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Fundamental Questions

How conflicting ideas about the goals of a mature dance collaboration derailed Banff Centre's Creative Gesture Residency in 2016 By Mark Mann
  • Dance artists and faculty, including Adi Salant, Tilman O’Donnell and Jermain Spivey, in the studio during Banff Centre’s Creative Gesture residency / Photo courtesy of Banff Centre
  • Anthony Lomuljo and Cecily Campbell, mid-career dancers and participants in The Creative Gesture rehearse for their performance in the Margaret Greenham theatre / Photo courtesy of Banff Centre

In July of 2016, Banff Centre ran a residency designed to answer the need for professional development opportunities for mid-career dance artists. By the end of the program, only five of the original ten participants remained. This is what happened. 

At some point in a dancer’s career, perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, she enters a stage that is conventionally called “the middle.” This transition brings both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, she will no longer be so dogmatically labelled as “emerging.” On the downside, many of the opportunities that were once available to her will disappear. 

Perhaps because the journey from the start to the middle of a dance career is so difficult, most programs for dancers are aimed at younger artists. Mid-career dancers enter a production cycle that affords them many opportunities to perform but rarely includes the sort of structured professional development that novice dancers might find at a summer intensive. To fill this gap for seasoned thirty-something artists, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity created a five-week residency called The Creative Gesture – Mid-Career Artists (July 4-August 6, 2016) with Emily Molnar of Vancouver as artistic director and Stephan Laks of Sweden (via Montréal) as program head. 

Dance at Banff Centre has traditionally had a conventional shape and classical focus. Residencies have been offered to dance companies, especially ballet ones but not to individual dancers. In the past, those dancers who did travel to Banff Centre have done so on the back of a larger apparatus expressly designed to produce performances on a stage, with a choreographer clearly at the controls. The Mid-Career Artists residency, however, proposed an experimental new direction: to focus on the interests and priorities of the dance artists themselves. 

As with most new creative endeavours, the Mid-Career Artists residency was inaugurated in a spirit of openness and possibility. In an email sent to the participants ahead of their arrival at Banff Centre, Laks summarized the program as “a chance for a pause, or a stop, in the stream of activities that make up our dance-related lives.” He expressed his hope that it would be a “source for ideas” and for “transitional motivations.” The email laid out a list of topics for inquiry, some of which would prove to be prophetic: “art for art’s sake vs art for society,” “the traditional role of interpreter and creator” and “how creation and artistic statement [are] shaped by necessity.” 

“After that email, it sounded like we were going to figure what this thing was together,” remembered Kate Holden, one of the participating dancers. “I understood from Stephan that we as artists would have a fair influence on how the program would be shaped.” 

But while the dancers prepared to embark on a more contemplative journey – some hoped to use the time to discern the next stage of evolution in their careers by engaging in a “speaking practice” with their peers – Banff Centre had already reached full institutional momentum toward a culminating performance, propelled by its significant financial investment in the residency. The ten participating artists were supported by the centre’s abundant, Alberta-infused resources (corporate donors include Enbridge, Husky, Suncor, Nexen and Shell): they were flown in from across Canada and around the world, offered room and board and paid a weekly stipend of $500. On the spectrum of Banff Centre residences, with pay-your-own-way at one end, this was far over on the swankier side. 

Beyond the travel budget and Banff Centre’s upscale cafeteria food, the residency was also bolstered by a very large cast and crew. The Brazilian choreographer Fernando Melo was invited to collaborate with the artists to create the final show (though in his email, Laks suggested the dancers think of Melo as a “facilitator”). Three other residencies ran concurrently to Creative Gestures, each supporting the creation of a performance: Designing for Dance, the Stage Management Practicum Program and Set/Costume/Lighting Design (the latter two programs also supported other performances by concurrent music and theatre residencies). Indeed, part of the stage installation for the performance had already been created months in advance. Along with the mid-career artists, a larger cohort of younger dancers formed an adjacent Emerging Artists residency, all of them eager to do their own culminating performance, which would form the first part of a double bill with the mid-career artists’ final production. Other accomplished choreographers – Tilman O’Donnell, Jermaine Spivey, Adi Salant – joined the Creative Gestures program on successive weeks, running workshops and contributing to both the Emerging and Mid-Career groups in their distinct ways. Ellen Lauren of the SITI Company in New York came for two weeks, in the role of dramaturge or outside eye. Also present were the lumbering mountains, an emerald river, a horrid tourist town and the occasional elk blithely wandering around in the morning. 

 

Into this massive artistic engine, the dancers arrived anticipating a generative space for reflection and discussion. For Cecily Campbell, a New York-based dancer, the program offered “an opportunity to study and research with a group of people who were not necessarily like-minded but who come from a shared level of experience and professionalism.” 

“My interest was really the communication between the people who were there,” observed Shumpei Nemoto, one of the participating dancers, on the phone from Japan after the end of the residency, echoing a common sentiment. By all accounts, the group consisted of highly accomplished dancers – international touring artists with extensive experience in different practices and settings – and everyone was excited to meet each other, to share and learn and to do something different. “When I knew the team [of dancers], I was really starstruck,” says Javier Perez, another dancer. “For me, it was more about the sharing. I wanted to learn from the others.” 

When it came to channelling that collective encounter into a public performance, however, the excitement faded. In fact, due to the emphasis on collaborative process and sharing, some of the dancers hadn’t quite realized that they would be doing a show at all, or at least not a full evening-length production with all the trappings. One dancer, Frances Chiaverini, had been directly invited to apply by Laks (they went to school together) and had come to the residency because she understood it to be a paid opportunity for exchange. During those initial conversations, “I said to him, ‘I’m not looking to perform in this context,’” she told me. “My career has come to a certain point where I’m more interested in a discourse and less interested in a performance.” According to Chiaverini, Laks reassured her that she was not being asked to perform. (For his part, Laks told me that he did confirm there was a performance aspect to the program in their conversations. “If that got lost somewhere in the communication, it was clearly articulated on the program’s web page and application process.”)

The issue of the performance became apparent on the first day of the residency, shortly after nine in the morning on Monday, July 4, during a tour of the property. While checking out the studios, the group came across a poster for their upcoming performance, advertised as “a new work by Fernando Melo.” Campbell found it to be a funny and awkward moment. The idea of doing a traditional performance – with a choreographer and interpreters – was so dissimilar to how she understood the aim of the residency that the poster struck her almost as an ironic joke. “They must understand, ‘Oh ok, sure, you have this poster, but we’re not actually going to do that somehow,’” she thought at the time. For Chiaverini, “I felt like it was a bit of a bait-and-switch.” 

Not everyone was so surprised by the impending performance – it had, after all, been listed on Banff Centre’s website and the program application from the beginning. Nemoto and Perez had both worked with Melo in the past, for example, and were eager to do so again. Still, the dancers couldn’t be faulted for not taking it too seriously. In his pre-arrival email, Laks had described the performance “as the metaphorical application of the conversations that we are having at the same time during the first four weeks” and suggested that there was something “good and ironic” in using the traditional format of creation “to motivate the questions that we are bringing with us.” 

 

In the first week of the residency, the group was able to delay the uncomfortable question of the performance and get down to the activity that interested many of them most: talking. Those first few days were spent in round-table discussions, addressing some of the most fundamental questions of what it means to dance professionally. They spoke about flattening hierarchies in the choreographer-dancer relationship, the meaning of success or failure in a performance and the ethics of attribution for a dance creation. “There was a lot of discussion around authorship and that being key for being able to invest in something,” Laks told me. “What is that authorship worth when you’re not recognized for it in credits?” 

Among all these discussions, the dancers came to question the need to perform at all. “There was an expressed lack of interest in performing, which was a surprise,” Laks recalled, speaking on the phone from Sweden after the residency. 

By the end of the first week, the dancers had spent so much time talking that it became difficult for them to contemplate standing up and actually moving together. According to Campbell, “It literally started to feel like a middle school dance, where you’re like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to get up out of my chair and ask someone to dance, and I’m terrified.’” 

Melo sought to break the spell on the Friday of the first week by assigning some things for the dancers to work on. But these exercises didn’t go as he hoped. When the dancers reassembled, they seemed to arrive at a new consensus: they didn’t want to enter into a traditional relationship with a choreographer. In fact, they didn’t want a choreographer at all. “It became clear that the group was not interested in working with [Melo] as leading the process,” Laks told me.

“We succeeded in creating a generous environment where we felt like we could share. Therefore, people were very open to talk about how they questioned the role of the choreographer,” explained Melo, who found himself at a crossroads. He felt he had the option to insist, and to develop the ideas that he’d brought with him to the program, or he could ask the dancers what they thought his role should be. 

It was a tricky situation. “He’d been hired by the Banff Centre to be a choreographer, so there’s pressure on him to present something in the end,” explained Nemoto, who is a friend of Melo’s. “But it’s also been opened up for conversation, and this is an opportunity for dancers in transition to not have choreographers telling us what to do.” 

In the end, Melo, Laks and Molnar chose to let the dancers decide, and Melo assumed a supporting role: “There was this term we were using, that I should move more as a ‘facilitator,’” he told me. 

But not everyone remembers Melo’s removal from the choreographer’s position as such a clear or forceful decision. “His role became more administrative and logistical,” Holden told me, “but I don’t think most of us realized that that was exactly what we were asking for.” According to Nemoto, “If it was a group decision, that we don’t want to have a choreographer, that would be fine. But it wasn’t really mentioned in that way.”

Either way, from that point forward the group shifted its focus from “table work” to creating a performance, and Melo became a go-between for the dancers and all the other people involved in putting their work on the stage. He was totally absorbed in the practical details, and, as Holden remembers it, “eliminated as an artistic voice.” 

Thus, the dancers embarked on a non-hierarchical creative process, in which all aesthetic decisions would be made as a collective. “It felt like a very nice acknowledgment of what the potential of a group of professional dancers could be,” Campbell said. She hoped that by trusting a “collective professional experience” enough, it would be possible to forego the normal way of doing things. 

It did not go particularly well, however. The group began improvising together and trying out different techniques but struggled to find cohesion or a clear artistic purpose. “We were ten dancers with different backgrounds, different styles, different ways of seeing the same things, moving towards one common point,” Perez said. “So it was really complicated.”

“We became uncomfortable on all fronts,” said Campbell. “We were uncomfortable around the table. We were uncomfortable in the studio space that could have been a playful workshop space. Because we were uncomfortable with this idea of needing to make a product.” 

With the show only a few weeks away, a lot of decisions needed to be made right away. The set, lighting and costume designers were all standing by, ready to support and implement the dancers’ creative concepts. This added an extra layer of complexity for the group, which was preoccupied by the challenge of inventing its own creation process out of the highly diverse membership. “People were so willing to help and do things,” said Nemoto, about the myriad people on hand to make the performance successful. “But we were not really in that place of making decisions.”

The group was asked to do an informal showing for a select group of donors on Friday, July 22, a week before the final performance was scheduled. The middle of the residency was then occupied by preparations for this private performance. But then, on Thursday, one day beforehand, Molnar communicated to them that the showing had been cancelled. The rationale for this decision was offered diplomatically: the program heads wanted to remove the stress and allow them to concentrate on the culminating stage show. The set designer, Alexander Polzin, was less delicate: according to several dancers, he told them they were making a “half-cooked soup.” 

The cancelling of the informal showing was swiftly followed by a dramatic course correction by the administration. On Saturday morning at the end of the third week of the residency, one day after the cancelled showing, the dancers were told that the work they had so far created would not be performed. Instead, they were asked to each pair off with one of the participants in the Emerging Dancers residency and choreograph a five-minute section. The performance was only five days away. 

According to Laks, the new idea came from Molnar and Melo. “We needed to make a work that we could share, so we could have that conversation with the audience,” Molnar told me later. “It appeared that the mid-career artists were not moving in the direction of a performance.” At that point, she felt it was necessary “to step in and evolve it to the next stage.”

The dancers were not happy with this sudden turn. Conceptually, it was intended to give each dancer an opportunity to pursue his or her individual interest. In practice, the new direction represented a reversal of their creative process as an autonomous collective. “Choreographing a five-minute section on people I haven’t spent time getting to know as artists was of no value to me,” said Holden. After hearing the offer, she went back to her room, screamed, and then returned to announce that she would not be participating. 

Given two hours to reflect, four of the ten dancers (including Chiaverini and Holden) said they weren’t interested in the new approach, though some of them expressed willingness to contribute to the residency in other ways. Two days later, on Monday morning, those four dancers were scheduled individual meetings with the dance program administrators, where they were told that they would be leaving as soon as possible, without completing the residency. They also wouldn’t receive the last part of their stipend.  

Everyone was stunned. According to Holden, nobody knew that eviction would be the consequence of refusal. “It wasn’t ever framed to us as though that was a decision to leave.” Banff Centre bought plane tickets for each of the dissenting artists, and within a day, four of them were gone. As to the origin of the decision, Holden said that in her meeting with Molnar, she was told that “the executive had decided that if we weren’t participating in the program, they had to send us home.”

 

Over the next three days, the remaining dancers managed to piece together a work for the stage. It was a tough time. They were experiencing something like survivor’s guilt, says Campbell. “You feel a bit like a traitor,” Perez told me. One dancer who’d originally accepted Banff’s proposal decided, in the end, to depart alongside the dancers who’d been asked to leave, bringing the total to five, or half of the dancers who’d participated in the residency. 

As for the final performance, I was at Banff Centre for a different residency and attended the dress rehearsal (I was not aware that half the dancers had been asked to leave). It was as successful as a last-minute patchwork of individual initiatives could be. 

For Campbell, who chose to stay and create a work with an emerging artist, the performance wasn’t a work by Fernando Melo, nor was it a work that reflected the collective exploration of the ten dancers who attended the residency. “Mainly,” she said, “because half of them weren’t there anymore.” Several of the dancers felt that Banff Centre bailed on their creative process just as it was starting to work out. For Holden, “We’d gotten to the point through these improvs where we could actually start shaping it.” Perez agreed: “Between us, the democratic process was going somewhere. But the place we were going wasn’t, I think, what Banff was looking for. They were looking for a proper piece.”

“There could have been a middle ground,” Campbell told me. “There were themes. There was a skeleton. There were bones that existed. If they were uncomfortable enough that they needed to structure it a little bit, they could have said that to us, clearly and honestly, and done it in a way that still respected us. … And instead of doing that, they scrapped everything and made a piece really quickly.”

For Banff Centre, while desiring to provide the artists with a space in which to plot their own development, after three weeks the program had diverged too far from the anticipated outcome. In a statement provided to The Dance Current, they said: 

Throughout the first year of this program in 2016, Banff Centre provided a flexible program model to meet the needs of all participants; in particular, mid-career artists who we know are underserved in professional development opportunities globally. It eventually became clear that there were mid-career artists who were looking for a more self-directed model that The Creative Gesture was not designed to provide. This inaugural year of the program was important for Banff Centre to discover how these new models of contemporary dance practice could – and should – support dancers at all stages of their careers.

The 2016 Creative Gesture program for mid-career artists proposed an experimental new direction but cleaved to the familiar paradigm of dance presentation. According to the statement, “It was designed as an opportunity to explore new models of contemporary dance practice, while working towards a final performance.” In the end, the tension between the Banff Centre’s innovative ambition and its deference to the norms wasn’t tenable, and the residency fractured. 

The application deadline for the 2017 Creative Gesture program was March 8. Participants will remount Noetic by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. “Dance professionals or dancers at a point of transition into the professional dance field” were invited to apply. The new program makes no mention of mid-career artists; however, Banff Centre states that it is “currently exploring the possibility of a shared platform in dance for artists-in-residence looking to create and produce their own, self-directed work which would cater to the need highlighted in the 2016 year.”

The next group of dancers will have to decide whether creating their own self-directed work answers the need that inspired the residency in the first place: professional development for mid-career artists. For Chiaverini, the 2016 participants never had that chance. “The development opportunity,” she said, “was not there. From the first day, it became a product-oriented situation.” She added, “The whole reason I went was because I respected the vision: to cultivate an alternative way to practice your dance-making, that wasn’t the conventional way we were all used to. It’s time for that, in the climate of dance.”

~

Aerial view of Banff Centre, Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation / Photos courtesy of Banff Centre

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