by Carol Anderson
with a foreword by Mikhail Baryshnikov
Edmonton-born Peggy Baker is acclaimed as one of the most outstanding dance artists of her generation. For decades, she has influenced dancers in both modern dance and ballet, and has captivated audiences across North America, Asia and Europe. Baker has worked with the world’s leading dance figures to include Mikhail Baryshnikov, Paul-André Fortier, James Kudelka, Lar Lubovitch and Mark Morris; her collaborations with superb musicians, filmmakers, visual artists and designers are legend.
Through Anderson’s eloquent words and her intimate knowledge of the art from, we see inside the dance life of an extraordinary performer, creator and teacher: “She is a living integrator of impulse and emotion, and she shines with transformation. Baker is a complex and inspiring figure”.
Peggy Baker’s many honours and awards include the 2006 Premier’s (Ontario) Award for Excellence in the Arts, two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Performance, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary, the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. Appointed in 1992, Baker is the first ever Artist-in-Residence at Canada’s National Ballet School.
Carol Anderson has pursued a diverse career as a contemporary dancer, choreographer, director, educator and writer. She started her performing career as a member of Judy Jarvis’ original company and in 1974 became a charter member of Dancemakers; she was the Toronto company’s artistic director from 1985-1988. Her own choreography includes numerous works for the concert stage, theatre and film. In 1988, Anderson began her writing career, and is the author of a growing body of writing on Canadian dance, and other cultural matters. She is an Associate Professor in the Dance Program at York University.
Peggy Baker is a passionate proponent of contemporary dance. Both an icon of dance and an artist swimming joyously in midstream, she is an avid, articulate lover of her art. A consummate performer, once seen on the stage, she is unforgettable; for her, performances radiate a crystalline quality of profound artistry, physical acuity and unique emotional strength. An Olympian of the dance, she has helped forge a new model of feminine strength and is part of a generation of dancers who are extending their performing careers, opening the perspective of maturity for dance artists in new ways. Baker's art is truly a work in progress, integrating her work as a performer, teacher and choreographer in ever-changing, interweaving patterns.
Peggy Baker was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, and studied drama at the University of Alberta. At a drama workshop while still in high school, she met Patricia Beatty, a co-founder of Toronto Dance Theatre, and was inspired by her teaching and dancing. At the age of nineteen, Baker moved to Toronto to study at Toronto Dance Theatre and was soon dancing with that company as an apprentice. In 1974, she became a founding member of the Toronto-based company Dancemakers. She was seen by Lar Lubovitch at a summer session and invited to join his prestigious company. She spent a decade, from 1980-1990, in New York City, performing Lubovitch's challenging work, touring internationally with his company, and latterly studying and working with Irene Dowd, noted for her neurologically based work with dancers. Baker was a member of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris's White Oak Dance Project in its first season. In 1990 she returned to Canada to live, and has developed a company, Peggy Baker Dance Projects, that supports her flourishing solo career.
Baker's devotion to contemporary dance is profound. She is respectful of its evolution and traditions, its challenges and possibilities. At the same time she has a thoroughly contemporary and highly individual aesthetic sensibility. At the apex of her maturity as a performer, she lives with an acute sense of time. Though one can hope that she will continue to dance forever, and she has endured many injuries and come back again and again to dance, her onstage presence is made more poignant by the passage of time.
While Baker values the immediacy and perspective of “living in a dancer's body” as she teaches, there is no doubt that her teaching career will go on when she is no longer performing. Her friend Susan Macpherson reflects that the dance community is very fortunate that Baker, a generous and thoughtful teacher, chooses to continue to teach parallel to her performing career. Widely respected in this role, Baker is the first ever artist-in-residence at Canada's National Ballet School, where she heads the modern dance program. In part through Baker's introduction of kinesiological knowledge and anatomically based study, a new era of physical awareness and healthy use of the dancer's body have taken root at the National Ballet School. This deepening awareness of the body is part of a worldwide, growing fund of knowledge about dance teaching, which is in part responsible for extending dancers' careers. The trend toward dancing simply, soundly, with understanding of one's own unique physical reality seems linked to a burgeoning sense of how to live in the world, to a sense of responsibility for the immediate, a sounding of wisdom within.
What makes Peggy dance? I have known her over the course of her performing life, and this question has occurred in manifold ways. Imagery and potential become physical reality through dance, expressed in poetic and kinetic form. In its most essential realizations, the art of dance is a profound metaphor for physical and spiritual attainment. Peggy Baker brings this metaphor to life through her ongoing love and devotion to dance, and through her splendid dancing. Gutsy, intelligent and elegant, animating force of an eloquent art, Peggy Baker sustains her love affair with dance, a story of shape-shifting, enriching change. Out of the curious alchemy that makes a dancer - sweat, will, physical gifts, intelligence and vision - Baker has created her dancing being. She has followed her own path, understood process and aesthetics with rapture and devotion, with determination, discipline, will, and by sweating it out.
Dance's trials of body, mind and spirit are often arduous, and lonely beyond imagining. Over the span of her career, Baker has risen to the singular challenges of becoming a dancer, a company member, a solo artist, a creator and a masterful teacher. She is a living integrator of impulse and emotion, and she shines with transformation. She is a complex and inspiring figure - and she loves to laugh. Her infectious laugh is unmistakable, recognized in dance audiences across the country.
Baker has embodied and altered ideas and theories, ways of seeing and being, that have attracted, engaged, stimulated and challenged her. She has literally metabolized and been nourished by artistic influences, inspirations, physicality and desire. She is sensitive to the idea that she is testament to all that she has danced. She incorporates ideas and movement inspirations while paying homage to earlier physical and artistic ideas and pursuits. Yet within her metamorphosis, earlier ideas and modes of artistic expression remain available as her own living history, her memory body. Part of Baker's compelling stage presence stems from the immediacy of all the dramatic and physical layers of her dances.
Baker is very thoughtful about her decades-long journey as a dancer. It is rare that a dancer's career is long enough to allow consideration of how circumstance, achievement and artistry have informed one another over a long span of time. Peggy Baker integrates past and present, finding resonance from earlier experiences in her current practice. Her memory is keen and her sense of time is fluid; she makes links between memory and the present, affirming themes and transformations over the arc of her extended dance career. An early mentor, pioneering Canadian dance artist Patricia Beatty, assured Peggy Baker that dance would change her. Dance has, in fact, changed Baker profoundly.
Now, Peggy Baker is a symbol of great expectations. She inspires. She signifies a new way of being and changing through knowledge, commitment and education. Her energies seem to shoot out to a wide and vibrant world of art and potential - a potent blend of intensity and the certainty of a rich legacy to come. By moving very deeply into her own dance life, Baker encourages growth and transformation in others. Through the way she integrates personal necessity and artistic drive, she affects other dancers, artistic collaborators, students and audiences, inspiring changes in perception, ability and individual vision.
Unfold: A Portrait of Peggy Baker focusses on Baker's artistic life. I am both awed and fascinated by her longevity as a dancer, and by the way new spirals of her activity and interests refer to the whole resonance of her artistic career. This writing offers considerations of Baker's training and influences in dance, in theatre, of her work with neuromuscular specialist Irene Dowd, and of certain people by whom she has been inspired. It explores her performing career, with Dancemakers, Lar Lubovitch Dance Company and the White Oak Project, and since 1990, as a solo artist. The text looks at her teaching career, which has reached thousands of dance students in Canada, the United States and Europe. It also reflects on her choreography - a focus for her characteristic line, musicality and sense of design in space - and on the exemplary ways that she has developed to investigate her work and legacy. This portrait of planes and urgencies, impulse and expression, is a glimpse of Baker and her dancing art. Many themes, ideas, artistic issues and influences interweave. Thinking about her work as a dancer, choreographer and teacher has felt at times like considering a beautiful, symbolic garden labyrinth, in which every leaf and plant is part of a constantly unfolding design; with every new growth and change in relationship, the overall symbolism and significance shift. In discussions with Baker, the metaphor of the garden has frequently come up; it has often found a home in her work, and has a place in my own thoughts as well, for the garden is a site of cultivation and evolution, a ground of change and experiment, formality and freedom, beauty, labour and seasonal rightness. Given Peggy Baker's contemporaneity and active awareness of the past, her hunger to understand and integrate experiences, it made sense to write along the chronological line of her dance life as it has unfolded so far.
Toronto, January 2008