Ame Henderson is Talking to Chris Dupuis

One of the new features I'm planning to launch here is a series of dialogues with artists called Talking To Chris Dupuis. The first is a discussion with choreographer Ame Henderson of Public Recordings, who's new work It Was A Nice Party is premiering as part of Dancemakers Double Bill #1 along side Michael Trent's And The Rest.

Click on the "Read More!" link below for the full conversation.

The piece is showing April 9-11 at 8pm, and April 12 at 3pm, at Premiere Dance Theatre, as part of Harbourfront Centre's Next Steps series. Go see it!!!

When I was watching the preview of the piece, I was really excited, not just that this piece is happening, but that it's happening with Dancemakers at Premiere Dance Theatre, because it's so unlike anything I've ever seen produced by that company or at that space before. Is the idea of presenting work in a venue this large something new for you or something you've been thinking about for a while?

I've been interested for many years in the idea of presenting work in that kind of a traditional theatre space and how to both honour that tradition and to break it. That's been one of the core goals for Michael Trent (Dancemakers Artistic Director) and I in this process. We wanted to examine how we can present work in a space like that in a way that fits with tradition, but also talks about what it is as physical space.

We knew we wanted the dancers to be onstage as the public enters. We decided we wanted the audience to enter from backstage, down the hallways, through the dressing rooms, so that they actually understand the perspective of the performers in the experience before they have to claim their own perspective as audience.

One of the things I've been thinking about with my own work, as I move to creating in smaller and more specific spaces, is that when you want to try to translate that work to other places, you come across all these road blocks. However, if you're willing to work in a proscenium format, you can show your work anywhere in the world. Is having a piece that can travel part of the decision to work in this way?

That's more of a secondary thing because I already knew it was going to be presented at that space when I was invited to create it. The question of how to make work that can actually resonate in that kind of space is of great interest to me because those kinds of large proscenium theatres are in abundance around the world, even though they are less and less relevant to the kind of work that I'm making. I've actually seen a couple of pieces in the last little while that deal with that kind of space, that I've been really inspired by, and I guess my interest now is sort of a byproduct of that. It's also interesting to think about presenting to big audiences. I just reread your Canadian Stage piece, about the demise of large scale work in Canada. I think a lot of artists are questioning how realistic it is to make work for audiences that large these days.

And now for that awful question journalists always have to ask; What was your starting point or inspiration for deciding to create this piece?

One of my first impulses was to try to find a way to use what I consider to be traditional choreographic approaches to create the piece, specifically the idea of learning movement from an outside source. I almost always make work that is really created by the performers and then collaboratively restructured together. This was an impulse to embrace a traditional choreographic model of giving an outside source for the movement and getting dancers to copy it. I'm pretty obsessed right now with exploring themes of authorship, appropriation, and re-imagining work that already exists.

How did you decide on the film clip from Fellini's La Dolce Vita?

I wanted a social gathering that was pedestrian, but that had a lot of choreographic features. When we first started working in December 2007, we were using a bunch of different films. Initially I was using a lot of bank robbery scenes, but we found they were very charged and anxious, which was increased by the task the dancers had to perform of copying them.

I knew I wanted a film of that era because I wanted to use something that was made before any of us were born. I wanted to make sure we weren't trying to recreate something that any of us knew in some way. Also in that era of filmmaking, especially in Italian cinema, they were using a lot of really wide shots showing full bodies, so the ability to translate the images to a three dimensional stage environment was easier than with contemporary cinema, where there are more close-ups. As I focused on that era of work, I started to find Fellini a really interesting artist to try to have a conversation with; His views of character, how he questions identity and social placement, and also uses appropriation in a lot of ways, are similar to what I'm interested in exploring right now, so I was able to find a lot of common with him.

La Dolce Vita in particular, is the best example of how his work lacks narrative line, but instead is made up of an accumulation of events add up to something that may not be easily defined, but results in some sort of feeling. I really respond to that and understand it as something I try to do with my own work.

I want to talk about the general context in which you see your work. I wrote a piece about Feliz Klassen's piece Weathering Architecture a few weeks ago, in which I talked about the new aesthetic of performance that is emerging right now. Most of the artists I was referring to in that piece identify as theatre makers. Even though your identify as a choreographer, I feel your work has more in common with them, than with Toronto Dance Theatre, for example. How do you see your work in relation the context of "new performance"?

I see those artists as my contemporaries because I think we're asking similar questions. What is it to create an event where people are really doing something? How can you be unadorned in a performance state? What does that mean to be yourself on stage? Those artists are my colleagues and I talk with them a lot. I find it easier to relate to them on a theoretical level than many choreographers in the city, but my focus is in relation to the dance tradition. Even though the questions are the same, I have a very different way of approaching them. I'm totally convinced there is a conversation to be had with choreographers in Toronto and I feel like I'm starting to do that in really small ways.

Working with Dancemakers is a good start.

I try to view my work in a larger context outside Toronto and I feel really connected with choreographers in other places. In that larger context, I'm not really doing anything that new. There are other people out there who are working in similar ways and asking very similar questions, just not so much in Toronto. That said I do perceive an interest in my work here that is really surprising and heartening. The people that are interested in what I'm doing are interested on a really deep level and they're very committed to it.

There's something to be said for that feeling of loneliness that all artists feel at one point or another in their lives, and that some people would argue is both central and essential to the artistic process; The idea of the artist as the outsider, looking back at the world from a perspective different from everyone else.

There are also systemic problems with the way that work is supported and presented. If I'm going to gripe about anything, it's the lack of presentation and curatorial vision. I feel like if artists were being encouraged in different ways by presenters the work they are producing would be more relevant. Some of the theatre artists you're talking about are being given space by specific curators to explore those things and it's helping the work to develop.

I think that part of what's changing is that people are actually starting to travel outside the city to see work again. I remember when I was in first year theatre school, we had a lecture about how all successful artists know the history of their artistic discipline inside and out. What I've started to believe in my current practice, is that it's actually more important to know what is going on in the world right now, rather than what happened forty years ago.

I'm pretty convinced that those things have to be in parallel. For me, understanding how contemporary work comes out of a tradition and what we are responding to as artists is so vital. I'm always very surprised by how little the people trying to create new dance know about post-modern dance creation.

I'm wondering how you see yourself in the history of dance creation. Is there a stream of work you see yourself being part of or a tradition you are carrying on?

For me it's more relevant, to think about the tools of choreography and how I can not abandon, but reimagine them. My thesis project at The School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam next year is about unison, something that has been a signature of traditional dance for centuries. I'm interested in looking at how that form can be reimagined, and how it addresses issues of power, autonomy, and authority. How can something that's been a signifier of traditional hierarchical structure for so long be turned on its head, without devaluing the tradition? I don't want to work in reaction to work that's come before me. I want my work to be an extension of it.

I see a lot of work and I want to ask the people making it if they've seen the work of the specific artists whose tradition they are carrying on. It's a bad question to have to ask--to see a new work, and think that the creator has no sense of what they are in relation to. It's the difference between understanding that something is in relation to something else, and thinking of it in its own bubble. When you understand the connections, it's really satisfying.

Do you think that part of that is the fixation we have in Canada on "New Work" and how everyone has to do something that no one has done before?

Yes, definitely. And in relation to this piece, that's one of the things I'm challenging. Can we do something old? What is it to translate something old and make it sing in this time? How can we get rid of this worry about newness and just focus on being here and doing something that engages with the world right now?

I think a big part of it has to do with our granting bodies because they'll only fund the first time you do a show, and after that you're on your own. Certainly with theatre, a lot of times the first run of a show fails miserably and you have to do it a few times before you get it right. For whatever reason, they've decided that we should just churn out as much new work as possible, and hopefully, sooner or later we'll have a hit.

It's the philosophy that lateral growth is more important than deepening the work and giving it enough time and resources to be developed in a substantial way. Thinking about the Netherlands for example; they fund work in this way that demands you show the piece multiple times in its development in a public context, in order to be able to get the funding to do it in the first place.

Which makes so much sense!

It seems to a lot of people that working on a show for three months is extravagant, but to me it feels like just scratching the surface of what I need for my work to be fully formed.

Coming back to the show itself; I was really impressed with how the dancers allowed themselves to be imprecise, for lack of a better word, in certain moments which is so counter to all of the training that dancers normally have. In my experience it can be a really difficult habit to break people from, since they've been getting taught since age five that you have to move your body in certain way and always be beautiful.

The two things that I said to them at the start of the process were that I wanted to create a machine that would not behave and that I also want the audience to know exactly what they are doing from the start of the performance. Part of making that machine that won't behave is that the task they are given is impossible in a certain way. They are trying their damnedest to recreate the movement in the film and the imperfections are actually genuine. For me as an artist, it's about trying to clearly define the task at hand, because the only way I know to get the state I'm interested in working with is to create a structure of systems that creates those moments. They don't create the imperfections, as much as the imperfections happen to them.

When I first heard about this project my initial response was "Oh, God, I hope they can do it!" because those dancers are trained is for a very different type of choreography. I'm wondering what the process of creating this show on them was like.

I found the dancers incredibly game to tackle this work and I think it really speaks to how Michael has envisioned the company and the group of dancers he's brought together. There's a certain physical virtuosity that's always demanded of dancers and my job was to help them translate that physical virtuosity to their minds. I could always reference their training because they have so much of it, so it wasn't about doing something you've never done before, as much as it was about using what they already knew to make this piece work.

It took a long time, but my work always takes a long time. It's about repetition and trying to get to that thing we want. And I never felt like they turned off. Now they're having a good time doing it, which was both my hope from the beginning and the thing I was most worried about being able to achieve. The only reason you can justify doing a piece like this is if the people doing it are enjoying performing it.

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