Karen Jamieson’s Sisyphus
By Kaija Pepper
There are many ways to tell the myth of Sisyphus. The key elements are the protagonist, Sisyphus, and the punishment given him by the gods, which is the eternal toil of pushing a boulder up a mountain. The size of that mountain, and how long the ascent takes, are not of much import because when the boulder reaches the summit, it is pre-ordained to roll back down. Then Sisyphus begins his arduous task all over again. His life is consumed with the need to push that heavy, unyielding object up and up and up … then follow it down … and push it up …
Karen Jamieson made Sisyphus, which Canada’s Dance Collection Danse Magazine declared one of the ten choreographic masterworks of the twentieth century, early on in her career in 1983. She had already created over a dozen short works, as well as the 50-minute Coming Out of Chaos, and had the 1980 Chalmers Award for Choreography under her belt.
As rehearsals began, Jamieson had not formalized even to herself what the new piece was about. Meaning developed slowly, out of the fertile ground of daily life. At the time, Jamieson was in her mid-thirties and had recently broken away from Terminal City Dance, a collective she co-founded in 1975, in order to set up shop on her own. She recalls that swirling around in her psyche was “the urge to be an individual and resist being swallowed up by the community,” and that she was also obsessed with thoughts “about the monumental task and audacity of trying to build a company.” All this fed into the work and at some point Jamieson realized: “I was making a piece about going against the flow and taking the path of most resistance. It was about effort. It was about work.”
Work not only interested her, it obsessed her. Her work—dance—was a fine and cherished calling, and yet it involved the kind of repetitious physical toil that made Sisyphus such a figure of pity. At least, that’s how he was portrayed in the book of Greek mythology Jamieson was then reading to her son at bedtime. Once dancers as workers—as “the labouring class of the art form”—were connected to the story of Sisyphus, Jamieson had her theme.
The piece began to find its physical form in the shape of a soloist who was a force of resistance against the ensemble. The soloist was Jay Hirabayashi, then doing double duty working with Jamieson and also as one of seven co-founders with the newly formed EDAM (Experimental Dance and Music). Hirabayashi is a fearless, muscular performer with a strong quality of resistance, all of which made him an ideal lead and a powerful Sisyphus.
Along with five others, Jamieson was part of the ensemble. As such, she fleetly moved between being a burden—a rock for Sisyphus to carry or a force for him to battle, part of the mountain and, for brief moments, a labouring Sisyphus herself.
The twenty-minute work, set to a percussive score by David MacIntyre, premiered on the final program of Vancouver Dance Week in November 1983 at Paula Ross’ West Broadway studio. It left many viewers, including Max Wyman at the Province newspaper, reeling. Over half of Wyman’s review of the evening is given to fervent praise for Sisyphus, a work “at the absolute forefront of modernity, rendered in a superabundant rush of … energy….” His penultimate paragraph reads:
There is a sense of shock at [Jamieson’s] force and daring, and of exultancy at the immediacy of her movement language—slamming herself and her dancers in rhythmic routine against the wall, building impossible hills for Sisyphus to climb, integrating a crescendo of straining breath-sounds with the movement’s rhythms, letting the almost-triumph happen, falling back, then dragging the forces together to do it again.
Wyman concludes by proclaiming Sisyphus “a major new artwork that speaks in the movement language of the moment about a timeless and universal issue. In itself, Sisyphus justifies the marathon experiment that was Vancouver Dance Week.”
Watching the original group of dancers in David Rimmer’s film of Sisyphus, their focus and fury, breathlessness and sweat, are proof of the great effort Jamieson’s choreography demands. The performers’ victorious battle to make their moves and hit their marks with agility and grace suggests the ultimate glory of the experience.
The film is the most tangible evidence left of Sisyphus, though it is not, of course, the real thing. When the work is not embodied in performance, when the stage is empty and the audience at home, Sisyphus is no more. The boulder does not stay at the top of the mountain: neither boulder nor mountain exists.
Karen Jamieson made many works after Sisyphus, sometimes again triumphant, as in the 1989 duet, The Man Within, or in her groundbreaking 1991 collaboration with First Nations artists, Gawa Gyani. Community-based dances like 1998’s The River and 2001’s Raven of the Railway were more controversial. In them, the close relationship between community art and professional art—which continues to be explored by Jamieson and others in the dance world—presented new and shocking ideas about meaning, aesthetics and the role of the artist.
Jamieson has weathered both the highs and lows the gods seem to have decreed is the lot of artists and, indeed, other mortals. Everyday life comes with the same gamut of experience, and Jamieson has had her share of joy and sorrow. Yet she has never failed to create and, these days, to re-create. Besides forging forward with new projects, Jamieson finds herself drawn to significant work from the past.
This spiraling back and forth in time began when she performed her then ten-year-old solo, Mudwoman, at the 2000 Dancing on the Edge Festival. The Man Within, embodied by two younger dancers, was splendidly received at the 2006 Canada Dance Festival, with the seventeen-year-old work seamlessly fitting in between premieres from Montreal’s José Navas and Paul-André Fortier. After Sisyphus is brought to life for the 2007 Vancouver International Dance Festival, Jamieson plans to teach her 1982 Solo from Chaos to another dancer.
“The whole point of a remount is to go deeper into the work,” Jamieson believes, and so changes are made each time. Even Sisyphus, the masterwork, is not set in stone, but on real people and in the flux of real life. “I’ve learned a lot since I made that piece about how the body works, so my understanding of the technique to support the dancers is clearer now,” Jamieson says. Changes will be made to accommodate the unique physicality brought by the new cast, and Jamieson also wants to rework a couple of sections with which she was not fully satisfied, such as her own duet with Sisyphus. With Deanna Peters in Jamieson’s role, the form of the confrontation has shifted so that instead of taking place primarily on a horizontal plane, it is now on a more vertical one.
A single dancer from the premiere returns—Jay Hirabayashi, who is reprising his role at the age of sixty. What could be more appropriate than to see the mature Sisyphus still hard at work, still battling his way up that mountain? Although Hirabayashi often performs with his own company, Kokoro Dance, it is usually in tailor-made choreography created by either himself or his partner, Barbara Bourget. The movement vocabulary for Sisyphus was created for his younger, hardier self and even then it was exhausting.
“It’s a strain to re-awaken the movement I did so long ago,” Hirabayashi admits. In rehearsals the steps come quickly to him: “I guess they’re still in my body somehow.” The film record helps with the re-creation, but during close-ups the big picture is missing, and the camera’s point of view keeps changing so spatial relationships are hard to follow. Also, the film was made through the laborious process of endless takes, and naturally not every dancer was perfect every time, so it is not always accurate. Nor does the film show how, in performance, some amount of improvisation meant the work breathed each night: the dancers needed to make sure their movement fit within the larger form and to slow down, speed up or even drop a move to keep the whole intact.
Teaching all this material—and the ideas informing it—in a few weeks to the group Jamieson has hired from Vancouver and Toronto is challenging. It is also a challenge to learn it. But the rewards are enticing. Not only do the performers experience first-hand an important part of Canada’s dance history, they also bring it to life for audiences. At the same time, through undertaking this project, the dancers form a pool of individuals familiar with Jamieson’s dance language that she can call on in future. “What dancers create comes out of their own understanding of what’s valuable,” she explains, and, to properly dance her work, that understanding needs to be informed by her aesthetic.
Choreography is very much an art of consistent style and motivation. During rehearsals, Jamieson works hard to ensure the dancers’ grasp of space, time and weight, and the focus of attention in their movement, are faithful to her conception of authentic dance and, in particular, of Sisyphus. In this way, their movement becomes rich and coherent.
Each day in the studio, Jamieson radiates belief and enthusiasm. With her dark hair tied into an improvised topknot, dressed for work in loose-fitting pants and top, she is intensely focused on the task at hand. Her instructions and advice occasionally contain straightforward ballet terms, but only as shorthand—the truth in the movement comes when minute shifts of weight and tiny details of focus are clarified. Metaphor and imagery are also critical to ensuring the choreography has Jamieson’s stamp, and every day in the yoga-based warm-up she begins to feed the dancers’ imaginations. Tracking the force of energy in its path through the body and sensing the space within are crucial. So is feeling the power of the earth.
Jamieson is as alert while watching as if she were doing the movement herself. When she does demonstrate, her ability to express varieties of weight and flow, and the subtleties of time and space, is impressive. She moves with equal amounts of precision and abandon, the reward of profound familiarity with the material.
Always, Jamieson is keen to know if she is giving the dancers the right words, the right information. But some things they must work out for themselves. Hirabayashi and Brendan Wyatt spend a couple of mornings together practicing their duet, which is full of high-flying lifts and reckless flips. They have to understand physically what is needed, and that can only be discovered experientially, hopefully without any accidents. The men’s concentration is equal to their determination to get it right, but many attempts end in what looks like near disaster. When they finally nail the most difficult section, it happens so fast and instinctively that nobody is sure what made it work.
After a total of forty hours of intimate duet rehearsals, the group assembles for the first time and chaos threatens. Seven dancers and two understudies fill the studio and need to be shepherded through the choreography’s often-labyrinthine pathways. Everyone patiently concentrates on the painstaking task of putting steps and patterns together into a coherent whole. Walking through the spatial patterns and sorting out counts consumes energy, but nobody gets too cranky.
In Albert Camus’ 1942 telling of the Sisyphus myth, it is the return down the mountain that interests him. Camus calls the descent “a breathing-space … that is the hour of consciousness.” It is then, he writes, that Sisyphus “is superior to his fate” and “stronger than his rock.”
If the philosopher is drawn to the moments of pause, the choreographer is fascinated by the moments of action. Back in April 1985, when Sisyphus toured to Toronto, Jamieson told the Globe and Mail’s Deirdre Kelly: “As a dancer, every day I push a boulder uphill and watch it roll down and then I push it back up again. I don’t consider this a trial. For me, from the work comes the greatest joy.” Today, Karen Jamieson still insists: “The point is pushing the boulder. That’s where the satisfaction lies—in the act of doing.”
Both interpreters imagine Sisyphus triumphant. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” writes Camus, and with that, the choreographer and the philosopher seem to agree.
As the March 2007 performances at the Roundhouse Community Centre approach, Jamieson and her team of committed professionals continue to wrestle with the hard physical and mental labour of creating choreographed dance. There are the usual disruptions caused by illness, injuries (thankfully minor), absence due to performance commitments elsewhere and just plain fatigue, but discouragement is only rarely expressed.
With less than two weeks before opening, the dancers are keen to tackle complete run-throughs as often as possible so that Sisyphus—its momentum, its respite—becomes familiar as a whole. Already, at this stage, the work’s energy is remarkably defined. Sense has been made of time and space or, at least, a compelling order has been created. The choreographic patterns are sharper and tighter. The dancers have purpose and direction. The paradox is that the more they master the specific steps and motivations demanded by the work, the more of themselves they are able to bring to their task. Personalities emerge, and add another crucial layer. Something real and astonishingly human is revealed.
Jamieson is exhilarated to discover that the relationship of her ideas to the form created so long ago is becoming clearer than ever. “Most of the pieces I’ve created over more than twenty-five years I will not even think about bringing back,” she says. “There’s only a very few that have the kind of bones that allow for interpretation by different casts, and that have a timeless, archetypal core that makes a work remain utterly contemporary.” Sisyphus is proving to be one of them.
Karen Jamieson still finds the meaning of the myth in the work, only now she also realizes something about the summit: there is no such thing. There is only the push to achieve, followed by the need to let go and push forward again in whatever practice gives meaning to an individual’s life. For Jamieson, it is dance, and so she continues to create—and re-create—mountains up which boulders can be pushed.
Source note: Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, London: Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 117, 119.