In the Studio | En Studio

Louise Moyes: St. John's Women & other docudances | et autres docudanses

By Megan Andrews
  • Louise Moyes in "St. John's Women" / Photo by Justin Hall

“I call my own work ‘docudance’; it tells my own and others’ life stories/oral histories in a multidisciplinary form that draws from dance foremost, as well as theatre, video and performance. My process involves gathering stories through video and audio recordings and my own writings, improvising with them through dance in the studio and then framing a show’s through-line by what comes out in studio, discovering whether a story is best told in ‘pure’ dance, choreographed monologue, theatrical monologue or video. The result is a very contemporary take on what are sometimes traditional, yet extraordinary lives.”

« Je nomme mon travail “docudanse” ; je conte mon histoire de vie/mon historique oral ainsi que ceux d’autres dans une forme qui puise avant tout dans la danse, ainsi que dans le théâtre, la vidéo et la performance. Dans mon processus, je recueille des histoires avec des enregistrements vidéo et audio, et en écrivant. J’improvise en danse avec ce matériau en studio et ensuite, je cadre le fil conducteur du spectacle avec le résultat de ces explorations. Je découvre si une histoire se compose mieux en danse “pure”, en monologue-chorégraphie, en monologue théâtral ou en vidéo. Il en résulte une lecture très contemporaine de vies parfois traditionnelles, néanmoins extraordinaires. »

Growing up a Newfoundlander of Cockney parentage who later lived in Québec, Louise Moyes most often performs docudances: shows she researches, choreographs and performs, working with the rhythm of voices, language and accents like a musical “score”. She is currently working on dance and interdisciplinary projects by choreographers Jo Leslie and Eryn Dace Trudell. Moyes studied at Studio 303 in Montréal and developed her craft through the Festival of New Dance and Sound Symposium, St. John’s. She has performed throughout Canada and in Germany, Italy, Iceland, New York, Australia and Brazil.

Louise Moyes in “A propos of nothing / A propos de rien” / Photo by Doug Allen

MA: You call your work docudance, explaining that, “it tells my own and others’ life stories/oral histories in a multidisciplinary form that draws from dance foremost, as well as theatre, video and performance.” How did you come to begin making this kind of work?

LM: In the early nineties, I was studying at Studio 303 in Montréal and starting to make work. When the first Gulf War started and innocent people were being killed, I urgently felt the need to respond in some way. George Bush Senior’s State of the Union address at the start of that war became the “score” for the opening of unraveling the borders. The piece ended with three friends discussing war from a feminist perspective and Bessie Hurley, a midwife from Change Islands, Newfoundland (interviewed by Rhonda Pelley and Sheilagh O’Leary for their book Island Maid), simply stating there was nothing so beautiful as seeing a baby being born. Since then I have not stopped working with interviews or some form of text.
We still come from an oral culture in Newfoundland and Labrador. Many dancers from here work with text, and because of the nature of our culture and size, interdisciplinary work in general is strong.

Louise Moyes in “St. John’s Women” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: I imagine that in the creative process you discover connections and reveal possibilities through improvisation with your material that lead to potentially fictive plot points or lines. I am wondering about the connection between docudance and documentary film, for example. In weaving together your own and others’ stories, how concerned are you to stick to the facts?

LM: The facts are very important when telling others’ stories, because I do feel a responsibility to portray them as truthfully as possible, in a way that the person interviewed would be proud of. When Florence Leprieur’s daughters came back to see the show Florence two and three times and told me I made their mother’s stories new again, and a man from l’Anse à Canard said he never thought he’d see a show that talked about all the places and people he knew, well, I couldn’t ask for more than that.

Now if the people interviewed stray from the facts a little, as we can all embellish sometimes, well, I don’t mind that! And it is a relief sometimes when doing non-docudance pieces to not have to concentrate on the truth so much …

Louise Moyes in “Florence” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: What kinds of characters are you drawn to “docudance”, or alternately, are you more interested in issues, events and situations like the cod moratorium (Thinking About the 10-Year Anniversary of the Cod Moratorium) or your experiences in New York City (In a New York Second) or Newfoundland history (The Port-au-Port Story/ L’Histoire du Port-au-Port)?

LM: I would say that generally people attract me first, and then their issues emerge as an integral part of the world they are living in. I also love their stories: about trying to quit smoking (Annie Dollimount, Interrupted Cycles), a recently released prisoner looking forward to a Twinkie (In a New York Second), or making moonshine to try to generate some money in a virtually cash-less society in rural Newfoundland’s merchant system, which existed in many areas until the 1960s (Florence).

Louise Moyes in “St. John’s Women” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: Your new piece, St. John’s Women, tells the stories of “four generations of St. John’s women in their twenties, forties, fifties and sixties. They SCRUB: one Sells, one Cleans, one Rents and one Buys - houses.” You also recently made a work, titled Florence (2007), about a ninety-three-year-old woman who raised nine children on her own. Do you have a particular concern or interest to perform women’s stories?

LM: Absolutely I have a particular interest in women’s stories, above all those that are not told enough - in the media, in academia, etc. Florence Leprieur sang “chin music”; essentially she sang jigs, a completely respected form of music. She sang, danced and played accordion alongside well-known Newfoundland fiddler Émile Benoit for decades, had a huge repertoire of French Newfoundland music in her head and was the matriarch of a musical family that includes three members of the world-touring Carlton Showband and Toronto-based composer-percussionist Romano DiNillo - her wonderful grandson who composed half the music for Florence. But she herself was not known. She was so proud when I would come and record her music and stories.

Louise Moyes in “Florence” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: You’ve taken your work into public schools and performed for student audiences. You also go into schools and develop workshops and projects specifically for the classroom. The bilingualism and historical and cultural emphases in your work seem particularly suited to an educational context. Is this something that’s important to you as an artist?

LM: I am very happy that my work has an educational angle. It is rewarding bringing Newfoundland, Québecois and other cultures to students either through performing my shows for them or working directly in the classroom telling excerpts from shows, making ties to curriculum in language arts or social studies. I have worked extensively in the French schools of the Port-au-Port to get children making work integrating local dances, music and stories that are at risk of dying out. The French element works well with tours to French immersion schools, as I did with Florence through the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council’s School Touring program last year. That show has a French version and an English version. Taking in Strangers (2001) starts in Montréal and ends up in St. John’s via Lac-St-Jean, the isolated Lower North Shore, Québec and the south coast of Newfoundland, seen through projected images and twenty different characters. A multidisciplinary travelogue, it can become a living geography, folklore and history lesson.

Louise Moyes in “A propos of nothing A propos de rien” / Photo by Doug Allen

MA: What’s your perspective on the importance of professional artists working in the public school system versus teachers themselves being mandated (in various provinces) to teach dance in the school system?

LM: I have been working with a Department of Education program that very successfully brings basic dance, visual art, music and theatre skills to teachers around the province. I think this is important. Folk dancing is being taught through physical education now. But nothing can eliminate the need for direct contact with real, creating dancers in the schools. For three years, I was the coordinator of Neighbourhood Dance Works’ outreach program to high school theatre students, teaching “The History of Dance in 3 Easy lessons”. We then offered a free show of three contemporary pieces. Not all the students at the show had taken the classes. The follow-up feedback was clear - those who had taken all three classes with a live performing artist had a clearer understanding of and desire to see new dance again.

Louise Moyes in “St. John’s Women” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: I understand that you write your own scripts based on audio and video interviews with your subjects. I’m curious about how your works come together in the studio in terms of the layers and crisscrossing of ideas, stories and disciplines of expression. Can you briefly describe a typical early rehearsal or the steps you take in your creative process?

LM: When I first go into the studio I have already started listening to and transcribing the material. Video excerpts that tell a story better than I ever could stand out very quickly - the gestures, language and lighting. Jo Leslie was in the studio with me directing Florence and I could not have done it without her. Jo was adamant that my relationship with Florence be included, something I had not done before (I interviewed her over three years). We talked through the material and then Jo would choose a story to improvise with. Or sometimes I would improvise without consciously choosing and one would come out spontaneously in the dance. I would speak, too, and, in the speaking and the moving, relationships came out between Florence and I that I hadn’t been fully aware of - such as how her own experiences having thirteen babies and losing four in infancy helped me in my own fertility struggles. She empathized with losing a pregnancy at seven months in a way that many women of my generation could not (because it is not so common anymore). When my son Gabriel was finally born she loved holding him in her arms.

The dance sections in a docudance generally express sentiments or situations that words cannot do justice to - the beauty of dance. In Florence, one is called “The Wildness”, referring to the wildness of this place on the Port-Au-Port where you can see the ocean on either side of a narrow strip of land - imagine raising children there in the winter! And the wildness of the music and dance sessions they would have, one of the few forms of relief from the work. Walking fifteen miles to play at a dance, playing all night and walking home was nothing to them.

When we had developed all the stories as spoken, danced or mixed sections and chosen video, Jo Leslie and I wrote them all out on pieces of paper and a wonderful, non-linear way of telling this fierce and funny woman’s life story came out. I still get tears in my eyes in the first section when I see Florence up there on the screen. Florence died in 2007, singing jigs in her bed.

Regarding my work with musicians, I have collaborated for over twenty years with composer Lori Clarke from St. John’s. She was musical director on Florence and will compose for St. John’s Women. We know each other so well that she will come in to the studio, see what is being worked on, and go home and create what she hears going on. When I go into the sound studio with Lori we tweak together, but invariably there is not much work for me to do.

Like Lori, Romano DiNillo is a multi-instrumentalist from here (he is now based in Toronto). Combining traditional and contemporary music for the show was a natural concept for them - we are all children of the Sound Symposium, the biennial New Music festival. Romano is a percussionist who plays piano - many dancers will know him from TDT classes and Dancemakers. Romano and I have had to work long distance, on Florence and on Portscape, choreographed by Eryn Dace Trudell. While distances may add some extra challenges, we send stuff back and forth and the results are always gorgeous.

Louise Moyes in “Florence” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: The multidisciplinary nature of your work - and particularly the ease with which you integrate and play between disciplines in your solo performances - obviously requires a high level of skill and technique. How did your training prepare you for the kind of work you make?

LM: It all seems by accident to me, but it does add up to a road to interdisciplinary work. My parents are ballroom dancers, there was always dance at home. My father, as well as being a marine engineer, is an actor and director. I studied gymnastics as a child and later dance, but my career ambitions were to be a doctor. I did study medicine here for two years but at the end would cry when I saw dance shows. So I left, not an easy decision, and finished my BA in French and English literature, including creative writing. Then Jo Leslie told me about this studio she was co-starting in Montréal, Studio 303, and that’s where I made a beeline. In fifteen years as a nomad between St. John’ s and Montréal, I did seven years part-time as a researcher and writer for documentary film for t e National Film Board and Discovery Television, among others. So yes, I think I do feel supported by all these influences when I am in the studio.

Louise Moyes in “A propos of nothing A propos de rien” / Photo by Doug Allen

MA: You’re known for the wit and humour of your works, and particularly for your subtle plays on words that are not only verbal but also physical. This is something I love about your performances, and something I also find in Vancouver-based Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s work (which also integrates movement and text). Humour is not very common in contemporary dance. Do you feel that using language opens up the possibility for humour in dance-based work?

LM: I come from a theatrical family; not just my father, but my sister, too, is an actor and director, and both are very funny people. I was the serious one in the family for a long time. I remember the first time I showed an early work, My Secret Pig, at Studio 303 and people laughed. I was really surprised. Making work actually helped me find my sense of humour!

Language is a fabulous inroad to making humourous work. Lois Brown, Anne Troake, Alison Carter, Deborah Jackman, Lisa Porter, the list of dance artists who make and have made humourous work with text is long here. The physical is very important in comedian Andy Jones’ work and he has worked with local choreographers to create his shows. Andy comes to see our Festival of New Dance. It is interesting when you perform outside of Newfoundland; some audiences feel like they need permission to laugh at a dance show. Here the audiences have no problem. In fact the dancers in Toronto choreographer Denise Fujiwara’s No Exit, based on Sartre’s existentialist play, felt their performances came up 300% in front of a Newfoundland audience - because we know when to and aren’t afraid to laugh and cry. And for sure, different aesthetics appeal to different cultures.

Louise Moyes in “Florence” / Photo by Justin Hall

MA: You’ve recently premiered a commissioned solo, A propos of nothing/A propos de rien, by Montréal’s Jo Leslie, and you are also working with Montréal-based Eryn Dace Trudell. What draws you to the work of other artists such as these women? What or who else inspires or influences you as an artist?

LM: I have been thinking about Jo and Eryn a lot lately and why I am drawn to them in particular. Now Jo came to St. John’s regularly in the eighties and early nineties to teach and perform; she was a large part of the development of new dance here. I followed her to Studio 303. We lost touch a bit between 1995 and 2005, but when it came to making Florence, I knew she was the perfect person to direct, with her dance and theatre background. (Jo has been a movement coach and choreographer at the National Arts Centre, Stratford and the National Theatre School among others.) And she knows my performing so well! While we were making Florence she suggested that she create a piece for me and I jumped. A propos of nothing/A propos de rien involves both text and movement and is very funny and fun to do. How often do you get to eat a bag of chips on stage?

Jo and Eryn inspire me because of their extensive knowledge of both choreography and improvisation, and, though it may sound corny in writing, because of their commitment to truth. They aren’t afraid to make work about issues, and with heart, humanity and humour. For a long time I worked on my own, but it is infinitely better when you find artists with whom you can have conversations about your work in the studio and who push you to take the ideas and the movement as far as you can.

Other influences include my father and sister, John and Rebecca Moyes; Simone Forti and Kazuo Ohno, whom I saw talking and moving at ages sixty-five and eighty-three, respectively; performers and teachers Valerie Dean (Halifax), Lee Saunders (New Brunswick), Martha Carter (Vancouver) and Benoît Lachambre (Montréal) - all met through Studio 303. Learning grounds for me have been Neighbourhood Dance Works’ Festival of New Dance and the Sound Symposium, both in St. John’s.

A photo essay on Louise Moyes appears in the September 2010 issue of The Dance Current print magazine. | Un photo reportage sur Louise Moyes paraît dans l’édition imprimée de septembre 2010 du Dance Current.

Louise Moyes presents St. John’s Women at the twentieth anniversary Festival of New Dance from September 16th through 25th, St. John’s. | Louise Moyes présente St. John’s Women au vingtième anniversaire du Festival of New Danse du 16 au 25 septembre, à St. John’s.

De famille cockney, Louise Moyes grandit à Terre-Neuve et vit ensuite au Québec. Elle présente surtout des docudanses : des spectacles qu’elle développe, crée et interprète, travaillant avec le rythme de voix, de langues et d’accents comme « partition » musicale. Elle œuvre actuellement à des projets de danse et interdisciplinaires des chorégraphes Jo Leslie et Eryn Dace Trudell. Moyes étudie au Studio 303 à Montréal et développe son métier à St. John’s par l’entremise du Festival of New Dance et du Sound Symposium. Elle présente son travail au Canada, en Italie, en Islande, à New York, en Australie et au Brésil.

Learn more | Pour en savoir plus >> docudance.com


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