Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 20

Yesterday at my Woodward's office I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie LeFebvre Gnam for our Vancouver dance histories project. Earlier that day plastic orchid factory had just begun the load-in to the Wong Theatre of their set and equipment for their newest show, Digital Folk, which they will be rehearsing for the next three weeks in advance of its September 21 opening. Natalie, with her son Finn in tow, graciously took time out to talk with me about all things terpsichorean that had led to this significant moment.

Among other things, that meant talking about her childhood in Prince George, where as a young 11-year old dance student a light bulb went off when Joe Laughlin came through town and taught a workshop. "Oh," Natalie suddenly thought, "this is what dance could be." Mary Louise Albert followed, and it was she who encouraged Natalie to apply for a summer scholarship position at Montreal's École supérieure de ballet du Québec. Eventually Natalie began studying there full time, which led to an apprenticeship at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and, eventually, a professional contract with the company under the artistic directorship of Larry Rhodes (now head of the dance division at Julliard). It was at LGB that Natalie met her husband, James Gnam (she told him she admired his legs). However, she and James suddenly found themselves out of a job when Rhodes left (the details of his departure still remain unclear to Natalie) and most of the company dancers' contracts weren't renewed.

Feeling broken physically and emotionally, Natalie and James moved across the country to Victoria with the intention of taking an early retirement from dance. But while studying naturopathy, Natalie began taking class again at Linda Raino's studio and rediscovered her love of dance. Coincidentally, James made his first solo for Natalie, "Jim on the Phone," at this time. Following a showing in Victoria at Linda's studio, they brought the piece to Vancouver as part of a presentation series at the Moberly Arts Centre organized by Desiree Dunbar. Lola McLaughlin would see it, which would have important consequences for when Natalie and James began plastic orchid factory.

But that was still five years away. In the interim, Natalie had accepted a contract to dance with my colleague Judith Garay's company, Dancers Dancing, which precipitated her and James's full-time move to Vancouver. Soon after James was hired by Ballet BC and the two began settling into the dance community here, which included, for Natalie, taking class with Wen Wei Wang and at Arts Umbrella with Grant Strate and Yannick Matthon, among others. A highlight during this time was also dancing in the 2007 Vancouver Opera production of The Magic Flute, where Natalie got to work with Michelle Olson. Then, in 2007-2008, things started happening in rapid succession: Natalie and James's son, Finn, was born; Ballet BC exploded; and plastic orchid was incorporated as a company. 

Natalie said to me that the combination of having Finn and working on Endorphin, pol's first major work, changed her relationship to her body and to dance, and that as a result it remains a watershed moment in her career. Certainly the piece seemed to punctuate a transition for both Natalie and James from the world of ballet to the world of contemporary dance, a transition underscored by the fact that just prior to her death, having seen an early version of the piece, Lola McLaughlin nominated James and Natalie for a Mayor's Arts Award. And now, eight years later, about to premiere pol's most ambitious piece to date (and also coincidentally once again with child!), and with the renovations on pol's new shared space with MACHiNENOiSY and Tara Cheyenne Performance set to begin this fall, it would seem that Natalie's place in Vancouver's contemporary dance scene is not just secure, but absolutely integral.


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