A handful of masked visitors mill about Morrow’s bright, open studio space in downtown Vancouver to mark the launch of Peter Dickinson’s My Vancouver Dance History: Story, Movement, Community, a new book about dance in the city. The book launch and artist salon — featuring Ziyian Kwan, who runs Morrow as a pop-up venue for her company, Dumb Instrument Dance — was one of seven such events in early September, each one highlighting a different artist or company that Dickinson writes about, and each one with a limited number of guests at any one time due to COVID-19 protocols.
The venue itself, and the convergence of visitors during these artist salons, demonstrates one of the themes of Dickinson’s book: the interconnectedness of the city’s dance community and the way that physical spaces and the encounters therein contribute to the building of that community.
The space certainly made possible my own experience of sharing a glass of wine and a great conversation with two members of the Vancouver dance community: Kwan, who has been dancing in Vancouver for over 30 years, and Shanny Rann, a PhD student in Simon Fraser University’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies department who studies the anthropology of music and dance and edits Dance Central, a publication of The Dance Centre.
Dickinson, who is a professor in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser, approaches his writings on dance from a largely academic perspective. Over the years, though, his role as an academic and critic has sometimes evolved into working with dance artists as a collaborator, outside eye, performer or documentarian. This history focuses on the ten-year period (2008-2018) that coincides with his years of active reviewing on his blog, Performance, Place, and Politics.
Counterintuitively, this history of Vancouver dance begins with the author stating, “I do not pretend to be a very good dance historian.” Likewise, Dickinson does not claim to have authority as an ethnographer, and he acknowledges on multiple occasions that his involvement with some of the works discussed may cause some readers to question his “critical distance.”
This is especially true for the collaborations involving setting movement for his own plays, with Rob Kitsos for The Objecthood of Chairs and Lesley Telford for Long Division. However, he argues that these close relationships don’t get in the way of his ability to analyze their works. I tend to agree, especially for the purposes of academic inquiry. Where things may become muddier is the question of writing as a critic and whether a certain closeness to the work endangers the necessary critical perspective.
The project that inspired this book, Our Present Dance Histories, was a collaboration with Justine A. Chambers and Alexa Mardon from 2015 to 2017. The project mapped connections among the dance community through video interviews with 53 local dance artists, resulting in an installation at The Dance Centre and archival documentation of a moment in Vancouver dance history.
A detailed description of this project is featured as one of the main chapters in Dickinson’s book. Elsewhere he describes his collaborative projects or relationships with some of the city’s well-known companies and artists while situating their work in relation to current and historical contexts and academic concepts. For those interested in this deep and thorough investigation of the many ideas raised by each artist and their work, this will be a fascinating read that weaves these connections into the description and offers plenty of inspiration and citations for further reading.
Other voices add to the discussion and break up the academic analysis through excerpts from interviews, program notes, poetry, reviews and blog posts. Dickinson describes his collaboration with Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg in exploring humour as ethnographic practice as the experience that prompted him to assert, “If [he] wanted to talk the talk with respect to dance in Vancouver that so compelled [him], then [he] would also have to walk the walk.”
Barbara Bourget and Jay Hirabayashi, artistic directors of Kokoro Dance, co-producers of the Vancouver International Dance Festival and founding members of the iconic contemporary dance collective EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music), have a chapter dedicated to their dance histories that also includes Dickinson’s Wreck Beach Butoh Boot Camp diary — documenting the experience of preparing for the gruelling performance that has run annually since 1995 on Vancouver’s clothing-optional beach. The diary entries add a refreshing change in style from academic to personal, and they have a dynamic story arc of their own. Perhaps one of the most interesting additions to this chapter is a set of Wreck Beach Butoh choreographic instructions such as “boy riding turtle” and “Chef’s splash dance.”
Kwan and Vanessa Goodman, artistic director of Action at a Distance, share a chapter that describes their unique styles as contemporary dance artists and some of their collaborative work. I found the lengthy discussion of Goodman’s Wells Hill particularly insightful with descriptions of the piece’s evolution and refinement from work-in-progress excerpts to a full-length premiere over two years later. The piece is inspired by the lives and work of Marshall McLuhan and Glenn Gould and prompted by the connections the two had to Goodman’s childhood home.
In between all of these chapters are what Dickinson calls “movement intervals” — short sections discussing broader topics relevant to dance in the city, such as finding appropriate and affordable space, the number and structure of dance companies, professional training opportunities and the proliferation of dance festivals (there are more festivals showcasing dance in Vancouver than in any other city in Canada). Each of these is bolstered by history and context that provide the reader with a strong understanding of the state of contemporary dance in Vancouver today.
While this book is a personal history, it may also serve as a crash course in who’s who in contemporary Vancouver dance and how they have shaped the city’s dance aesthetic and institutions, but there is one gap — none of the artists featured in the main chapters, and only two of the 53 interviewed for Our Present Dance Histories, are Indigenous.
While there is an acknowledgement of this — some discussion of the long history of Indigenous dance on these Coast Salish lands and a couple of review excerpts involving Indigenous companies — it is also telling that the author hasn’t interfaced more with Indigenous dance companies and artists. This is perhaps the result of an invisible barrier between two segments of the contemporary dance scene in Vancouver — one that we could do with breaking down.