Dancers’ Studio West’s Dance Action Group

By Sarah Todd
  • Shayne Johnson in Pan by Davida Monk / Photo by Citrus Photography
  • Dario Charles, Catherine Hayward, Mark Ikeda, Shayne Johnson, Davida Monk, Sylvie Moquin and Kate Stashko in Les Uns et les Autres by Helen Husak / Photo by Citrus Photography
  • Shayne Johnson, Kate Stashko, Catherine Hayward, Mark Ikeda and Sylvie Moquin in Race of The Mighty by Deanne Walsh / Photo by Citrus Photography
  • Catherine Hayward, Kate Stashko and Sylvie Moquin in Where there is no path by Mark Ikeda / Photo by Citrus Photography


Calgary June 25-27, 2015

It doesn’t take long to notice that Calgary, beyond its reputation as a city dedicated to business and energy, is a city of the performing arts. Audiences in Calgary are dedicated to theatre companies, the ballet and the symphony, chamber music ensembles, improv comedy troupes and music festivals. Though it seems to have more theatre companies per capita than any other Canadian city, I have found contemporary dance and its attendant communities difficult to locate. With a dance program at the University of Calgary, I knew there were contemporary dancers walking among us. At Dancers’ Studio West’s (DSW) Mythbehavin’, presented by the Dance Action Group (DAG), I finally found these dancers, and a vibrant community dedicated to movement and ideas.

As a cultural community, Calgary’s artists seem to create and perform without looming historical precedents, and with it a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. People just do what they want to do. This ethos is evident in the work of DAG – a relatively small group of performers and choreographers from a diverse range of backgrounds who make up the artistic core of Dance Action Lab. The lab is under the umbrella of DSW generally.

The idea of “the lab” has been really popular across many artistic disciplines since the late 1990s (particularly in the contemporary visual arts). Its popularity has led the term “lab” to be applied so widely that its meaning has frequently been lost: art galleries are labs, think tanks are labs, academic conferences are labs. In the case of Dance Action Lab, they are doing the term justice, in that they are really, truly experimenting. All of the works in the evening-length Mythbehavin’ came out of an intense ten-week choreographic boot camp (my characterization, not theirs), where they established the choreographic process in an unusual way. The group drew names out of a hat to determine who was going to choreograph each work. After this, they drew numbers to determine how many people would be in each choreographer’s work. And lastly, names were drawn to designate dancers to each choreographer. Throughout the dance-making process, every dancer rehearsed each work (regardless of whether they were performing in that piece) in order to get to know each choreographer’s practice and provide feedback. This structure upends the traditional hierarchy between dancer and choreographer and the control-freak choreographer stereotype (alive and well in contemporary dance). Above all, this process is a gesture toward true collectivity – complicated, messy, challenging, rewardingly collective. This seems terrifying, with a ten-week lead up to showtime, and takes a great deal of commitment and courage.

Evidently, the risk-taking paid off. Mythbehavin’, a pleasantly silly name for a semi-serious theme, was a compilation of works relating to mythology – no specific era, and often about the idea of mythology itself. From Amazon warriors, to Pan, to Mount Olympus, the mythological leitmotif was compelling enough without being too prescriptive. Perhaps I have been watching too much TV (I have), but everything had an aesthetic Game of Thrones tinge of to me. But it was remarkable how evocative each work was with very minimal lighting and costume.

The choreography itself was fairly compelling overall, and there were some gleaming standout moments, such as a pas de deux in Deanne Walsh’s Race of the Mighty between two women, which read intensely as a one-bodied, two-headed dragon.  After ten weeks, these were still works-in-process, but what made up for it was that it was clear that all of these dancers and choreographers were working through it, figuring things out in time and space with their bodies. I will take that kind of labour over virtuosity any day. The diverse dance background of each of the dancers was mentioned in the introduction, but it would have been interesting to see those different dance vocabularies (hip hop, jazz, tap, African etc.) more thoroughly represented and/or deconstructed in the works. What would happen if the movement vocabularies were as radically experimental as the Dance Action Lab structure?

DAG’s activities are reaching far beyond proscenium-stage performance – they have an upcoming series of events that I will be paying close attention to – festivals, an (exceedingly generous) free “outside eye” service to choreographers, and opportunities for emerging artists. Most interestingly perhaps is the Undressing the Dance Dialogues, a free public conversation series about dance. These actions are opening up the contemporary dance discourse to new audiences and producers in Calgary – the inclusivity of these programs is exciting. I keep saying it, but things are germinating here in Calgary, and emergent ensembles like DAG are the catalyst.



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