I was working on a big piece in Victoria with the symphony orchestra and composer Barbara Cole – she is a native person. We had to figure out the complexity of how to deal with music, film, digital media because the audience is changing – it's a reality. Generations of dance viewers are dying right now; people don't have the patience they did and theatres are emptying. It's not what is on stage, but how we customize it for younger audiences, how we embrace complexity, that will make a difference. To me it's crazy – because right now, dance is everywhere! How we can reach today's kids and bring them to this rich work, create new audiences, is a big question. There has to be a different approach.
It's happened in my career that I've moved away from the sacrifice – and smallness and lack of visibility – often associate with dance. Earlier on, when I started doing film, my work was suddenly being viewed all over the world. More recently, choreographing for big events like the Olympics has come my way. The idea that you can have three billion and a half viewers … Wow! That is something I can't even comprehend now. It's not sinking in yet because to me it was more about the work. There were all these protocols. After twenty years of working in Canada, I understood the need to acknowledge the protocols of all these different communities and the importance of respecting these fantastic art forms. The practitioners are contemporary masters of their arts – and they create the evolution of traditional dance forms. Powwows, for instance, in the past ten years, have been revolutionized in North America. Now you see team dance, for the last decade or so. There's a crafting, there's a way to use the space, to use the music, in large arenas – it's amazing what's going on.
Working with fourteen different Inuit nations, I have been learning a huge amount over the past couple of years – learning and learning. I've also been doing a lot of dramaturgy – being the conductor, continuing to bring all these voices together, and the echoes, to bring again to light simplicity, and intention – what is the intention of gesture. Evoking presence on the stage, how the dancers should be informed, so they're not misguided. Sometimes I see pieces and ask the choreographer their intention – they have amazing ideas, amazing outlines; then I ask the dancers and they have a completely different clue about the piece. One of the keys is communication. Another is planning.
With the Olympics, I had my score in hand, broken down to the second. I had 375 dancers and just a few rehearsals with them – being well-prepared was how I could get it done. I also did choreography with the theme song. I wanted to bring my key dancers, the powwow dancers. We understood one another well, and I was granted this privilege.
Before that, I did a gala for the Yukon Territories – a big project, over eight months. I was approached to produce a gala to represent the Yukon at the Olympics, respecting and representing all the different cultures, which are very distinct and separate. I accepted, but said training would be needed. There was a process. I went into the communities to work with and train people.
We performed first at the beautiful theatre they have in Whitehorse, the Yukon Arts Centre. I thought, “Let's use all the toys in this beautiful facility, fabulous lights, screens that go up and down” … Also, I wanted to preview it there, so we could make our mistakes at home. It was very difficult technically; we had a lot of people to mic and so on. They wanted a film, and I created a concept of the four seasons. To present the narrative in a different way, I had two actors telling the story of the territory, so it was manifested through music, through dance and through storytelling. It was very successful; we packed houses there and at the Olympics – and they want to do a tour now. It was very hard for everyone, but they were all committed, and everyone learned a lot. I learned a lot, and it was a beautiful experience.
Other projects came to me through that – I was approached by the City of Toronto to do the Torch Relay. It was great – though I was doing my MFA at the same time! – because I had the opportunity to work with local companies: Esmeralda Enrique, COBA, a modern company from Niagara Falls, the Samba Squad – it was a beautiful collaboration. Again, I had to figure out how to work with everyone together, direct, organize and produce, break things down and respect people's protocols.