The Creative Gesture

Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity By Sarah Todd
  • Dance artists in the studio / Photo by Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
  • Stillness / Photo by Don Lee, courtesy Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Residencies at the Banff Centre rarely go to plan. The thematic is set out, international faculty is secured and participants apply to a program with clear intentions. Once you get to that compound in the Rocky Mountains in close quarters with dozens of creative agents, things change, drastically. I have done numerous post-Banff studio visits with visual artists – painters who ended up making ceramics for six weeks, performance artists who created large-scale photographs. A good, productive residency experience needs to be responsive. How can one predict even just the interpersonal dynamics that will unfold over days and weeks?

The Creative Gesture, the inaugural contemporary dance residency led by sessional Banff dance director Emily Molnar and program head Stephen Laks, demonstrated considerable responsiveness within a very ambitious and structured four weeks in the mountains. Before we get into that, here’s the brief: The program selected twelve emerging dancers and twelve mid-career dancers. The faculty included a diverse group of international artistic agents including Ellen Lauren (co-artistic director of the SITI Company), Fernando Melo (GoteborgsOperans Danskompani), Tilman O’Donnell (formerly of the Forsythe Company), Adi Salant (co-artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company) and Jermaine Spivey (Kidd Pivot) leading the dancers through diverse creative methodologies and training techniques alongside readings and discussion over four weeks. This work leads to the development of a public performance and, following that in the fifth and final week, a choreographic workshop, in which both emerging and mid-career participants work as interpreters for six invited choreographers. It’s a lot to get your arms around, so many moving parts, with a very clear performance deadline.

To develop the public performance, the mid-career artists worked with Brazilian-born, Germany-based Melo to create a new work, while the emerging artists worked with O’Donnell, Salant and Spivey, one week each. In an interview I did with Molnar and Lak (Melo was not available), they described that, through discussion and research time in the residency, it became immediately apparent that the mid-career dancers were interested in working collaboratively to create the performance, challenging ideas of typical choreographic authorship. While collaboration is a word that gets bandied about across the arts, in dance it seems to have special gravity. Ballet and contemporary dance companies rely on a hierarchical structure within a company which is either explicit (prima ballerina, corps de ballet, etc.), or based on invisible structures like seniority – systems that all of these mid-career dancers have likely experienced, most having danced with major ballet and contemporary dance companies from around the world. Additionally, the choreographer has a profound authority in the production and creation process – the auteur/interpretive artist divide can run deep. The mid-career dancers were interested in making their own compositions and, by doing so, flattening a range of dance world hierarchies. While this wasn’t in the plan, both Molnar and Laks said they realized it was essential to be responsive to the dancers’ needs and interests, and encouraged them to follow this line of inquiry.

The burden of production is so all-encompassing upon the dance community that it is almost invisible. It is what dancers and choreographers do – they make things, move, do things, usually on very tight time frames, with very tight parameters creative, budgetary or otherwise. What happens when you give dancers a little bit of space and time? As Molnar posited in her introduction to the final performance on July 30 – maybe we would make the same thing in a week as the thing we would do after six weeks of thinking, but we don’t really know. Visual artist, writers and musicians get time to stew on ideas, but dancers and choreographers often don’t – it is not built into their methodology or, more plainly, their industry. It is clear that the time and place to think and talk among dance artists, which is the backbone of The Creative Gesture, was a unique privilege and a profound opportunity for personal reflection and mentorship. I did not personally witness The Creative Gesture process, or have a chance to speak to the dancers involved, so who knows what really happened. However, the dances presented in two performances at the end of the fourth week perhaps provide an indexical trace of this experience.

The thing most striking about the works presented initially was how finished and clean they appeared to be. In Molnar’s introduction she framed the presentation as a research project and very much in progress. On a quantitative level, it was a massive amount of work that had been done over four weeks to pull these pieces together, with twenty-four different dancers, experimental working methods and collaborative processes. To me, they are living, breathing works ready for the full force of critical inquiry. It makes me think that maybe dance in all forms has too great an expectation of “resolution.” The totally resolved dance work is maybe a side effect of both the inherent perfectionism of the medium, and the high and (and often rigid) audience expectation. Just like visual art or poetry, I don’t think dance should have to necessarily tangibly, visibly, be “about” anything.

The first work of the evening, The Exquisite Corpse Will Drink the Young Wine by O’Donnell, Spivey and Salant, featured the twelve emerging dancers. The audience was invited to sit on the stage in rows of chairs facing each other. Sitting on the stage is a little unnerving – anxieties around the always dreaded “audience participation” are whispered back and forth by the front rows. As the title suggests, this piece was based on the idea of the exquisite corpse, a surrealist parlour game where a drawing is passed around, each person adding to it without seeing the previous contribution. O’Donnell, Spivey and Salant contributed each section of choreography with only seeing the end of previous contribution. The uniting factor it seems was interrogating the relationship between dancer and audience. The super intimate staging led to a visual effect that reflected the fragmentation of the exquisite corpse game – when up close, one can only really see small sections of the entire work. Close proximity to the dancers elicits a kind of radical physical empathy, further heightened by the remarkable middle vignette where dancers verbally described everyday objects-turned artifacts (headphones, a hairbrush) with animated faux-anthropological authority. These interactions were both amusing and earnest – it must take a lot for a young dance artist to whisper in the ear of an audience member; the bravery it required was clear and poignant. It also really put the audience in its place, and led me to review my own subjective position as an audience member. With stories about the secret lives of objects still ringing in your ears, it becomes clear how dancers become objectified the farther away you sit. In the comfy seats of the theatre, safely in front of the proscenium, it is easy to see a dancer as part of a formation – a body/object. It is really difficult to keep up that safe illusion when these young, beautiful, talented dancers are in such close and vulnerable proximity that you see their sweat and watch their pupils dilate.

The second work, Still, was the collaborative choreographic work by the mid-career residents, performed by both the emerging and mid-career dancers, facilitated by Melo (his name is not even listed on the program as a choreographer, despite the event being billed as “New Work by Fernando Melo”). The thematic for the piece was “stillness,” and in that way it was successful – the work did evoke a tangible sense and feeling of stillness. The pace of the work was such that it gave ample room for other thoughts to slip in. The serene white set by sculptor Alexander Polzin (developed collaboratively) was balanced on each side of the stage by two video projections, which gave gentle directives and meandering questions, even film clips, throughout the forty-five minute work. Film critic Thomas Elsaesser has speculated that the future of cinema might exist as a place in which we will be given a set duration of time in which to think – the image or content nearly beside the point, just gentle backdrop to our wandering minds. This work functioned in that way – the video screen giving up prompts profound, and straightforward (Why trump? It asked). The overall effect was that the audience was given a small window into the time, space and thoughts that these dancers had and shared throughout the previous weeks.

I was privy to the impressive and eclectic reading list given to The Creative Gesture participants, from Artaud to neuroscience texts about mirror neurons. I was drawn to the inclusion of Hannah Arendt texts on the importance of deep thought. In a time of incredible pervasive distraction, carving out these spaces for considered thought over a forty-five minute performance, or for five weeks in a residency in the mountains, is an important, potentially radical gesture. Maybe this is why “stillness” as an idea is gaining traction in the collective consciousness (my iPhone keeps bullying me into purchasing the Headspace meditation app, and I still might). The Banff Centre’s next major residency starting September 25 is based on this theme. Involving all departments, the faculty will include Toronto artists choreographer Christopher House and visual artist Diane Borsato. The Creative Gesture and the upcoming Stillness residency is indicative of where Molnar and Laks are pushing the dance program – ambitiously interdisciplinary, experimental and unapologetically complex, which is an extremely exciting ongoing prospect for the future of dance in Canada. Let’s hope that the Banff Centre as an institution can be both agile and supportive while these artists navigate the structure and flexibility they require.


Editor’s Note: Subsequent to Sarah Todd submitting this feature on the Banff Centre’s new contemporary dance residency, The Dance Current learned that a few of the mid-career artists were asked to leave the program early and were not in the final performance. As Todd indicates, intimate residencies don’t always go to plan; there are many factors at play for the participants, faculty and the host institution. A follow-up to this story, written by Mark Mann, gets at what happened and why. 

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