When most people think of the prairies, they think flat, monotonous even. Five artistic directors disagree, and they’re proving their point with a tour that propels prairie dance to new heights.
The Prairie Dance Circuit (PDC) is the brainchild of presenters Brent Lott, Nicole Mion, Davida Monk, Robin Poitras and Brian Webb. Conceived at a meeting in a cabin on a Saskatchewan lake two summers ago, the PDC’s goal is to create a means of presentation and exchange between prairie dance artists.
In addition to promoting exchange between the artists on tour, the PDC presents an opportunity for communication and dialogue within the larger prairie dance community and its audience, giving it a broader scope than simply as a performance opportunity. This show particularly interested me, as I know many of the artists personally and professionally, to the point that one of them is in fact my roommate. Welcome to the tiny dance world. Many of us know one another, we take class, we work together, we observe one another in our choreographic and performance endeavors, we form opinions, we talk and we grow through sharing these ideas. So here are some ideas.
First on the bill was Edmonton-based choreographer Raena Waddell’s “The Surrender Method”. The duet premiered at Nextfest 2009 and was re-worked at the Expanse Movement Arts Festival in 2010, both in Edmonton. Waddell explores the idea of “relinquishing control to the random” and how this affects relationships. Waddell and dance partner Vincent Forcier enter the space with crawling, sinewy movements, like two creatures fumbling for one another in the near-darkness, and then a flashlight illuminates them. And another. The light is coming from the audience (the flashlights were handed out randomly at Waddell’s instruction). It occurs to me that perhaps the piece is not just about relinquishing control in relationships, but also as a choreographer. For various sections throughout the piece, the audience members with flashlights control which parts of the dance we can see. The dancers’ movements — grabbing, holding, supporting, restraining, reaching — illustrate many aspects of relationships, including the struggle to maintain independence. When the dancers touch, their paradox of need and frustration is obvious, but in sections where they move separately this relationship is less clear. The dancers’ internal focus prevented me, for one, from establishing a stronger connection with them but the audience as a whole stayed engaged through their participation in the lighting; there was a sense of collaboration between performer and viewer.
The tour was designed to include artists from Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Winnipeg, but when Regina’s Joelle Arnusch and Robert Regala were unable to appear, Edmonton’s emerging Good Women Dance Collective stepped in. Members Ainsley Hillyard, Alida Nyquist-Schultz and Alison Towne presented two trios: “Three Cell” by Nyquist-Schultz, and “lIve” choreographed by Towne. The first piece begins with the dancers in a sharp square of light at centre stage, executing slow, calculated movements against a soundscape of howling wind. The dancers leave the square one by one, with Hillyard looking over her shoulder at the audience as she goes, establishing a relationship between viewer and viewed. A series of start-and-stop runs to new locations create and dissolve relationships; trios, solos and duets form and reform fleetingly as the dancers navigate one another as friend or challenger. Eye contact and spatial relationships are strong between the dancers as they complete precise, isolated movements, sometimes in unison, sometimes alone. Acceleration and deceleration factor strongly: the audience experiences movement at a frenetic pace, which immediately drops into a slow-motion sensation, similar to the opening of the piece.
Their second piece is less clear and precise. Set to a recording of “Little Wing” by Jimi Hendrix, the program notes state that it was “a challenge and a pleasure to attempt to embody Hendrix’s music.” The physicality is certainly there: with running, sliding, whirling and flying bodies, it is fantastically energetic. But in addition to being physically demanding of the dancers, the work is difficult for the audience. Hendrix’s music is occasionally chaotic and the dance begins to look flailing, disorganized and under-rehearsed by the end (perhaps because of the Good Women’s role as pinch-hitter for this performance). Overall, this viewer would have appreciated a little bit of stillness (or silence) within the piece.
Winnipeg engineering technologist-turned-choreographer Andrew Milne took a more casual approach to his work. A duet for Johanna Riley and Sarah Roche of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, “Map” comes off as more of a study than a fully developed piece. During intermission, the dancers use green tape to create two boxes on the floor, chatting together intermittently. They stand in these boxes and count as they delineate eight levels in space. They then proceed to place different body parts at these levels, generating movement that appears choppy and pose-y. The piece continues in this vein, with the dancers dictating certain body parts to one another to initiate movements (ie. proximal arm, lower back) and a disembodied male voice giving them directions about spatial patterns and movements which cause them to cover more space. Riley surrounds Roche in concentric circles of tape while Roche tells a story about riding a bicycle in the rain; then Roche covers Riley in the tape, finally placing tape over her eyes, at which point the lights fade as Riley cautiously steps forward. The ending of this piece was clear, but otherwise the work was often confusing, repetitious and not particularly engaging. I found many sections continued for too long and the randomness of the text was frustrating. The un-taping and re-taping, which goes on throughout, was highly distracting and somewhat irritating. On a program that featured detailed and finished work, this piece was a little self-indulgent.
Closing the program, Calgary’s Jason Stroh presented “bang/crunch”, a stand-out solo set on dancer Hilary Maxwell. The dance opens with Maxwell lying in a distorted position on the floor, as if she has fallen from a height. Her limbs begin to twitch and small convulsions travel through her body but her focus remains forward. She sits up suddenly, gasping, as sounds of bells and wind chimes reverberate in the space. She seems sucked upstage, grasping toward us but ultimately pulled away, as if swept underwater by a rip current. After several attempts, she is able to stand, and looks around uncertainly. She stares at her body as though discovering it and we have a sense of her as a creature, awakening. Her body takes over, throwing her, pitching her, spinning her. We feel her effort, and we hear it in her gasps and grunts. She stumbles into a spotlight downstage left and we watch her go through phases of crying, gathering, rejecting, asking, marvelling, hoping, fearing, avoiding, reaching, offering, pointing, shooting, sleeping, kissing and fighting before she is sucked away again. She seems briefly in control of her body but then her movement becomes unsteady, crumpling. The bells return as she seems to offer us something in her hands before her knees buckle and she returns to the “broken” position we saw earlier. She inhales and her limbs float for a moment, then she sinks to the ground as the lights fade. This piece reads like we’re looking into an aquarium on a small, helpless creature, which is taken over by its body, awakens to its own potential, but is then overwhelmed by these same capabilities.
Although some of the works on this program were stronger than others (as expected on a mixed bill) the choreographers all took choreographic risks, some challenging form, others challenging the audience and still others raising emotional stakes. The dancing itself was strong and clear and the performance generated a conversation in the community that spanned a number of days. In addition to offering support to prairie dance artists who elect to stay in the prairies, the tour creates a forum for discussion, and that dialogue is critical to developing the art form. Overall, the Prairie Dance Circuit offers a glimpse of where prairie dance is going and the results are refreshing. Dance in the prairies is far from flat: It’s looking up.