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In the Studio | En Studio

Alison Denham: playing in space | espace de jeu

By Megan Andrews
  • Photos by/de Peter Eastwood and/et Chris Randle

“It is the role of the interpreter that deeply resonates with me and where I focus my attention. I’m continually working on my body and my technical abilities while also looking outside those boundaries into what other aspects of my life I can draw upon to make something work - to make it real - so that if someone asks me to try something, I can be physically healthy, available and open to taking emotional risks.
“My interest is in working with many different artists. The contrasts in movement vocabulary, creative processes and artistic sensibilities keep me curious and challenged. Some come naturally and some feel uncomfortable, but they’re all engaging. With every new project there’s an opportunity to see where else I can go as a dancer.
“Being a dancer is a powerful position and I am most fulfilled when there’s a sense that my artistry and a choreographer’s vision have met.”
- Alison Denham


« C’est le rôle de l’interprète qui a le plus de résonance pour moi et sur lequel je concentre mon énergie. Je travaille mon corps et ma capacité technique continuellement, tout en me tournant au-delà de ces frontières, vers d’autres aspects de ma vie qui peuvent être des sources pour créer quelque chose qui marche, qui est vrai. Ainsi, si quelqu’un me demande de faire quelque chose, je peux être saine physiquement et capable de prendre des risques sensibles.
« Travailler avec plusieurs artistes m’intéresse. Les contrastes de gestuelle, de processus de création et de sensibilité artistique piquent ma curiosité et me mettent au défi. Parfois, les propositions en studio me viennent naturellement, parfois elles sont inconfortables, mais toujours, elles sont intéressantes. Avec chaque nouveau projet, il y a une occasion de découvrir une autre facette de mon travail d’interprète.
« L’interprète à un rôle de pouvoir et mon sentiment d’accomplissement est à son comble lorsque mon travail d’artiste et la vision du chorégraphe se rejoignent. »
- Alison Denham


Originally from the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Alison Denham moved to Vancouver to attend the dance program at Arts Umbrella and the Ballet British Columbia Mentor Program. From 2000 through 2005 she danced with Toronto’s Dancemakers under the artistic direction of Serge Bennathan. Ali has worked with many choreographers in Toronto and Vancouver including Wen Wei Wang, Alvin Erasga Tolentino, Lola MacLaughlin and Peggy Baker, among others. She is the 2006 recipient of the Isadora Award for Excellence in Performance. Ali is currently involved in new creations with Out Innerspace Dance Theatre (Tiffany Tregarthen and David Raymond), Simone Orlando, The Plastic Orchid Factory (James Gnam), and Tribal Crackling Wind (Peter Chin).

Native de la Sunshine Coast en Colombie-Britannique, Alison Denham se rend à Vancouver pour participer au programme de danse de Arts Umbrella et au programme de stagiaire de Ballet British Columbia. De 2000 à 2005, elle danse au sein de Dancemakers sous la direction artistique de Serge Bennathan. Ali travaille avec de nombreux chorégraphes à Toronto et à Vancouver y compris Wen Wei Wang, Alvin Erasga Tolentino, Lola MacLaughlin et Peggy Baker. En 2006, elle est lauréate du prix Isadora pour l’excellence en arts de la scène. Actuellement, elle participe à de nouvelles créations avec Out Innerspace Dance Theatre (Tiffany Tregarthen et David Raymond), Simone Orlando, The Plastic Orchid Factory (James Gnam), et Tribal Crackling Wind (Peter Chin).


In your artistic statement you say that, “Being a dancer is a powerful position”. I think of so many stories about the opposite situation, in which a dancer is at the beck and call of the choreographer, with no voice whatsoever. How do you experience power as a dancer?

What I find powerful is that dancers are the representatives of the work. There’s this responsibility to the choreographer’s vision, which, depending on the chemistry between individuals, can sometimes be a difficult process. I think dancers are such an important aspect of the work and, in my opinion, often get the least amount of respect. If you stripped away the elements of performance - lighting, costumes, sound, set, etc. - you’d be left with the work that the choreographer and the dancers have done together. I think both entities deserve an equal amount of credit for bringing the choreography to life.


As a performer, one spends most of one’s time in rehearsal and very little time overall actually performing. Therefore, it’s important to really enjoy creative process. What do you find most engaging and rewarding about being in the studio with a choreographer? What works for you and what doesn’t?

In creative process, I am up for anything if I can feel that the choreographer is honestly exploring something. I appreciate people who are serious about their work but have a sense of humour and communicate openly with dancers as to what they are trying to do. Then there’s a sense that altogether we know where we are trying to go and can accept failure in the process. I have been involved in work that asks for an extreme amount of technical detail and I enjoy the daily attempts to master these tasks. I also find a lot of freedom in structured improvisation or being asked to create my own movement within a context. Partly why I am drawn to working with different people are these differences in process. I won’t deny that there are days when I feel resistant to what I am asked to do. Too much of one way of working can drain me, but I am determined to keep that to myself and tackle whatever is asked of me. Some days I just feel creatively empty and would rather be told what to do. Other days I am brimming with energy and want to create movement and experiment. My favorite thing about dance is that I am an adult who gets to play on a regular basis with a bunch of fun people in a big open space. I couldn’t ask for a better job.


In your artistic statement, you note that you’re always working on your body. Obviously there’s the overall need to stay fit and healthy. I’m curious to understand a little more specifically what you are working on. Can you elaborate on your approach to training?

I see training as a chance to work on the relationship between engagement and release, as a tool for dynamics in my quality and for longevity in my career. I spent many years working with pure force and I am realizing that this is one-dimensional and can’t be sustained. I find Pilates is pivotal in balancing my structural differences and for strength and stabilization. I am working on being aware of my entire body at all times, so I can avoid injury and approach the demands on my body in a healthy and efficient way. As I get older, I am definitely noticing the wear and tear from dancing. I approach movement from more of a relaxed place than I did ten years ago. I try to use just the right amount of energy for each movement, giving everything the value that it needs to work. I feel this gives me more dimension - choosing when to push the energy and when to pull it back.


Related to staying healthy, nutrition is a key element. What choices do you make in general to ensure that your body is getting what it needs to replenish from the demands of daily intense physical exertion?

I drink a lot of water. I am convinced that dehydration causes many problems emotionally and physically.

Artists often talk about “openness”. You note that you aim to be “available and open to taking risks”. I think this ability to be open is required both in rehearsal and in performance, though perhaps it’s slightly different in each context. Can you describe what this state feels like for you? How do you cultivate this state in your body/self?

The openness I strive for in rehearsal is this feeling that the work is beyond the individuals. It’s something bigger and needs space to figure itself out. Resistance doesn’t facilitate progress so I try to be non-judgmental of myself, the choreographers and the other dancers, to be willing to try whatever is asked of me with curiosity even when my inner critic might rear its head. I will voice my opinion when asked or when I strongly feel it’s necessary. Generally, when there’s tension or doubt in the room, I try even harder to be positive.


You’ve worked with numerous choreographers, many of whom make very technical work, Serge Bennathan and Wen Wei Wang, for example. For some, including these two, the emotional investment required is as important and challenging. Have you ever been asked to do something you weren’t sure you could? What was it and how did you approach the situation?

I’ve never been asked to do something that I wouldn’t at least try. There’ve been times when I could feel my technical ability wasn’t proficient enough for certain tasks but I would keep trying ‘til I got it or the choreographer changed it to work better for me. The first time I was asked to perform nude, I hesitated. That was a whole lot of exposing myself. I decided I wanted to do it though because I wanted to be okay about my body. To prepare myself, I started being a model for life drawing classes and I got over my shyness pretty quickly. In my first year with Dancemakers, Serge Bennathan was creating The Satie Project. One day he started making a solo for me and then he put it at the beginning of the piece. I felt this intense pressure as the youngest dancer in the company to open the show. I felt anxious and nervous about it up until opening night at the Canada Dance Festival. I actually felt like I might throw up backstage at the five-minute call. I collected myself and realized that it was an honour to do my solo at the top of the show and it was my chance to step up as a dancer.


While some dance works involve narrative and character or character-like figures, much contemporary dance is abstracted from such conventions. As a performer in story- or character-based work, one can draw from the plot or persona to fulfill the movement expression and bring it to life. As a performer in more abstract work, it is still essential to anchor the movement itself within a deeply embodied “world” - to “make it real” as you say in your artistic statement. Inside an abstract work - how do you develop this motivational through-line, if we can call it that, for yourself?

It depends on how much information the choreographer has given me about intent and context. I will ask questions related to motivation if I am struggling, but generally I just make it up for myself. Sometimes it’s purely kinetic: reactions to how the movement feels, the dynamics between the other performers onstage, the mood of the lighting and the music. Other times I relate things to my own life, create stories, scenarios and characters. I trust the choreographer to redirect me if they notice something I’m doing isn’t working for them. I had a big imagination as a child so I have no problem making worlds up for myself.

While performing, what filters through your awareness? Are you focussed on bodily sensations, physical/technical elements, etc.? How aware are you of the audience when you’re performing and how does their presence register for you?

I definitely notice the audience when I’m performing. It almost feels like a type of radiating heat coming off them. I am aware that they are witnessing as I try to stay focussed on the work. I concentrate on keeping my mind clear of excess thoughts. I focus on bodily sensation, my inner dialogue and interaction with the other dancers to keep myself from wondering who’s in the audience or self-judging what I’m doing in the moment. Some shows are magically integrated and I feel like I transcend being human. Other shows aren’t as successful and I go in and out of being caught in my head.


Have you ever fallen, wiped out, tripped or otherwise “changed” the choreography accidentally in performance? How did you recover?

Onstage at the Premiere Dance Theatre in Toronto performing Wen Wei Wang’s Unbound, I was running in a big circle around the stage when I slipped on sweat and went hurtling forward. I somehow rolled right out of it and kept running without breaking the flow. My heart was pounding in my chest and as I kept dancing I remember thinking, “Am I hurt?” , but I couldn’t register all the details of my body because I was so charged.

How would you describe the feeling of your most rewarding performing experience?

There have been many rewarding performances. There was something so incredible about the ensemble energy of every performance with Dancemakers. We were so connected and so well rehearsed. Performing Lola MacLaughlin’s Provincial Essays in Toronto the same day that she passed away was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. It was such an honour to dance her work on that day and be able to grieve her in that way.


You note that it’s the role of the interpreter that resonates for you as an artist; yet, you have begun to choreograph as well lately. What have you discovered in your experience making work that informs your process as a performer? How different is it for you to perform your own work versus that of others?

I would much rather choreograph on other people. I don’t like the all-encompassing responsibility of dancing my own work. I love working with dancers, drawing things out of them, being inspired by them. I see my choreography and my dancing as very separate crafts. Strangely enough, I feel more freedom as an interpreter in other people’s work than in my own.
 
Do you see yourself further developing your choreographic voice in the future, to the point where you may transition more into choreography than performance?

I will definitely continue to explore choreography but at this point I don’t have aspirations to fully engage in it. Images and ideas drop into my head and then I feel like I need to make a piece. Choreograph
is a whole other world for me and I don’t know if it will ever have a hold over me the same way that dancing does. Things shift and change though, so we’ll see what unfolds.

Alison Denham performs Firebird by Simone Orlando and the Turning Point Ensemble from March 2nd through 5th at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, Vancouver. | Alison Denham, présente Firebird de Simone Orlando et Turning Point Ensemble du 2 au 5 mars au Vancouver East Cultural Centre, Vancouver.

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