oak Cafe,
 Toronto, Ontario
Valerie Calam & Danielle Baskerville

Danielle Baskerville Do you think of yourself as courageous?

Valerie Calam Yes, sometimes. But, it’s hard to live up to that courage and super easy to say no to challenges. Fatigue is a huge thing. I’m excited for when my daughter gets a bit older and I have some more time, but for now, I am happy watching her grow and develop. It is beautiful. She is my best work.  

I danced with Toronto Dance Theatre (TDT) for nine years early on in my career. When I was thirty-two, I left and danced independently, worked with some great companies like Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie, ProArte Danza, The Dietrich Group, as well as on my own choreography. I made music, played in a band, did some video editing. At thirty-six I went back to school and got my MFA in dance from York University. After my degree I had my baby. And then I went back to Toronto Dance Theatre as a guest artist, as well as I continued to develop and research choreography under my company, Company Vice Versa. It wasn’t until I returned to TDT that I realized my nature had changed – I had changed. Everybody else had changed, too. Dancers, of course, but also Christopher [House, the artistic director] and Rose [James, the rehearsal director] and Cheryl [Lalonde the production manager] – time had passed. They worked in such a beautiful way, as a team, and Christopher is more inspiring and creative than ever. For me, the main difference was that I no longer had a certain kind of ambition. Ambition as a negative thing – it was gone. I felt like I was reconnecting to my community, and committing to it in a more mature way. I was taken aback by the beauty of the situation: people working together, the listening in the room, the collaboration, the ease of leadership. I felt slightly removed, like I was witnessing something so familiar, a kind of mechanism. It was impressive to me, how well everything worked. It feels rare. I think I was aware of it way back then, but at the same time I think I was in a state of wanting to get out, to make a move for myself, looking outside all of the time. To Europe, to Montréal, elsewhere. In my late twenties and early thirties, I spent every summer in Brussels or Vienna, but inevitably found my way back home.

DB How did that change you as a dancer, an interpreter?

VC The entire arc of experiences that happen during a creative process, leading into a showing or performance run, and the conversations that happen beyond and during, became part of a larger whole. Every part became equal. Suddenly, I realized I was living my life through dance, and I have been surrounding myself with artists. Potentially, I would be able to see the art in everything.

The idea of being creative all the time became clear when I couldn’t get into the studio. Instead, I started to choreograph the garden … this plant goes here, the sun shines fully over there … rip that out … and that died … and Shepherd, my partner, would come and put a rock over top of a bunch of my seeds that I had just planted … so you’re, well, collaborating … I could get my creative fix from doing things around the house. I would end up painting, or I would find myself touching everything in the house, I’d make curtains and hang them inside out. 

DB You were an incredible dancer at TDT those first nine years. But when you came back, after school and your baby and all of that other life, it is hard for me to describe your effect. You were so transcendently yourself. Individual. I felt your performances reverberate outwards, outside of the theatre, the building, out into the world. 

VC I guess if there is a courageous thing, it is me deciding to continue to have a life in dance after baby, and decide to live my life through art and performance. Dealing with the body, and with what people remember, comparing the present with the past. Those things were not so useful. There were many things I had to let go of. But then there was all this other stuff that I can deal with, that I know so well. Aspects of performance are less mystifying. Dealing with adrenaline, recognizing how my energy and mood changes while preparing for a run of shows, and then remembering to be gentle with myself after the show has closed. Now those things are expected and essential.

DB Do you feel the need to reinvent yourself with each project, or are you in the process of deepening an idea?

VC Deepening an idea for sure. I’ve been focusing on that for the past five years.

DB Do you mean that as a dancer or as a choreographer, or overall, in your approach to life in dance?

VC My work in performance, choreography, training and teaching have come more in line with each other. At some point, I needed to start saying ‘no’ to things. Only saying yes to work that addresses similar questions in hopes that I can approach everything the same way. My overarching interest is to watch myself navigate situations. I wonder if I can become more aware of my reactions to things, like, recognizing and tracking what gets me excited, nervous and especially what I am bored by. Being clear with myself about the fact that time can change things, that some situations now feel limited. Getting older … you have less time. Options start to narrow, but in a good way.

DB Do you feel that that sort of narrowing has been a combination of choice and necessity?

VC Yea. I just felt I wasn’t good at it anymore – playing the game. I was starting to rebel. It’s funny how we think things happen spontaneously, but really they have already been processed, and are being processed, all the time through our bodies. We really are leading with the body so much of the time. Even with fatigue. Sometimes my brain says yes, you should slow down, but in fact I am already doing it. So often we are just trying to catch up to where our bodies already are. This goes back to being aware, to tracking oneself and being aware of how you are reacting to all situations.

DB So you feel that your body and its knowledge are ahead of where you are?

VC Yes, often. Listen to my body first.

DB At what stage in your career did this shift in awareness start to happen?

VC When I let go of leading with the outside. Of listening to somebody else, of always needing to be taught. I started to look to other dance artists for advice and discovered the importance of dialogue, hanging out. Also, looking to other disciplines for help and inspiration.   

DB Let’s talk about support structures. What is your physical practice? 

VC I’ve started going back to class, very physical class. My brain can get very scattered; jumping around, multi-tasking all of the time, and I find it hard to focus. If I can go to a class that is very square, or deliberately un-square, where I’m dealing only with numbers, simple phrases, and I’m moving and there is music, and there is the group moving together, then I can go right back to the ritual, to the time of being taken somewhere with a group of people. I remember watching the TDT company do a David Earle Graham class in 1995 at the Winch. I was blown away. I immediately fell in love with modern dance at that moment. Equally as moving are my memories of raving. I loved dancing all night to amazing jungle and drum and bass DJs. Again, the power behind a huge group of people dancing together is unparalleled. When I am done class, I am sorted out. Everything lines up again. 

DB What are your other support structures, beyond the physical? 

VC The community. I take it for granted sometimes, but people are there, backing you up. For me, Brendan Jensen is a support structure all on his own. Talking with you right now Danielle, the time you are taking to interview me is a huge form of support. I’ve used a DTRC retraining grant. I get to take $5 classes because of CADA and GMD. Of course, our granting bodies. I have a team of therapists. All that counts.

DB What about family?

VC My husband and stepdaughter totally get me. I think it’s because they are off on their own creative art journey all the time. Our house is full of ideas. The rest of my family is also a ton of support, without question; though it comes in a sort of backdoor way. In their lack of knowing exactly what I am talking about, there is an understanding. And the times when you retreat into family, and become immersed in its own craziness and scale, you come out of it with an even better realization of the things that make you happy. They know me better than anyone. 

DB Tell me about Dull Roar, your newest piece that was just performed as part of SummerWorks Performance Festival and the second, behind-the-scenes, cast you are working with. 

VC Dull Roar is an abstract dance that challenges the performers to be compositional while working in state and movement. In order to access a physical vocabulary that is in the performative moment, we work with a method we call ‘states of the body’ that uses images and tasks to generate movement. Throughout the piece, we are exploring the relationship between individual and group, noticing the impact that individual decision-making has on the others. All of this is challenging to maintain, but the work of it, is it.

My husband, Paul Shepherd/Cult Eyes, created and performed a remarkable score for Dull Roar. He modulated sound from an analogue synthesizer that he manually patches during the piece. He alternates between synthesizer patches and tape loops in order to shift the audial experience and push the piece forward. The other collaborators are: artistic advising by Brendan Jensen and performance by Robert Abubo, Amanda Davis, Kate Franklin, Luke Garwood and Christianne Ullmark.

I am going to keep working on this piece, and dig, dig, dig. And, there is the challenge of finding some new places to show it to some new people. Jenn Goodwin has been a huge support system for me in trying to get this piece out there. She is the best.

DB What about the cult of youthful beauty? A tricky and complicated thing in dance. 

VC My mom turned seventy-two yesterday, and when my seven-year-old niece asked her how old she was, my mom responded with, ‘NEVER ask a woman her age if she is over forty.’ I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Mom, you can’t do that. You’re seventy-two. It’s amazing. You are amazing. You know so much. Why would you even want to look younger than what you are?’ I want this mentality to change. Maybe when you and I get to a certain age, things will be different. 

I absolutely love to see a mature dancer performing; it’s like a fine wine. It is great to have these mentors in the community that can inspire and guide. It is crucial.

To me the virtuosic dance of people in their twenties is no different, really, from seeing a big circus, or a hip hop battle, or the amazing back-up dancers behind Justin Bieber. It is really stunning, but it is not totally my thing. Okay, my audience may not be huge, but I am not aiming for mainstream here. Why water down the audience if they are not willing to have the conversation? If we can’t have the conversation, then how do things progress?

It is one thing to learn to talk about your work – that is great. But we need to have dialogue. There needs to be time and thought behind our responses. It isn’t enough to simply declare what it is we are into. This is where I feel the ball gets dropped. I admit, it takes work on both ends.

DB In our academic institutions or in the dance community at large?

VC Both. The question remains: How do you keep nurturing your thing? It can make you feel like you are just out there in the woods by yourself. And how are you to survive off of that solo mission? That’s why sometimes I just want to sew. People need to wear clothes. I love the creativity of sewing – cutting and drafting a pattern and making clothes for dancers, it seems infinitely more practical.

DB Sewing is another one of your support structures?

VC Yes. At the moment it is the thing that gets me fully excited. I can do it at home, on my own time. I love buying the fabrics, different fabrics, different colours, and I’m dealing with bodies. I bought labels for my clothing – Vompany Vice Versa. So as a fundraising initiative, I can make clothes, duffel bags. It’s easier to sell a duffel bag than a dance piece … 

DB What about money – how do you feel about your financial situation?

VC I have no money and I have a lot of debt, but I am forced not to worry about it. I don’t necessarily think it is a good thing, but it has allowed me to keep going. If I had always been responsible about money, and kept an eye on the big picture, I would be absolutely frozen. My ignorance has been a way for me to persevere.

DB I’m really glad you said that. Out loud. Talk about dialogue that needs to happen. 

VC Financial security is so often an illusion. I am so glad I didn’t go down the road of committing my life to a career that was supposedly secure, instead of doing something I love. 

DB Have you experienced a turning point when you almost left dance? Or is the question, the possibility, always present?

VC When I made the decision to go to school and do my MFA, it had something to do with that. I couldn’t constantly work for other people anymore. I was tired. The nature of contract work is so intense; I would put my own work on the back burner. The only way not to do that was to go to school, and to have a structure that supported my own interests. I did feel a bit of backlash from the community about it. People questioned the school I went to. People questioned why I would leave a performance career at that moment. But, they don’t know the whole story. When you make a move in any direction it is open for judgment, and in this small community where so much boils down to funding and grants, other people’s support of your actions really can have an impact. But, that’s fine. I am like a steam engine, slow, strong, steady and without brakes. 

 

Valerie Calam is a dance artist in Toronto, with a focus on performance and choreography, and all the research, training, discussion, etc. that is essential to support a life in dance. She umbrellas all her work under the name Company Vice Versa. Valerie and a team of core collaborators recently presented a new work, Dull Roar, to sold out audiences at the SummerWorks Festival in August. As another creative outlet and potential fundraising initiative, she sews clothes inspired by the contemporary artists of Toronto today. Upcoming, Valerie will be performing in the work of Bill Coleman, Ame Henderson and Christopher House. She will continue to offer her workshop experience “Proposal to Piece” that was crafted through the generous support of Canada Council for the Arts. 

 

This conversation is the first in a three-part series. Read also perspectives from mid-career dance artists in Europe: Diving Deep with David Zambrano and Mat Voorter and Diving Deep with Sarah Ludi.

 

Baskerville’s research is supported in part by the Canada Council for the Arts.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

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