An interview with the dancers and choreographers of ‘Namesake: three’

Kate Alton, Kate Franklin and Kate Holden
Kate Alton, Kate Franklin and Kate Holden Image by David Hou

An interview with dance artists and producers Kate Franklin (KF) and Kate Holden (KH) and their choreographers Emily Molnar (EM), Kate Alton (KA) and Marc Boivin (MB).

Just before the premiere of Namesake: Three

Presented by DanceWorks at Enwave Theatre September 23-25, 2009

Where does the name firstthingfirst come from? What does it mean to you?

KH: firstthingsfirst came out of the way that Kate and I tend to prioritize and work together – if I remember correctly Franklin came up with the name.

KF: I was looking for a title that would describe what Kate H and I are all about.  I hit upon firstthingsfirst because I feel that Kate H and I have a shared desire to put the work we do as dancers very high up on our list of priorities in our lives. Many of the choices we had made in our lives had dance as a really central focus. firsthingsfirst is about us having the courage to pinpoint our exact dreams for ourselves in dance and then pursuing them relentlessly.

Kate F and Kate H: you both do many different kinds of work — what made you want to take on this enterprise as well?

KF: This enterprise fulfills two different parts of my dance personality – the first one is to surrender complete control over to the choreographer and throw all of my energy into embodying his or her vision.  The second is to have complete control as a producer over the whole evening!

KH: The original idea of working together and commissioning work was Kate Alton’s. Our work as dancers so often relies on getting the audition and the choreographer receiving funding – I love being on the flip side.  Being responsible for bringing people together, making something happen, choosing our collaborators.

What drew you to each of the choreographers on this program?

KF: We wanted to repeat the experience of working with Kate Alton again.  She made an amazing duet for us called “Double Life” for our first mixed program, “Namesake.”  The duet was extremely challenging physically and mentally, and we wanted that again.  And we got it.  The new duet she is working on, “for the love of” is going to be an awesome piece.

We both were drawn to Marc for his great understanding and love of dance, his curiosity as an artist and his personality.  We couldn’t wait to see what working with him as a choreographer would be like.  And we have loved every minute of it.

I was a Mentor Programme student at Ballet BC when Emily Molnar was a principal dancer there.  She has always been one of my favourite dancers in Canada, with some special quality that can’t be taught.  Kate Holden had a great time working with Emily in the fall of 2008 in her work for ProArte Danza.  Smack in the middle of our time together, she was offered the job as Artistic Director of Ballet BC, which was very exciting for her.  Her piece for us is very fun to do, with some structured improvised stuff, and some text.  Being in the studio with someone who has danced for William Forsythe is a pretty cool opportunity as well.

DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three'
DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three' Image by David Hou

KH: With Kate Alton we’re revisiting an ongoing creative relationship. Her first creation for us in 2007 was an extremely complex and dynamic ten minutes of dancing and we felt that we had much more to explore with her. Marc Boivin’s qualities in his roles as a teacher and dancer influence his work as a creator. There’s a generosity, fluidity, a quiet complexity and openness and his experience as an improviser brings a lot of play into the creative process. Emily Molnar is a performer that I’ve always admired.  We commissioned her before having seen much of her choreography.  She creates with great intellect and care, and has an innate ability to coach movement and bring more from her dancers.

To the choreographers: what qualities did you want to explore with these dancers?

KA: They are such accomplished dancers. I wanted to capitalize their craving as young and hungry dancers to be pushed physically. Much of the movement is big, lush, exhausting and way off centre.

EM: In creating the duet I was curious to explore the idea of a continuous present, a reflective space, and seeing one thing from various angles. I also wanted to capture a uniqueness and individuality of something personal to each of the artists.

MB: I’d say that I was directed simply toward who these people are. Since these are very talented and highly able dancers I was stimulated to develop a movement language for each and a common one for all. The main quality ended up being a very directed kinesthetic sense.

It is really what they did with the material, how they embodied it that guided me toward specifying qualities. Sometimes it is by zeroing in on what I see already there. Other times it is by offering to go to the opposite just to see if and how it can enliven the movement proposition. Overall, I see in the piece a kinesthetic relationship to ambiances, I always like this play of tension in a theatrical space, where a sensation becomes palpable before it is cognitively recognized.

Also to the choreographers: how did the subject/premise for the work arise for you? How did the dancers influence the shape/theme/content?

KA: The central movement vocabulary came from going through the most gut-wrenching, soul-destroying heartbreak of my life. I started with one gesture that expressed moving from the height of joy to the depths of utter despair. The aim was to use this creation as a means to climb back into the world of the living and celebrate the things that I love. I owe so much to Kate and Kate, they have put their trust in me twice now and given me a safe space in which to explore. They are always willing to follow me in any direction I go and to change tack completely if I walk in with a whole new concept. Their faith in me means the world to me.

EM: When I was first approached to create this duet I immediately thought of Gertrude Stein. As I researched the connection I became attracted to Stein’s comments in her essay Composition as Explanation. This is where I discovered the idea of a continuous present. From there associations and ideas branched off and started to expand. The artists were a huge influence in discovering the content of the work.  My intention in all of my creations is to collaborate with the dancers. The piece starts with an idea but is transformed by the presence and personality of the artist. The intelligence and creativity of Kate H and Kate F were governing forces in the outcome of the work. In the duet the dancers are asked to work with improvisational scores as well as organized choreographic tasks. There is an authenticity and ownership from the dancer that the work is dependent on. This I find exciting!

MB: The premise for this work was the inspiration I received from reading Nancy Huston’s essay L’espèce fabulatrice *. In it is defended the idea that humans can imagine, create and that our fictions are our reality, “Our imagination along with our fragility. Without it – without imagination that confers to reality a sense of meaning that it doesn’t possess by itself – we would have already disappeared….” * L’espèce fabulatrice, Nancy Huston, copyright ACTE SUD, 2008

When embarking on a creative process the focus for me is to gather to the foreground of my attention whatever might be lurking in me that will inevitably work itself up and take over anyway. A project is unique in the same way that an individual is a mix of genetics, environment and destiny. The piece could have been titled « watching serendipity… and choosing to follow it ». It is a revealing process to discover from observation where resonance happens when bodies move and to arrest there one’s attention. Kinaesthesia is an open window on the singularity of being. To construct an aesthetic space is to long for perception, feeling and sensing.

DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three'
DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three' Image by David Hou

Another premise, a specific parameter that helped shape this project was the invitation that I received from Sylvie Bouchard to create a piece for Dusk Dances (2009). The timing was so close to the firstthingsfirst productions project that I proposed to link the two and use the resources from both to each of the propositions by joining them in a longer fuller project. The fictions project became the umbrella for me to focus my attention on one project in two parts, two creative processes. Creating both pieces Withrow Park (for Dusk Dances) and Fictions: Chroma Key (for Namesake: three) allowed me to make two different works using sometimes some of the same movement material, sometimes creating specific sections for each and most of all having the chance to play with different processes because of the very different settings.

The black box and the « natural » in situ performance areas are completely different and the viewer in each is in a different state. This definitely helped guide my choreographic choices

For Namesake: three the work for me was to start where the Withrow Park experience left me, to identify what I discovered creating it and define a new process. The Withrow Park piece became a backdrop for me to refer to a bit like the reverse process that cinema uses with the blue (or green) screen effect, called the Chroma key, where someone’s environment is projected over them. Fictions: Chroma key (the new piece) could be received as the dissected version of the previous one, of selected and restructured elements that seemed to take precedence.

Regarding « shape/theme/content », the theme is omnipresent in everyone’s mind (this idea that we create our own fictions), the shape is built together (a constructed and deconstructed environment as a game of trying to figure things out), Then as for content, it is very much about bridging the choreographic propositions with the premise, hoping that shape and content do communicate, not necessarily on a direct cognitive level but definitely on a sensory one.

What are qualities or values you aspire to as an artist? Can you relay a story or anecdote from working on this project that brought you to your aspirations?

KF: As a producer, you are asked to do some seemingly impossible things and you must try your best to come up with a solution.  Particularly when these seemingly impossible things are requests from one of the choreographers that will help to realize their vision.  Without giving you a specific example, let’s just say that audiences will see some pretty incredible things in our show!!

KH: I’ve been thinking about transparency and openness a lot. I had a moment in the studio with Marc working on an improvisation, where he started to talk about taking in the room. About seeing the whole room, making eye contact with viewers, being frontal in 360-degree kind of way that’s not presentational but allows the viewer to see you fully. I think it’s going to be an ongoing exploration.

KA: I want to give something to people – a moment of identification, catharsis, pleasure, reflection, awe, satisfaction, understanding, or provoke in them the urge to question.

EM: The values and qualities I aspire to as an artist and in my work are honesty, humility, courage, risk and intention.  Working with Kate and Kate one is greeted with the commitment to possibility. If you ask them to jump, they will ask ” How high?”

MB: Certainly my work as a dancer has taught me a great deal about my relationship to the world. As an example, for me the concept of truth is never in an achieved state it is more an acceptance that things are such at a given time and will probably appear differently in the near future. But my body is the place where I judge my own truth, where I try to listen whether I’m facing up to it, what I really feel and think. Dance has helped me get in touch with that in a deeper way.

Another value (if it can be called that) is the thought that each person has an individual sensitivity and that this is what has to be understood before interaction. I don’t always achieve this but it does occupy my mind often and I certainly notice when people pay attention to it around me.

As far as relating these thoughts to the creative process with the Kates…hearing what they think and what they perceive was important for me and I couldn’t have done that without trusting them 100%, meaning that I sincerely felt their commitment to figuring out the work outside of a personal agenda.

Again to Kate F and Kate H: what is the hardest thing about commissioning work?

KF: Getting the funds together to make it happen, and booking studio space. Besides that, I don’t think there is anything hard about it.  It is important to just go with the flow, see where the process will lead you.  There will be things that you didn’t expect, but that is the fun of it.

KH: Money is always such a limiting factor. If we could afford to we would work twice as long on each of these pieces – but as it is it took us over 2 years to get the funding in place for Namesake: three.  And I consider us lucky to have all the support that we do.

What is your favourite mode of transportation?

KF: Bicycle

KH: Train I think – I’m on the GO train right now. But I also have a passion for road trips.

KA: I love the moment of take off in an airplane. I would love to hang glide. Most of all, I want to learn how to fly in one of those parachute-like suits in which you can spread your arms and legs and soar through wind currents down mountainsides.

EM: Walking

MB: I do love planes, airports, waiting areas, rides to and from the airport, taking off, landing, changing time zones and being up in the air (which always feels ridiculously peculiar to me… but fun!).  What I love the most about flying is how it marks out the life of a « freelancer ». Often when I’m in the air it is either because I’m about to begin a new project or have just finished one and I love those times.

Favourite colour?

KF: Green

KH: It changes daily but I’m partial to blue/greens

KA: How could I ever choose?

EM: At the moment it is orange.

MB: Can’t really say I have one, my house is in earthy tones, my clothes are all over the map and I don’t react more to one colour than another I must admit.

Favourite subway station (in any city)?

KF: Main Street station in Toronto.  My cousins, aunt and uncle lived there (and my aunt and uncle still do live there), so it is the first subway station I ever visited in Toronto when we used to come down from North Bay.  When I moved to Toronto, I moved right into the same neighourhood (I lived in the basement of a family friend) so it was my subway station for the first 5 years of my life in T.O.

KH: I don’t really like the subway. I would prefer to be on my bike.

KA: Dupont. Because it is unique.

EM: It would have to be Broadway/City Hall in Vancouver because it is has recently opened and gets me to work on time!

MB: I think it’d be the Avtovo station in the St-Petersburg Metro (that I discovered on tour with Coleman / Lemieux & Co). It is one of the deepest subways in the world and just the wooden escalator trip down is worth seeing. Inside, it is the gated doors to the actual subway that I found impressive, the edge of the platform is closed off by these big doors leaving people to wait in a lavish wide corridor.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Petersburg_Metro

Favourite emotion?

KF: All of them.

KH: Happiness that brings you to tears – I have a habit of crying when I’ve missed someone a lot and we’re re-united, just cause I’m so happy to see them.

KA: Euphoria

EM: Curiosity.

MB: Is love an emotion? Then of course, love. Then if love doesn’t qualify as an emotion it’d have to be peace… and my apologies for sounding so 1968. I was born in 63 and missed out on that period. Surely would’ve loved to roll in the mud hadn’t I been 5 (and a good catholic boy!).

How have you been spending your summer?

DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three'
DanceWorks presents firstthingsfirst productions - 'Namesake: three' Image by David Hou

KF: I have been working a lot on Namesake: three.  This included a trip to Montreal in the spring, running masterclasses with Marc Boivin, our “Funraiser” party at my loft.  With Dusk Dances, I was involved in four different parks this year as a choreographer and a dancer, and also choreographed for the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival in the site-specific series.  I even got a chance to go to North Bay for a week to hang out at my Dad’s place, which is right on Trout Lake and it is a great spot. We have a pontoon boat there, and a wood-burning sauna.  I took Kate Holden with me for the whole week.  We had a joke that it was a company “team-building exercise!”  Oh, and also it was my birthday last weekend.  I am now 29 and I own an iPod for the first time in my life!

KH: working on Namesake: three for the most part. At the beginning of the summer I started a new project with Peggy Baker that will be performed in February 2010. I’ve had a few small holidays but this has been a working summer.

KA: I went to Berlin with a show and have been in the studio with the Kates ever since. Outside the studio, breaking the bank through home improvement!

EM: Working at my new job as interim Artistic Director of Ballet BC.

MB: Going between work, friends and family. Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Cape Cod. Not quite enough rest but such is life sometimes and definitely no complaints.

Back to Kate F and Kate H: what do you hope your audiences will take away from your production?

KF: I hope they will be inspired by the communicative power of physicality.  I hope they will be able to almost feel what we are feeling onstage. I hope that they will go through a range of emotions and states throughout the evening.  And I hope that they will see three powerful, versatile female performers give great performances!

KH: I’m hoping they will experience a dynamic, kinetic, emotional evening. It’s a mixed programme and the works are quite different, there really is something for everyone. Whether it’s an escape, entertainment, enlightenment or all three, I hope they will feel like they’ve been through something with us.

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