Alyssa Martin always assumed that her Toronto-based company, Rock Bottom Movement, was too small to win a Dora Mavor Moore Award. “The shows feel like our friends and community just packing in to laugh with us and take in what we’re working on,” she says. But this June, the company won two Doras for hollow mountain: Outstanding Production and Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble. They were also nominated for two others: Outstanding Original Choreography and Outstanding Original Sound Composition (by Sydney Herauf).
While the awards gala was a virtual event this year, the public acknowledgement of the awards made an impact nonetheless. “It was special for me to see these collaborators that I’ve worked with, some of them for eight years, genuinely smile and be proud of their work because of this little YouTube video that we were watching that showed our picture,” says Martin.
hollow mountain is a dark comedy that relies on the company’s strength in creating surreal, feminist, narrative and interdisciplinary work that is bold and often absurd. Five friends navigate their own psyches while singing quirky songs and encountering various obstacles including a demon named Lulu.
Martin describes the work as a “low budget wonder,” with friends and colleagues chipping in their skills however they were able. Her best friend, David Bernstein, served as a first-time technical director. Noah Feaver’s lighting design was done with only seven lights. Some of the musical instruments were bought at a children’s store; others were found or borrowed. In that sense, she says, it felt special to be recognized for the production overall when it was put together with limited resources. “To get the type of recognition that it did is pretty surprising,” Martin says.
But she now realizes that the awards may not be as transformational as she once thought. “You sort of realize that it’s not going to change anything, and it’s actually quite a small section of the community that even gets looked at by the jury,” she says. Rock Bottom has also been nominated before. In 2017, MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRLS was nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble, and in 2018, string quartet no. 14 in g major was nominated for Outstanding Original Choreography.
Martin is grateful for the awards and the opportunity to take pride in the work but acknowledges that they aren’t the only measure of success. “I want to be sensitive not to buy into the fact that the Dora Awards are the be-all, end-all determinant of what is good,” she says.
Combining movement, music, spoken word and theatrical elements, Martin’s works have always been dance-theatre hybrids using any performative tool to express her ideas. She was first inspired to create this type of work during Sheldon Rosen’s creative performance classes in the dance program at Ryerson University. “Using theatrical conventions helped me create work, and I noticed that it opened the realm of possibility in terms of collaboration. Movement can be very powerful, but I found that having the other tools helped me to expand my work,” Martin says.
Inclusive and compassionate, Martin believes that anybody can be a dancer. For a few years, she has been hosting “non-dancer” workshops that provide a safe space for anyone to explore movement and have fun. During the pandemic, the workshops moved online. “You can find magic in someone who’s never done dance ever before in their lives,” says Martin. “Everyone has a personal history that comes out when they dance. I think that’s just so magical and interesting, and connective and joyful. I’m always trying to figure out how to unlock that when I teach.” This “anybody can be a dancer” philosophy stems from her childhood.
Martin grew up just outside Ottawa and began dancing at age two when her mom enrolled her in tap classes. She loved it instantly, and by age thirteen she was taking classes in many styles while choreographing for younger kids. “I think that’s when I started to like working with groups of people to make dance. I always liked to choreograph,” she says. During high school, she started dance teams and would get groups together to make dances for fun.
Her desire to create dance continued once she joined the dance program at Ryerson. Her supportive modern dance teachers took an interest in her choreography, and she realized that maybe her tendency to create was more than a childhood pastime. In 2012, during her third year at Ryerson, she started Rock Bottom Movement with a group of about ten classmates. They created fifteen-minute pieces to take to the streets and busk in Toronto. “I would just throw all these ideas together and people would be running around, and it was kind of bonkers,” she says, while laughing.
The name Rock Bottom came from Martin’s frustration at her pieces not being chosen as much as she wanted for the choreography showcases at university. She felt like she had hit rock bottom and would not have a successful dance career. “It’s an embarrassing story,” she recalls. “I can look back and think, of course, they just allow each person to contribute one, but at the time I was so mad.” She decided to get a group together to create her own works while having more freedom to explore new ideas. “It was helpful for me to make work outside of school, not because school didn’t have great things to offer, but I always wanted to please the teachers and do the right thing. Being able to work outside of that was good to have less pressure to be a certain way or do a certain thing.”
After breaking her foot at an audition, Martin wasn’t able to dance during her final semester, so her focus turned to creating a longer work for her final project, further developing her interest in interdisciplinary performance. “I realized having a broken foot and being able to focus on being on the outside of things, I was kind of relieved. This weight was lifted; I didn’t have to join a dance company and work as a dancer. There was this other path that brought me so much more joy,” she says.
With her foot still broken, she kept making work after graduation and continued busking. Rock Bottom also performed a work in suburban Ottawa to a hometown crowd, which felt safer than presenting her first work in Toronto. Martin got a job cleaning a yoga studio, and they let her use the space after hours to put on shows. She invited mentors to watch and provide their thoughts so she could improve. After raising a bit of money, the company was able to rent the Dancemakers theatre to have a larger audience and get better film footage of their works.
“I just kept making work with people. We were happy making work together, and we still are. We’re totally addicted to creating new things all the time,” Martin says. Rock Bottom has many longtime collaborators, and the group has become both her social and professional life. New members tend to start out as friends before making their way into the group. “It feels odd to call it a dance company because it’s so small and we don’t have the infrastructure to have big auditions and hire people on salary,” she says.
In 2016, Martin created MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRLS, a work that seemed to be the catalyst for more opportunities for the company. Inspired by the film Garden State, it’s full of dialogue from the film, nineties karaoke and peppy cheerleader energy. Martin began working on the piece the night after completing a residency with Christopher House and Ame Henderson at Toronto Dance Theatre, which she describes as a transformative experience. “They shifted how I was thinking about collaboration and including everyone, so I think that work was the first time that it was a real coalesced voice from all of the collaborators, and I think that that’s what came through to people watching,” Martin says.
“I’d been applying to festivals long before that, but that’s when festivals started to get interested,” says Martin. She presented the work at the Next Stage Theatre Festival in 2017, and an excerpt of the work was performed at the 2018 Encore! Dance Hall of Fame celebration. It’s not the first time Martin’s inspiration came from film; one of her first works, Meet the Andersons, was based on her love of Wes Anderson movies. She says that she was drawn to the colours and the theatricality of his work.
DOLPHIN, a piece inspired by the Gossip Girl novels and television series, was created as a Dance Ontario Dance Weekend Creative Partnership commission in 2017. Later that year, the piece was shown at the SummerWorks Performance Festival. Martin’s next work, string quartet no. 14 in g major, was born out of a dance script written by Bernstein. It’s a hybrid production with the cast split evenly between dance and acting backgrounds.
Since 2016 and MANICPIXIEDREAMGIRLS, says Martin, she’s been creating her works with a feminist lens. “It started to show up in the sense of us dealing with our own emotions and events that are happening in our lives.” Martin explains that her goal is to create works that actively push away from the conventions of her childhood dance training where it was all about smiling, looking hot and becoming a symbol of beauty. She wants to let bodies be seen as gross, high-pitched, loud and brave. hollow mountain took inspiration from the dancers’ personal journeys and topics including what it means to have a uterus, or grappling with gender identity.
“I’m drawing on all of the things that the women and, you know, feminist-minded people before us have given us and shown us the way to step away from certain frameworks,” she says. “I’m reflecting on how I can work from a feminist lens in a more intelligent way, and what does that mean, and how is my perspective on feminism changing?” In her 2018 work fantasylover, Martin developed a narrative about Tessa Virtue, Annie Lennox, Ferdinand King of Navarre and a millennial named Nikkole who are on a quest to find a feminist utopia.
While previous works drew heavily on pop culture references, with hollow mountain Martin wanted to create something that didn’t reference other texts. “We started exploring different movement, and every day everyone wrote stream of consciousness journaling,” she explains. The original songs by Herauf drew on selections from the journals. As character arcs became clear, the group adjusted and experimented with the narrative to make it less literal or grounded in their personal lives. “Everyone knows when we’ve made the right choice,” says Martin. “There’s a sort of cohesion that happens to the room and we say, ‘Oh, that seemed to work.’ ”
The creation process spanning fourteen months was their longest to date and involved residencies at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, supported by Canada Council for the Arts; the Walter Carsen Centre, supported by The National Ballet of Canada’s CreativAction Open Space program; Canadian Stage, supported by RBC Artist Residency Program; and the Winchester Street Theatre supported by Toronto Dance Theatre and Toronto Arts Council. These residencies, says Martin, were helpful in accelerating the work’s creation while allowing time for refining ideas and presenting work to small audiences to gather feedback.
Martin says that at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was uninspired and anxious, but she is now ready to consider how Rock Bottom can move forward. “I took time to reconnect with dance and think about how to be a better, more considerate artist to keep growing and learning and think about the systems that we grew up in,” she says. Martin’s commission for Toronto Dance Theatre, Bin Chicken — which was inspired by a trip to Sydney, Australia, and trash-eating birds known as “bin chickens,” was postponed in March, and she hopes to be able to present it in the fall.
Meanwhile, the Rock Bottom group is planning a retreat on a farm where they can work on creative solutions to presenting dance while observing health guidelines before they are stuck inside again for the winter. As for Martin, she is staying connected to movement by dancing around her apartment, teaching Pilates and cycling. “Artists are so resilient,” she says. “I think if we’re all listening to each other, and if everybody contributes in a way that they can, we can build something meaningful that can exist in this way of working.”