They say you can’t go home again. But for Winnipeg choreographer Stephanie Ballard, “home” is always as close as the nearest dance studio or stage. Ballard’s deeply personal “Homeagain” is a celebration of her passion for dance as well as an homage to all those who create it. The seventy-minute production, which premiered at Winnipeg’s Gas Station Theatre, also pays significant tribute to legendary founding artistic director of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Rachel Browne, who made a rare onstage appearance during the show’s two performances. The work is formally dedicated to Ballard’s friend, mentor and longtime companion Arnold Spohr, who passed away last April.
Billed as an intergenerational work, it is indeed that, with its all-female company of dancers ranging from the youngest at age twenty-two to Browne at seventy-five. Each brings their unique gifts and varying levels of experience to the stage while becoming creative muse for Ballard’s vision. The production flows as a series of living portraits, with its thirteen solos performed by Robyn Thomson Kacki, Paula Blair, Rachel Cooper, Kristin Haight, Freya Olafson, Leslie Crozier, Kathleen Hiley, Nicole Owens, Arlo Basker-Nabess, D-Anne Kuby, Nina Patel, Odette Heyn-Penner and Browne.
A grande dame of Winnipeg’s vibrant dance community, Ballard is a former company member and associate artistic director with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, whose work as choreographer and artistic advisor for Margie Gillis has included thirteen years of extensive touring. She is a recipient of the Clifford E. Lee, Jean A. Chalmers and Jacqueline Lemieux awards, and is a founding Director of Mouvement/Winnipeg Dance Projects. Ballard is also an indefatigable dance archivist and co-founder of the Winnipeg Dance Preservation Initiative. A second Winnipeg pillar is Philadelphia-born Browne, who has enjoyed a long history as WCD’s former artistic director, resident choreographer, teacher, mentor, advisor and friend to its countless dancers over the past forty-plus years. Browne also founded the School of Contemporary Dancers in 1972, and continues to inspire young dancers by creating work for its Senior Professional Program each year. She remains active as a choreographer, with her newest work premiering this November during WCD’s mixed repertoire show.
The highly theatrical “Homeagain” incorporates a constant play with perspective that features Ballard’s own costume, set and lighting design: there are tiny baby shoes on chair legs, and the dancers wear voluminous wigs and tulle crinolines under dramatic gowns. As well, mysterious veils and inky black shrouds obscure the dancers’ faces, and many of the costumes, including pedestrian tunics and trousers, are black (a Ballard hallmark), creating a world tinged with melancholy. But there are also touches of innocent whimsy: oddly decorative floral headpieces; a dancer’s hand fleetingly brushed across a cheek; another dancer resting her head on a wooden chair in quirky puzzlement.
Many of the individual pieces prove the adage that less is more, as Ballard artfully crafts her images like choreographic jewels to exploit her dancers’ acting skills. Hiley cuts a figure as tragic as a Tolstoy heroine, sitting in a sea of dark fabric while her beautifully expressive face tells her ambiguous tale. Patel, eight months pregnant, evokes the eternal continuity of generations. Dressed in luminous white tulle complete with pearl choker and gloves, she suggests a courtly — albeit cryptic — Marie Antoinette figure. Holding her gaze steady, Patel’s elegantly gloved fingers creep through her skirts as she reposes like an all-knowing stately queen.
Other solos are more forceful, providing dynamic contrast as well as a taste of Ballard’s eclecticism. Basker-Nabess appears like an exotically plumed bird with her lyrical arms stretching into the darkness. Her solo becomes a study in detail, with single body isolations creating a fascinating interplay of movement. Haight springs onto the stage like a capricious harlequin, dressed in a bright red tank top and black leotard. Her solo alternates between sharp attack and undulating fluidity, with deep lunges and trembling limbs highlighting her powerful athleticism. A heavily cloaked Cooper remains centre stage — as do many of the performers — until she walks resolutely to the front.
A sense of fragility runs like a thread throughout the show, as when Olafson suddenly crumples to the floor like a puppet whose strings have broken, only to rise again. A wide-eyed, bustier-clad Thomson Kacki enters the stage in a state of wonder, then rips her blonde wig off as daring self-revelation.
“Homeagain” also celebrates mature dance artists whose presence on Winnipeg’s stages has been missed. A former WCD company member during the 1980s, Kuby possesses a quiet inner strength that younger dancers could take a page from. As she silently tiptoes around a square of light cast onstage, her arms stretch skywards as if cherry-picking from memory trees. Stepping inside the light becomes an act of courage – or defiance – until she comes to rest onstage curled in a fetal position. Heyn-Penner, dressed in a simple black jersey dress, also begins in silence. Her clenched fists that open to cupped hands, quick floor rolls and backwards foot kicks show her natural grace and purity of expression.
But it’s Browne who nearly stops the show. When she suddenly steps onto the stage for the electrifying, climactic, thirteenth solo, it felt as though the entire audience collectively stopped breathing. As she silently moves to a thinly backed wooden chair escorted by Heyn-Penner, I couldn’t help but recall her poignant duet, “Flowering” (2005), which the two women performed during the renaming of the Rachel Browne Theatre in 2008. Stretching her arms outwards while gently swaying on her chair, it’s as though she is embracing the entire modern dance community she has helped create, as matriarch, elder, wise woman. As black-and-white film footage of Browne’s face is projected on a large screen, the stage slowly fills with the dancers who stand at her side as living totems to her legacy. I heard many open sobs in the audience as Browne turned to witness her own flickering, fading image. Although her appearance onstage is brief — lasting merely minutes — Browne’s dignified presence grounds the entire work just as she has served as bedrock for Winnipeg’s dance community for nearly half a century. This singular moment seemed to encapsulate her life’s work like no other, going for the emotional jugular with a force I have seldom seen.
Born of passion, the decidedly introspective work is not without flaw. Some of its emotional multi-layers ran so deep as to lie beyond comprehension. The reasons for certain movement choices, and their meaning, at times became as abstract as the dancers’ unintelligible mutterings, and I wished to have been privy to the numerous conversations that doubtless occurred during the creative process. The atmospheric score consisting entirely of the great Maria Callas singing classic arias also began to take on an overly homogenous quality after an hour-plus of essentially the same musical texture. Several of the arias trail off or end abruptly, which opera aficionados would find especially unsettling.
But still, this is dance, and “Homeagain” is not only an inspiring reflection of Ballard’s lifelong dedication to the art form, but also a moving testament to its very essence. Most of all, it is a powerful tribute to the legions of women who have created modern dance in this country, leaving a legacy so that future generations may follow — and flourish — in their courageous footsteps.