by Kaija Pepper
The Man Next Door Dances begins with Peter Bingham’s formative years growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as his life begins to be driven by a passion for and commitment to dance, the focus is on the art and on the all-consuming creative act.
Studying Bingham’s work so closely and gaining access to the choreographic process from behind the scenes – through video records, archival material and interviews with the artistic team – has been a great adventure. The result is an investigation of the “why” and the “how” of making dance from Bingham’s perspective: Why choose this particular movement? Why make this dance at all? How to begin and how to keep going?
This might seem a bit like peeking under the magician’s cape, but there was never any fear the magic would be revealed and the work would lose its luster. The art of dance is such a strange and wonderful thing … surely, that it exists in this world at all will always continue to amaze.
It was in 1975 with Linda Rubin at her Vancouver studio, Synergy, that Peter Bingham took his first dance class. Comfortably dressed in drawstring pants and an East Indian-styled cotton shirt, the twenty-four-year-old felt very much at home: “I got turned onto it completely and immediately signed up for classes four nights a week.” Here was the physical excitement he craved, and a dance space where there was room to move. As well, unlike the clubs where he normally danced, there was a strong health-conscious atmosphere and he managed to cut back his cigarette habit, which had reached between one and two packs a day. Soon, he was not smoking at all.
Bingham’s attraction to Rubin’s classes went deeper than the physical, and he also connected to her affinity with the era’s intense social conscience, which made for a radically different kind of dance studio. At Synergy, dance was about cooperation, not competition, and the way an individual dancer felt about what they were doing was crucial. The deep relationship between body, mind and spirit appealed to Bingham; here, dance expressed the individual as a whole human being, in an atmosphere that was calm, stressing inner serenity and strength. Synergy brought together the various strands of Bingham’s life in a way he had never before experienced: his religious upbringing and his love of athletics were transformed into a dance practice that reflected the holistic social and spiritual philosophies of his generation.
After studying with Rubin for about five months, Bingham began helping with administrative chores, as well as assisting during classes. He absorbed the more abstract concepts that were part of Rubin’s teaching, such as awareness of shape and line, and fostering a central focus during group improvisations.
Soon, Bingham joined the Synergy Performing Association. In addition to Daniel Collins, other members were Bingham’s friend Bruce Fraser, and English teacher and tutor Peter Ryan. Also in the group was dancer Mary Craig; Michael Seamus Linehan, who had been “into” yoga before discovering dance; Andrew Harwood, who came to Vancouver from Montreal to work for his brother at Lifestream, a popular natural foods store; and Helen Clarke, an Australian who travelled west after taking a workshop with Rubin in Halifax.
Another SPA member, Jane Ellison, had studied modern dance with Paula Ross while in high school. “The bodywork was significant for me,” she says of Synergy. “It really changed my idea of working in dance. It was so experiential – you breathed, you felt, you used your senses, your own experience.” Later, Ellison coordinated the dance program and managed the studio rentals for the artist run centre, the Western Front, until a dance company called EDAM took over.
When Rubin left the Western Front to move into her own space on the upper floor of the Arcadian Hall, a simple wooden building built in 1905 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Bingham joined the eager work crew. Situated on Main Street next to an auto wrecking operation and just a few blocks northwest of the Western Front, the large studio had lots of windows, a high ceiling and a sprung wood floor. The crew painted the walls and ceiling white, added some plants and mirrors, and installed a good sound system.
It was in this warm and welcoming space, where he felt very much at home, that Bingham presented his first dance work. He and Clarke, with whom he was romantically involved, created a structured improvisation sporting the confounding title, if two and two still = two all the rest is easy. During his solo section, he sat cross-legged on the floor and performed a dance with one arm and hand to a gentle song, Hand-dancing, by Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
Also on the bill was an open improvisation called Emerging Images directed by Rubin, who performed with Bingham, Clarke, Harwood and Ryan. In a group work by Harwood, the performers first impersonated a washing machine and then the clothes hanging out to dry. It might have been goofy, but it was also a lot of fun, and the audience of about one hundred enjoyed the evening.
Today, Bingham recognizes Linda Rubin’s importance to his artistic growth, and to the Vancouver scene in general:
"Synergy opened people up to the notion of being creative together in an improvisational way. And it was with knowledge, it wasn’t just getting together and playing….
"I would never have had anything to do with ballet. Neither would most of the other guys there. Linda made it possible for us to dance."
For athletic men like Bingham, who had attended only one formal dance performance in his life – a modern company at his high school, the details of which he cannot recall – Rubin made dance approachable. More than that, at Synergy athleticism was not out of place. This was dance for real people. A number of the women wore traditional black leotards and tights with stirrup feet, but sweat pants or light cotton trousers were common, particularly for the men.
Dancing at Synergy was, for many, spiritually and emotionally healing. In the improvisations, through emphasis on individual expression and in the demand for openness to others, there was a healthy mix of personal freedom and social interaction. The paradox was that you had to be yourself in order to participate effectively as part of the team. This was the bedrock on which Bingham would build his understanding of what it was to be an artist.