Toronto-based choreographer Alysa Pires created the lively MAMBO in the midst of winter for Ballet Kelowna last January. The work, which was her first commission for the company, also marks the Fall for Dance North appearance of the Okanagan company, who will be performing the work October 2 and 4 at the Ryerson Theatre.
I assisted Pires during the creation process and I got to experience her warm energy echo through the studio. During this time, Pires and I discussed dance, of course, but also gender norms, life experiences and how to create brighter futures for emerging choreographers.
Emilie Durville You are a choreographic success story. Was being a choreographer always your goal? Can you talk a bit about your trajectory, from training to where you are now?
Alysa Pires I started choreographing as soon as I began dancing. I never had a moment of realization; I always knew. My mum was working in theatre, and it was clear to me that it was a job I could have.
When I enrolled in Ryerson University, I got to create a lot. They were very supportive and gave me a lot of opportunities. Even though I thought I would dance before choreographing, my first opportunity was to choreograph for a play. Later, I did a choreographic development project with Canada’s Ballet Jörgen where I made a duet. I sent the video of this work and the ones I’d made with my friends to everyone, everywhere. I applied to everything. It took about two years before I started my first commission for Citie Ballet in Edmonton, where later I created two other pieces.
I believe I was fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right moment. Part of it definitely has to do with luck, but you also have to be ready.
ED When you get a commission for a new work, what do you start with in the creation process? Does the work begin prior to getting into the studio?
AP Companies usually come with something specific, like a theme. For the ones in smaller cities, they want to present something that is accessible for their audience. So, for example, choosing music that is well-known is a way to invite the audience in, and then they don’t have to be scared of a more abstract work, like MAMBO.
However, I don’t always have music. My starting point typically comes from an image I have. From there, we start to make a puzzle and try to get out of it. Ballet dancers often try to reset because they are trying to resolve the problem, while contemporary dancers are comfortable being in it. If I do come with music, it becomes the most important part of the process.
ED In that line, do you take a different approach when choreographing on commission or when the impetus comes from you (e.g. making a Fringe show)?
AP I am fortunate enough that I have experienced very little interference. In the studio there is almost no difference. When I make a non-commissioned piece, I also have to write grants, find money, be a lighting designer, wash costumes, etc., which is more tiring. When I have an idea that I’m passionate about, I want to be able to do it with my people; however, I’m adaptable and it inspires me to work with new dancers. I like coming back to companies because we can build relationships and they have a better understanding of what I am looking for.
ED Do you think there are enough supports in place for emerging choreographers?
AP No, there could be more. Free studio space is often facilitated for choreographers, but working on your craft without worrying about the result is more rare. I participated in a choreographic lab outside London, UK, and through those ten days, I had to confront myself and not worry about the product. We just got to play in the studio with incredible dancers that were paid to be there. It is there that I found who I was as a choreographer and what I wanted to say. Even the conversations with the facilitator were very helpful. An experience like this is rare in Canada. Dance Victoria created something similar after I had a conversation with Stephen White about my experience.
ED There has been a lot of discussion lately about a lack of support for women choreographers in large dance companies. Do you see this as a barrier for your career? Do things need to change?
AP I would love to hear a male choreographer talk about how his gender has been an advantage to his career. The patriarchy runs deep. The issues faced by female choreographers are the same issues faced by women in positions of power in every field.
Financially speaking, a girl with the same ability would not get the scholarship because a boy is more rare, due to conditioned ideas on gender norms.
When the choreographic opportunity comes, men might also have had more time to play in the studio, prepare and develop their skills because women are busier being in all the corps of every ballet. If a man fails, he is more likely to have a second chance. A woman is expected to arrive perfect, without the luxury of the exposure of the training and experience.
How can we fix it? Give women more opportunities when they are developing. If they’re not perfect, give them a second chance. Also, when a female choreographer gets commissioned in bigger companies, are they really giving her a chance? Is the company setting her up for success? Are they giving her the right resources? The ballet world is a nut you can’t crack, so to have this opportunity at the NBoC, to help me in that way, it’s huge.
ED Your piece MAMBO is being performed in this years’ Fall for Dance North Festival. What do you want viewers to know about that work before seeing it?
AP MAMBO was created at a time when my life and the world were in a political unrest, with natural disasters. It was winter. It was dark. I needed to create an environment around me that was inspiring. So MAMBO is fun, it’s light, it’s romantic, it’s silly. The audience already has the tools to understand what they are experiencing just because they live a life.
ED What advice do you have for emerging choreographers or dancers who are thinking about heading in that direction?
AP As dance artists, we can’t wake up in the middle of the night and write or paint or draw. We need resources, space and time, so it’s harder to allow oneself to fail when there are people and money involved in the process.
Take the time to find out what you want to say, what is unique about your voice and allow it to change. Why is dance the vehicle for it? Give value in taking the time to figure it out and put yourself into situations when you get bored. Create opportunities to work on your craft without necessarily sharing it, and don’t be shy to reach out to people for help.