It’s not easy to be a solo dancer, filling out a program and keeping the audience engaged and focussed all by yourself. Margie Gillis does it brilliantly; so does Peggy Baker. And so does the up-and-coming Jolene Bailie.
The twenty-seven-year-old Winnipeg dancer is busy establishing herself as one of that rare breed called soloist. Last March, Bailie was at the Ninth International Solo Dance-Theatre Festival in Stuttgart, and the six performances of Chasing Bliss at the Vancouver Fringe Festival are part of her third national Fringe tour.
In Chasing Bliss, Bailie performs as if she is in love with the act of dancing, sweeping the audience up with her in the exhilarating physicality of her art form. The mixed bill of four solos was well chosen, especially for the theatre crowd who attends the Fringe. It includes lots of character-driven movement, with passion and humour more often than mysterious angst. Chasing Bliss is a warm, accessible show, the kind that makes everyone understand why someone would be attracted to this art form in the first place. The vitality of the moment was tangible, and worries about what the works were about fell by the wayside. Not that Bailie panders to the lowest common denominator. It’s just that in her hands and feet even the most modern abstractions become the bliss.
Bailie has a wide-ranging repertoire, on this program presenting choreography that spans decades and countries. One work is a tribute by Mexican-American choreographer José Limón to Isadora Duncan, the Dionysian innovator who danced barefoot on early twentieth-century stages. Limón’s 1971 “Dances for Isadora”, set to Frederic Chopin, was mounted on Bailie by Limón Dance Company artistic associate and past dancer Nina Watt.
Bailie presented the five-part work at July 2005’s Dancing on the Edge Festival. Here, we saw an excerpt, “La Patrie”. Why the present performance, which I saw on opening night, was more nuanced and emotionally rich is hard to say, although at the time of the Edge show, Bailie was in the midst of a punishing schedule and had arrived in Vancouver very late the night before she opened. In any case, instead of the full-length outline we saw at the Edge, this was a miniature but complete portrait of Duncan in full-blown revolutionary mode. In a flowing red tunic, Bailie turns and skips, her arms flung wide as if embracing all the political ideals Duncan championed after her encounter with Socialist Russia. When Bailie holds aloft a rectangle of fabric in the same shade of flaming red as her costume, she becomes heroic Duncan, fully convinced of the importance of her dance.
Another work from the archives was Rachel Browne’s “Freddy”. Winnipeg-based choreographer Browne brought this work to Vancouver’s Dancing on the Edge Festival the year of its premiere, 1991, and images of the delightfully campy solo, set to music by Kurt Weill and performed by Sharon Moore, have stayed with me since. Bailie presented an excerpt entitled “Tango”, although if she had danced the whole work it might have filled out the under-an-hour-long evening.
In “Tango”, Bailie performs as a mustachioed lover. She fulfills whole-heartedly the fellow’s lovelorn, silent-screen-style movement and then, somehow, for the second half, metamorphoses into a perky cabaret dancer.
The evening opened and closed with more abstract pieces, beginning with the premiere of one of Bailie’s own choreographies, “Bell/Anti-Bell,” and ending with Joe Laughlin’s “walking thru myself”, created for Bailie in 2003. In “Bell/Anti-Bell,” Bailie gave herself the kind of pretzel-making shapes and split legs that sometimes obliterate any real interpretive interest. Not so here. In a partially transparent purple tunic, she moves from yoga pose to gymnastic excess so smoothly it seems inevitable. Set to a score by Brett Dean that features spooky-sounding violins and a telephone operator’s annoying instructions, the piece seems to touch on modern day alienation, but Bailie is no modern dance automaton. Despite her extreme physicality, she remains warm and human.
This is partly the result of the way she dares show emotion in her face. Bailie is a woman first, a dancer by calling. This is even more clearly expressed in Laughlin’s experienced choreographic hands. Laughlin has created character pieces before, notably in the cross-dressing “Harold, Billy, Stan and Jack.” In “walking thru myself”, character is less defined than in that 1997 piece, but nonetheless personality infuses the movement with the kind of juice Bailie relishes.
The stage is strewn with letters of the alphabet. At the start, the words The End are briefly lit upstage. Clad in moss green pieces of fabric that form a top and skirt, Bailie crashes through a series of angular movements to a score by Sheila Chandra and the Ganges Orchestra. She’s a flirtatious waif and sometimes a lost child, as she collapses to the floor, lifts her foot to her mouth and kisses it, and sticks her bottom in the air. “The world of words is meaningless” is heard on the soundtrack, but to close, The End is lit once more as Bailie turns to us, and smiles. The words do make sense!
Now I will briefly digress to talk about the words in the performance program, which did not make sense or, at least, did not convey much meaningful information. Disappointingly, press excerpts focussing on Bailie’s performance were the only description for three of the pieces. Press has its place, but a note about the works themselves, including dates, would have been appreciated.
As for the thoroughly uplifting Chasing Bliss, it was the kind of show to which you could bring someone –- anyone -– new to dance and be confident they would not feel mystified and alienated. I’d like to see Jolene Bailie perform in a more formal venue, one where she could forget the excerpts, have an intermission if needed, and really take both herself and the audience on a journey.
First off, thank you for showing interest in my recent performances and posting a review on your website. I’d like to respond to the mention of including press quotes in the program. This was my third fringe tour and last year I asked viewers, my fellow fringers from the tour, my audience, my family and friends what would make the show more accessible for non-dance audiences as this was a big obstacle. It was pretty well consistent across the board that program notes would be helpful. However, last season, when I approached some of the choreographers and suggested to include these, they were not interested so as I did not want to speak for them I did not include them. However, last year Rachel Browne suggested that I should include press quotes as an aid to the public, so I did start this half-way through the tour and have continued to do so since then, when performing for inexperienced audiences. This year, to follow up I asked some of my returning audience members who I have grown to know over the three years of touring how they liked them and they all agreed that it helped to jumpstart their imagination, get them going and transist in the pauses in between the pieces. With the quotes in mind they could start to think about what may come next. I know that most dance community shows do not include press quotes. However, they are playing to houses that hold a majority of experienced audiences and in general dance fans. In the fringe festival the majority of my audiences are first time, and often very sceptical modern dance viewers and the media is really your life line. For example, you are competing with 140 other companies presenting 7 shows each all in the same 10 days. People want some sort of testimonial to help them chose one show over another and you must create your own buzz. Also, word of mouth is the absolute best form of promotion on the fringe circuit. By including some media review quotes in the program every patron has in fact read some sort of critical response which then in turn can help promote the show as they may say to their friend or someone in a line up for another show, I saw a great show at the fringe and you should go and see it and it has had rave reviews across the country. So while my current practices of including media hoopla in my programs in not at all in fashion in the modern dance clique, neither is the fringe. The media quotes are simply a way of offering different perspectives on the works from different people from various parts of the country to help virgin viewers feel more confident to let their own imagination run free. By offering several different media quotes and descriptions, the viewer immediately understands that there is no one right or wrong thing to “get” and lets them see that one person may see something completely different in each of the works and that this is to be expected.
As for the mention of dates, I agree and I will start listing them. As I am one person doing every single job necessary to get a show up (including sweeping the floor 2 minutes before the house is let in) it’s hard to think up all the answers.
Thanks for the tip!
Once again, thank you for posting the review.