by Max Wyman
Kimberly Glasco said, "I've always just wanted to dance." James Kudelka made it clear she wouldn't dance in his company again. The controversy held the front pages of the Globe and Mail and its rival newspaper The National Post for months ... Everybody was taking sides ... dancers, judges, unions, taxi drivers, artistic directors, lawyers and reporters. Major blunders ... inflammatory words ... Exactly how this artistic/labour scuffle started, who said what to whom, and how it ended is told from the inside for the first time by Wyman ... revealing dance.
Vancouver-based writer Max Wyman has served as dance, music and drama critic, arts columnist and books editor with The Vancouver Sun and The Province for over thirty years and has authored three books on Canadian dance and dancers. He has contributed criticism and commentary to numerous publications, ranging from The New York Times and Maclean's to Dance Magazine.
Crossfade, by Peter Bingham
performed by EDAM, Vancouver, March, 1994.
Peter Bingham's work as artistic director of Vancouver's EDAM company has involved a steady refinement of the raw spontaneity of contact improvisation into the stuff of expressive art: the kinetic thrills of improvised movement, happening to order, in a codified form that looks like formal choreography but has the freshness and anarchic spirit of spontaneous invention. It sounds suspect, but when it all comes together, as it does with Crossfade, the new duet he performs with Kathleen McDonagh, you become a believer. McDonagh has a sly and confident command of the brave and athletic sinuousness that is Bingham's trademark - pantherish elegance, an ongoing love-hate relationship with the floor: structured energy. If movement could smoulder, his smoulders; flame is never far off. Crossfade is a hectic little poem of human intimacy. They're kneeling when the lights come up; she's behind him. She nuzzles her head around his outline, tugs him into imbalance and a fall by pulling the shoulder of his garment with her teeth. She kneels and it's his turn to nuzzle her from behind: he pushes his head up under her right arm, and swings her up and over and round and suddenly she's kneeling again and now he's lying in her lap. It's a simple sequence, but it has a sense of magical rightness; watching the way they fall at apparent random into such a satisfying resolution is a matter of mute, primitive delight. Moments like this keep occurring - they fling and push and roll each other in what look like abandoned and spontaneous outbursts, and yet they continue to reach these extraordinary moments of intimate, harmonious repose.
A lot of the work's charm is the sense of play they generate. He goes into an extended solo of his own gestural quirkiness, arms and legs and body atwitch, and she is clearly expected to follow it, to stay with him - which she does, but with a cheeky casualness that is entirely beguiling, playing along with him but not doing much of it full out, her lively face signalling to the audience her good-humoured tolerance of his serious games. Crossfade: perhaps to do with the spring-autumn look of them together, his scraped head, the face wearing its years, oddly vulnerable on her lap (though his body is as easy with the air as ever). At one point, Bingham lies curled, as if bound, and she sits, summoning him to her in a teasing, commanding way - "Come on, come on" - and he wriggles and writhes nearer and nearer until he can nestle against her knees. There's a warmth about it all, an intimate familiarity, a mutual reliance and understanding. The piece becomes a metaphor for, well, love, I guess and human kindness, anyway.
Here on the West Coast, we are undergoing radical societal changes. We are witnessing the disintegration of an established culture (primarily European) and the gradual construction of something quite new, much of it under the influence of the massive immigration from the countries of the Pacific Rim. In Canada as a whole, meanwhile, we are undergoing something of the same societal change, as we come to terms with the need to do justice to the needs and demands of the indigenous peoples of this country.
Those two main threads are bound tight together in Mixk'aax - and quite consciously. Karen Jamieson says her vision of dance is "one that speaks for a multi-cultural society, going beyond the definition of dance rooted in European culture. It draws upon the techniques and forms of Western dance, both classical and modern, but also looks to find the deeper roots of dance in an effort to cross cultural boundaries." She says also that her dance is "rooted in mythic thinking. It is primitive and pared down to essential archetypal images, speaking a universal language. It is distinctly West Coast in its expression of a geography and a history. It articulates the cultural collision that exists here at this time between European, Asian and indigenous ways of seeing the world."
These are bold and brave ambitions - foolhardy, some might say. But this is by no means Jamieson's first foray into this cultural minefield, and she has prepared herself exhaustively for this particular project. Her fascination with myth and metaphor as a means for the modern individual to come to terms with the world and her place in it is well documented. One of her most effective early pieces - Coming Out of Chaos - was an examination of myth-making. Sisyphus continued the exploration. So did Altamira. The West Coast became a specific focus in Rainforest, in which we saw her attempting to fuse the methods of extreme modernity with the essences of Coast Indian myth, magic and ritual. At the National Arts Centre last year we saw her embrace the dimension of rainforest spirituality that is evident in the paintings of Emily Carr. She has been increasingly concerned with the sense of the continuity of spirit of the place in which she finds herself - the place where she was born, and the place she has returned to to make her mature work.
How do we accommodate the arts in our lives? For the most part, we practise a benign neglect. It is accommodation by default - which is to say, we let artists and arts enterprises get on with whatever it is they do in whatever way they see fit. We acknowledge that creativity is involved, and we know the implicit dangers - creative individuals can be unpredictable creatures.
Still, we expect them to play by the rules of organized, civil society, and we make no special exceptions (nor, many would argue, should we) for their waywardness, or for the special conditions under which they operate.
Perhaps much of the confusion surrounding the Glasco case arose for precisely that reason - not much of the substance at the heart of the matter was actually written down, because no one had realised that formal codification was needed. An implicit, unspoken deal has always existed between dancers and artistic directors. I will dance for you, says the performer, as long as you want me to help you fulfil your vision; when it's no longer working, I will go away. I will employ you, says the artistic director, as long as I see you as part of my overall vision, and when it is no longer working, I will let you go.
There are obvious reasons why we don't find language like this in employment contracts; the labour movement has worked hard to ensure that fair conditions prevail in worker-employer relationships, and the potential for exploitation and maltreatment in a "deal" of that kind is obvious. But many in professional dance, both managers and employees, will tell you that it is precisely this implicit bargain that lies at the foundation of the harmonious functioning of the artform.
Artistic directors, as we shall see, affirm vehemently that this is the way it must be if they are to do the job they are hired to do. The performer is a vessel in the service of the main enterprise, the communication of the vision of the artistic director, who selects and employs those he considers most suited to that purpose. This "artistic discretion" was much discussed and defended during the Glasco hearings, and a large proportion of National Ballet dancers went on record in support of their artistic director and his right to that discretion.
Privately, dancers are not always comfortable with that notion, but it is something they have grown to live with. Dance, with its premium on youth and beauty, is a cruel world in which to work. Dancers spend many years training for a position that can be instantly terminated with the change of an artistic director or a change of artistic vision.
For instance, when Erik Bruhn took over The National Ballet in 1983, he steadily removed the upper echelon of the company to make way for a new generation of dancers, among them Kimberly Glasco, whose own career might not have unfolded in the way it did had that not happened. Not all of them went gently into that good night. But without that ability to move ahead, it is argued, the ballet would stagnate.
Should that change? If not, can this special relationship be formalized? Are there better ways to protect the interests of the individuals and both those who create and those who give living substance to that creation?
How do we reconcile labour law, in which respect for individual rights is a principal plank, with creative endeavours like ballet, which, while they work on a collaborative basis, are controlled by the decisions of a single individual? These are all interesting questions, and while the case itself pivoted on the precise issue, as defined by arbitrator Christopher Albertyn, of whether or not the ballet acted within its rights when it decided not to renew Glasco's contract, it provides an ideal opportunity to think about how we might effect a smoother reconciliation between law and art.
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