Friday, August 5, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 18

It's been a while since I've posted about the Vancouver Dance Histories project. Justine, Alexa and I have been individually dealing with other commitments. However, yesterday I was able to sit down with Judith Marcuse in the Artist-in-Residence office on the sixth floor of the Dance Centre to talk about her remarkable 50-year dance career, which includes roles as a dancer, choreographer, producer, educator, mentor, arts advocate, community activist and, in her capacity as Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the International Centre of Art for Social Change, my colleague at SFU.

We touched on many fascinating topics during our 90-minute conversation, but one thing that has stayed with me from near the end of our time together was an article published by UNESCO that Judith recommended to me. It is a study of how social and cultural and personal background informs artists' practices. Certainly Judith's own dance pedigree is impressive. She began her training in Montreal with her aunt, Elsie Salomans, who had studied with Kurt Jooss and Anna Sokoloff. At 15 Judith moved to London to study at the Royal Ballet School, where as she put it to me she experienced something of a double life: conforming to the Victorian-era strictures of RBS by day (which began with a weekly weigh-in) and delighting to sights and sounds of swinging sixties-era London by night. Following her studies at RBS, Judith danced with a string of major ballet companies, including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Ballets de Génève (where she got to experience the imperiousness of Balanchine, as well as the graciousness of his protege Patricia Neary), Bat-Dor Dance Company in Israel, the Oakland Ballet, and Ballet Rambert, where Judith said she felt most at home.

Indeed, it was at Rambert that Judith came into her own as a choreographer, creating Four Working Songs (based on the Studs Terkel book Working) in 1976; this piece would also be performed by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens later the same year in Halifax at the fourth Dance in Canada Conference, which Judith described to me as "legendary" and "absolutely wild." The Halifax premiere of Four Working Songs announced Judith as a major new choreographic talent in the country, earning her a Chalmers Award for Excellence in Choreography. This success, combined with the ascension of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership of the Conservative Party in the UK, convinced Judith and her husband Rick that it was time to return to Canada. They chose to settle in Vancouver, in part because of Rick's previous ties to the West Coast.

Soon after Judith launched an extensive period of freelance dancing and choreographing, creating works for Toronto's Dancemakers, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers and the RWB, and in Vancouver for Pacific Ballet Theatre, Mountain Dance Theatre, Goh Ballet, Arts Umbrella, the Vancouver Opera and the Vancouver Playhouse. In 1978, after being awarded the Clifford E. Lee Prize, she formed her own company, Judith Marcuse Dance Projects Society (now Judith Marcuse Projects, or JMP), among whose members were James Kudelka, Peggy Baker, Sacha Belinksky, Michael Trent and, more locally, Serge Bennethan and Joe Laughlin. Indeed, one of the things Judith said she was most proud of was giving a number of important local dancers their first jobs in the city, including Wen Wei Wang (whom she and Grant Strate helped relocate from China), and Alison Denham. Coincident with her own creations for Judith Marcuse Dance Projects Society, Judith founded in 1983 the Repertory Dance Company of Canada, a touring company that commissioned work from folks like Lar Lubavitch, Mark Morris and Ohad Naharin (before they became the international superstars they are today), as well as Canadian choreographers like Ginette Laurin, Lola McLaughlin, Christopher House, Danny Grossman, and Serge Bennethan. I asked Judith what it was like working with Mark Morris, and while she told me many things "off the record" during the course of our conversation, this I can share: apparently Mark liked his drink (he'd show up to rehearsal with a six-pack of beer), and also at that time wasn't very interested in cleaning up his work, which was left to rehearsal director Betty Carson and Judith herself.

In the 1990s, Judith created the KISS Project, which ran at Performance Works on Granville Island from 1995 to 2000, and which brought together local dance and theatre artists to experiment across disciplinary boundaries. She also began working more with teenagers, drawing on past collaborations with David Diamond (of Headlines Theatre) to create workshops and collaborative projects around teen suicide (ICE: beyond cool), violence (FIRE... where there's smoke), and the environment (EARTH=home). This period in Judith's dancemaking career dovetailed with her increasing involvement in the evolving international field of art for social change, culminating in the founding of ICASC at SFU in 2008. Most of Judith's current activities are devoted to running this Centre, managing its research partnerships, and consulting on social engagement through the arts nationally and internationally. On the latter front, Judith lamented that most recently this has meant lobbying the Canada Council on their "disappearance" of community engaged art from its revamped list of funding categories, with the two of us agreeing that community engagement has increasingly become an instrumental add-on for major companies to demonstrate empirically a version of "audience outreach"--rather than as a meaningful and material application of the arts for social change.

There were many more things Judith and I talked about, including her involvement in the realization of the The Dance Centre as a building (and her lamenting that they didn't follow up on her idea of including a coffee-shop or canteen on the premises) and amazing stories from her years of touring: how in the days before proper dance surfaces in most theatres they used Coca-Cola to make stage floors sticky; that her starting salary at Les Grand Ballets was $66/week; that she and her fellow dancers slept in the aisles and atop the luggage racks in their tour buses; and on and on.

As we do with everyone we interview, I ended with the WHY question: why Vancouver; and why stay? While acknowledging the struggle, as well as some of the conflict in the community over the years, Judith said that she nonetheless felt that the city remained a place "where you could try things." Arriving from London, she immediately fell in love with the landscape, noting that "there's air here." Throughout her years of touring, and still today whenever she returns from a speaking engagement or consulting trip, she always come back to this sentiment: in Vancouver there's space to breathe.


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