During assessed performances, the potential of student creators working in the performing arts tends to be stifled by the bell jar of expectations. To combat this, Ascension will slit the throat of creative compliance and grant autonomy to the repressed.
In the seventh iteration of this live annual performance, second-, third- and fourth-year Simon Fraser University Contemporary Arts students take full control over their work in order to generate a conversation about the merit of interdisciplinary collaboration. Because this project is not a class and thus not assessed, it is a chance for students to focus on expressing their creativity to an audience.
This year, SFU student dancers, musicians, production designers and filmmakers amalgamate a series of poetic pieces free of narrative that stimulate the imagination. There are no parameters; Artistic Director Charlotte Telfer-Wan says that “it would be a political statement to say [the pieces are] just dance.” This live performance aims to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of performance as a whole, and to share the credit with all participating students.
By emphasizing the collaborative elements of production, Ascension foregrounds the interdisciplinary nature of art itself. Ascension celebrates the diversity of experiences and perspectives its artists share, and it reminds audience members of the array of disciplines within SFU. One of the project’s goals is to give Contemporary Arts students a personal encounter with both the talents and the methods of other disciplines.
Ascension empowers its contributors by allowing students to identify their employable skills as both artists and producers, and to construct an environment in which organization and direction can be practiced. “To facilitate the making of art is very satisfying,” Telfer-Wan said. “Making it happen is just as important as doing it.” For me as a viewer, Ascension creates an enlightening experience of an impressive professional quality, and the performers radiate a sense of emancipation and pride.
The program features five dance pieces with original music, as well as two films. All of the choreographers met with their lighting designers on November 30 in order to outline their intentions for lights with the plan to consummate their ideas at a cue-to-cue rehearsal on December 2. These pieces are still being workshopped, and all of the creators are willing to adapt. They are familiar and comfortable with each other, and the rehearsal is full of laughter. The air within the rehearsal is so casual that observing the work feels like eavesdropping; I feel like a spy scribbling down their bits of conversation in fingerless-gloved hands.
The dancers of Ascension pull me into a hypnotic dream. Their movement is serrated, but flowing, like their muscles are made of water; they orbit, they stagger, they work in canon. “How does it feel?” one of the choreographers prompts, to which a dancer responds, “It feels blue.” In essence, the pieces are evocative and dreamy, and can be succinctly described with a singular, malleable image: the pieces draw attention to the beauty in the erratic.
The beauty of the performers’ moves is more striking when they are sharp and punctuated rather than smooth and continuous. Sounds – the dancers’ breath, their footsteps, their clothes sliding against the floor – become deliberate noises within the piece that play into the intent and tone of the scene. When all five dancers drop to the floor, the theatre seats shake. The pieces are incredibly emotional, and the performers genuinely care about the work they are doing. It matters to them.
Simply because of demographics, the pieces ring feminist. This ties into the sense of empowerment the performers feel when producing their work: it is about their identity. During a conversation, co-choreographer Seana Williams (who is working with composer Sam Meadahl and lighting designer Margery Liu) said that some of the inspiration for the pieces came from the personal experiences of both the choreographers and the dancers. “Dance like it’s your story,” Williams said. “Eat the inspiration around you.”
Even without lights or a paying audience, all the dancers seemed to feel the same stakes of a fully fledged presentation in their rehearsal, and were invested in their performance. That is the point. Ascension makes a statement about the inseparability of collaboration and performance. There is a constant discussion among the participating disciplines; all the musical compositions are created specifically for the show, so the dancers comment on the music and the musicians comment on the dance. Their rhythm is synchronous, and their voices are concurrent.
Ascension creates a cyclical conversation where collaborators are encouraged to remark on and celebrate their creations. The project establishes an environment of creative respite where all students freely perform without curricular expectations. They are empowered, their diversity is honoured, and they can share their consideration for one another. In this sense, Ascension is not necessarily the synthesis of differing artistic disciplines, but the synthesis of students’ artistic desires.
Ascension runs December 6 through 8, 2018, at 8pm at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.
*This article has been amended. The number of dance pieces on the program has been corrected from the originally published number, four, to the correct number, five; and the year-level of students involved now correctly includes second-year students along with third- and fourth-year students. The photo credit now also correctly identifies the dancers in the image.