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On the Ground

Following the Unknown

Q & A with Sara Coffin By Michael Lake
  • Julie Robert, Georgia Skinner, Anastasia Wiebe, Lydia Zimmer in Coffin's Wild Within / Photo by Kevin MacCormack
  • Julie Robert in Coffin's Wild Within / Photo by Kevin MacCormack

Sara Coffin is an independent dance artist, dance educator and a co-artistic director or Mocean Dance in Halifax. She holds an MFA in choreography from Smith College, BFA in Dance from Simon Fraser University and Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from Dalhousie University. 

Coffin’s new work, Wild Within, runs from November 14 through 16 at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

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Michael Lake Tell me about yourself and how you came to dance.

Sara Coffin I have always danced. There was no doubt in my mind that dance would be a part of my life. I wake up and I just know that’s what I’m supposed to do.

ML How did you first discover dance? Were you put in classes as a child?

SC My mom signed me up for dance class at age four, and I did dance pretty consistently for the rest of my life. I took a small break when I was seven. It was a tough year.

ML Are your parents creative?  

SC No, they’re not. My dad and I connect philosophically. We like to talk about existential crises together. But he’s in theology. My mom’s a nurse. She always wanted to dance but never did, so I think she put me in dance for her.

ML Do you have a guiding philosophy for your art practice?

SC I believe that in my role as an artist I am an ambassador for following the unknown and helping people find their own potential – the idea that anything from nothing is possible. That’s sort of my guiding practice in how I create work, in my teaching, in my community engagement and with Mocean Dance. It’s helping people finding their potential through embodiment practices and knowing that being in the unknown is okay and is part of the excitement of learning about yourself.

ML Your new piece, Wild Within, is inspired by your time in the Yukon. What was that experience like?  

SC In preparation [for Wild Within] I knew I had to go away, lift the roof and fill my well. So I decided to do the Canadian Wilderness Artist Residency, and for seventeen days you’re on the Yukon River. We paddled 700 kilometres from Whitehorse to Dawson and camped along the way. We paddled for four to six hours a day in these canoes and you have nothing to do but talk. So we would get to talk about each other’s art practices, and we weren’t distracted; it was all about memory and current desires. But also, we were intimate and vulnerable together right away, which was really refreshing for me. And the key things were stay dry, build a fire, paddle, repeat. I was really experiencing my materiality in relation to the natural landscape. And I thought, how do I keep hanging on to this feeling that has woken up inside me? How do I hang on to this wild? I wanted to try to figure out how to capture that feeling and explore the poetics of that feeling of wild.

ML What have you taken from that trip and that time and brought into the new piece?

SC I started thinking about my mom along the river a lot, which I wasn’t really expecting. Water often has a feminine quality; we’re carried into the world through water. My mom is entering mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s, so I am preparing to lose her. There are all these things swirling around and I’m feeding them all into the piece. It’s not about the camping trip; it’s not about dementia; but it’s about a reverence for the land and a reverence for mothers and what the land does for us and what mothers do. The female body is what carries us into the world. In the piece there are images of finding place and clearing ground. There are images of care and support and loss and partnering. And the dancers become the elements or they’re swallowed by the elements. Sometimes they are of the world and sometimes they are in the word. So I’ve been playing with things like that.

ML What was the creation process like after you came back from the trip?

SC We’ve been creating the piece over two seasons, but I did a lot of writing along the river, so we use those texts to create movement. I am also trying to make a piece about a feeling I can’t describe with people who weren’t there. So we also talked about each of the dancers’ own relationship with wild spaces and nature, and we talked about the spectrum of the world wild, which can often have a negative connotation.

I’m also watching how my mom is experiencing the world now, and I’m trying to have patience and honour that. I also know this is one of the last pieces she’ll be able to process and take in, so I wanted to create things that I knew would light her up. I don’t tap dance, but I’ve decided to put tap dancing at the end of the show, specifically for my mother. She loves tap dancing. The light in her eyes whenever she sees it is amazing.

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