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~ Choose your Battles ~

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The other day, I got a bad review.

I was having a lovely lunch and catch-up with my friend/colleague, when she suddenly looked very serious and leaned in. Instantly my heart pounded harder, though I had no idea what she was about to say.

Apparently, a dancer whom I had “worked with” before (let’s call him Pepper), said that he “didn’t get anything out of that experience.” Ouch.

A few years ago, a dancer (let’s call him Salt), asked me to give him some feedback for a solo he was doing for an audition. Though always flattered to be asked, I find these types of requests tricky, primarily because of the timing. Usually, I work with dance artists throughout their entire creative process, as an advisor to the choreographer and or dancer(s). I try to provide an informed and objective perspective, which ideally encourages more clarity and propels the work forward. There’s much more to it, but that’s the gist.

So, when dancers ask me to come in to see a work that is already created and about to be presented, I need to be clear on what they really want from me. Because I’m not going to address the same things in a one-off rehearsal as I would in a series of rehearsals, over a longer period. So, we chat, and I try to be frank about what I think I can realistically offer, which in this particular 90-minute rehearsal, might be in the way of performing, staging and costume considerations. Salt was game.

At some point before our rehearsal, Salt mentioned that Pepper was also going to the same audition, and would I mind looking at his solo too? Since we already had limited time, I was surprised that Salt was willing to share it (thought that speaks volumes about him), especially considering Salt approached me, booked the rehearsal studio and, as far as I know, was paying for it and for me. But, I agreed.

Long story short, I’m not surprised by Pepper’s assessment, and what a shame that Salt didn’t get all my time and attention. Salt was extremely open, considerate and responsive to my questions and suggestions. This is the reason why I agreed to work with him in the first place. Pepper, on the other hand was, how should I put this, the OPPOSITE. I always encourage dancers to have a voice, to question, even to challenge, not merely for the sake of doing so, but to always be in constructive dialogue with regards to the work. I remember giving Pepper a specific note that I thought was right on the money. He even tried the solo with that suggestion in mind, and I thought it was stronger. Evidently, he didn’t. He wanted my feedback, but came into rehearsal with such a resistant attitude, that I wondered why he even bothered. There are reasons why dancers are resistant, but this was not the appropriate place or time to dissect it. So, Pepper “didn’t get anything out of that experience.” I, on the other hand, learned something about him, and about me, as it turns out.

Back at lunch, I gave my friend this background story and said, “What am I going to do? I’m sure there are other people out there saying things like this about me all the time.”

“No way!” she insisted, “they’re not!” I love her for her belief in me and for her loyalty, but it made me start to think about experiences, perspectives, reputation, rumors, etc. It also made me think about self-assessment, which let’s face it, is tough to do. It’s not easy to hear that someone is saying unpleasant things about me or had a bad impression, or to consider how my actions contributed to their assessment. I’m getting a bit better at not taking it personally or dwelling on it (cut to me now writing about it!). It’s a delicate dance, working with dance artists – negotiating egos, temperaments, inexperience, much experience, sensitive personalities, anxiety, when to push, when to back off, etc. Plus, newsflash: I’M ALSO A DANCE ARTIST!

I always say to choreographers and dancers I work with, “You have to choose your battles.” How much is anything worth in terms of time, attention, money and energy? I’m referring to the creative process, but I also employ this in my life, or at least try to, so I should expect some fallout from it.

I’ve been hemming and hawing about whether to write about this because in the dance world, we’re all sort of friends with our colleagues, we sometimes compete for the same few gigs, we want to have good reputations so that we can get more work, and we’re all sensitive as fuck. But it’s important to remind ourselves that the things we do and say have impact, we’re usually not the only person in the room and sometimes, despite our sincere efforts, we may get bad reviews.

Onward.

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~ This album and everything after… ~

Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white.

And in between the moon and you, the angels get a better view of the crumbling difference between wrong and right.

I walk in the air between the rain, through myself and back again, where, I don’t know.

Maria says she’s dying, through the door I hear her crying, why, I don’t know.

There’s an episode of Seinfeld, where Elaine is dating a guy who instantly falls into a trance-like state whenever he hears the song Desperado by The Eagles. So moved by this song, so instantly transported to another time and place, for him in that moment, nothing else mattered.

There’s just something about music, about certain songs that get under our skin, get right in there and bring us back to a very specific period in our lives. And no matter where we are, what we’re doing or whom we’re with, we hear it and boom, we’re back. For me, it’s almost every track on the album August and Everything After by the Counting Crows.

When I first heard the song Round Here, I thought Oh my God, these lyrics! Who the hell wrote these lyrics? Then I saw the video with Adam Duritz in his dreadlocked, combat-booted glory, an alt-rock poet wandering along train tracks, offering up his fucking soul with these words that just shattered me.

Yes, I’m being dramatic. Yes, this song is, without question, one of those songs that will always prompt me to declare, “OH MY GOD! I LOVE THIS SONG!!!” and writhe around in tortured bliss. This is my Desperado.

My encounter with this song, this album, coincided with an amazing dance gig that turned out to be an unforgettable highlight in my career. In 1994, three Canadian companies – Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Toronto’s Dancemakers and Montreal’s Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault – joined forces to perform and tour choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault’s signature work JOE. In a nutshell, JOE is an epic production that explores the human condition, conformity and individuality. Comprised of 32 dancers dressed in overcoats, fedoras and steel-toed army boots, and a steep, amplified ramp that spans the entire length of the stage, we average JOEs shuffled, jumped, danced, climbed, launched our bodies and ran our out-of-breath asses off for 75 minutes. Without music. It was the largest and most ambitious version of JOE to date.

Jean-Pierre Perreault was a brilliant and, at times, intimidating, presence. The energy of the room noticeably changed when he entered – eyes darted, muscles tensed, volume lowered. From the first day of rehearsal, we always dressed in our full JOE costumes, costumes that Jean-Pierre meticulously fine-tuned and approved. After weeks of donning these clothes, it struck me that I’d never looked at myself in the mirror with my full outfit on. I kind of liked that it added to my anonymity, my average JOE-ness. Jean-Pierre’s vision for every single aspect of the work was astonishing. And just when I thought he couldn’t possibly know my name or even notice me among the 32 dancers, he’d address me directly with specific notes. The best notes of my life!

For me, JOE was more than an artistic highlight. With a gobsmacking collection of some of this country’s best dancers; exhausting rehearsals; almost nightly 5 à 7 (happy hour); a boisterous and blurry national tour; multiple curtain calls that I’d never experienced before (or since); and a film shoot of the entire work in steamy summery Montreal, JOE was a fucking party man!

August and Everything After was my soundtrack during that time. I was 27; I was working in glorious Montreal on a piece that impacted me; I made a tough decision to leave my company job in Winnipeg for an indie career in Toronto; I liked a couple of boys; I was pining for another boy in New York; and I was having the time of my life.

This coming November, I’ll be dancing in JOE again, 20 years after my last time performing it. It’s a project between Moonhorse Dance Theatre and Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, giving amateurs the unique opportunity to experience this quintessential Canadian work, alongside a few of us professional JOEs. Sadly, Jean-Pierre passed away in 2002, but his presence will undoubtedly be felt. I will be assisting in the re-mount of the work, a tremendous honour indeed. Thankfully for my 49 year-old body and lungs, it’ll just be a 15-minute excerpt. It will also be the first time I’ve been on stage in a long time, but I’ve been itching to get back so huzzah for me!

And how’s this for timing: several months ago I saw that the Counting Crows were coming to Toronto this summer, 22 years after I first saw them in concert. I hemmed and hawed for a minute then thought, What the fuck? I passed on seeing Prince earlier this year, and he died suddenly weeks later. I mean, chances go as quickly as they come and sure, seeing a concert may not be a life-changing event, but it sort of can be, can’t it? Because what’s better than gathering with tens of thousands of people on a hot summer night, and belting out the killer lyrics to songs that mean something to us, that get under our skin, that instantly remind us of our stories and crushes and heartaches and who we were then and big decisions that changed us and the time of our lives.

Funny how things happen.

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