Karen Jamieson Dance
Karen Jamieson Dance
Primal & Contemporary

Collision (2009–2011)

Review by Max Wyman

August 2011

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Portrait of the artist as a lifelong explorer:

Collision is a broadly collaborative artwork that choreographer Karen Jamieson has been evolving, with a wide variety of partners, over a period of several years. It was presented in its “finished” form in July at the Roundhouse as part of the Dancing on the Edge festival. The choreographer indicated privately that she saw Collision as the culmination of a creative career spanning more than three decades, and the last of the works she is likely to make on this scale.

Anyone who has had the privilege of watching her creative evolution would have no trouble identifying leitmotifs that have guided her and allowed her to evolve her specific and characteristic manner of speaking to us through performance. These echoes come in many forms – thematic (her concern with the history of place, and the cultural influences that have been at play), aesthetic (her long-term concern to go beyond the formal proscenium arch and welcome the community at large to the act of making movement) and stylistic (much of the movement we saw echoed ways of moving that we have seen in previous stages of her creative journey).

The piece was structured in a series of episodes loosely linked to the notion of collision – past and present, culture and culture, individual and individual, man and machine. It also explored in a poetic way some of the collisions – social, cultural, personal – that might have occurred as the history of this particular place (the Roundhouse, and the city, and the province, and the country) has unfolded.

It featured a mix of professional dancers, First Nations artists and performers, and what the program called “community dancers” – a dozen non-professionals of all shapes and ages who functioned as a kind of chorus, amplifying and underlining the central material of the episodes in simple but essential ways, and from time to time taking centre stage for repetitive sequences (building the railway, for instance). Each of these groups had its own integrity, and, despite the overall theme of collision, there was never a sense of any of them being out of place: rather, they were each respected for their own skills and attributes, and presented in that way.

Initially, I was vaguely irritated by the way we had to follow the performers from location to location within the Roundhouse complex, jostling for spots from which to view the movement and shuffling along as part of a shapeless crowd. I didn’t get to see everything that was happening, and that made me anxious: I like to have the full experience – that’s why I try to sit in the front row at dance performances. I don’t like the sense that someone’s head might have blocked my view of something that could be important. I also saw the show at a matinee, without the full benefit of the lighting that probably helped focus the onlooker’s attention, so it was sometimes difficult to separate the performers from the crowd. But after a while I relaxed. Seeing everything perhaps wasn’t necessary. This was about history, after all, and history is messy. Everyone has a different view of it, and no one can see it all.

Episodes moved us from place to place in the building: a procession of First Nations figures (the Squamish family dancers) accompanied by dancers whose movement echoed the basic footwork of aboriginal dance, moving along a “river” of slowly undulating figures (community dancers) into a separate chamber where the aboriginal dancers enacted a solemn ceremony … an address from a catwalk above from Chief Ian Campbell, and light-projected messages about territory on the concrete floor before us … a snake-like creep of the entire dance cast up a stairwell and across a crosswalk … … a slow progression of simulated sleeper-laying on the rail tracks that run, still, through the Roundhouse, seen against a back-projection of slides of the actual line construction, with a diverse procession of humanity following on as lines brought the world to the city ((more demographic “collisions” - the railway is what brought me to Vancouver) …

The whole Roundhouse space was used in ways that underlined its history. In a sequence that brought to mind the Jamieson performance years ago at the National Gallery in Ottawa, dancers clambered up and around the high wooden beams that support the central structure. The final episode led us outside to the ancient engine turntable, now being restored to its former glory: a turntable, with its ceaseless change of perspective, is an implicit message of its own, if you liked to see it that way.

Karen Jamieson has said all along that she has been trying to evolve a universal movement language that bridges cultures and geography, immigrant and indigenous. I said once that she uses the language of modern movement to create movement myths for modern times - statements about the human condition that go beyond their inspirational origins. Some of the movement, the adagio part, has about it a fluid, melting effect, bodies moving in groups the way an amoeba might move– a multipart organism given shape by an invisible membrane, rolling and flowing across floors and up staircases. That sense of bodily plasticity is a characteristic of much of the movement Jamieson makes: a cobra-like sinuosity, contained and immediate and inevitable. Deliberate. It gives the work a weightedness, a ceremonial importance. Which of course only goes to underline the solemnity.

But there’s also the Jamieson who works at speed – groups rush in circles that are interrupted by sudden, suspended arrests and slow falls; people run and splat-collide with the wall in an echo of the strive-to-exhaustion imagery of Sisyphus; and there is a frantic, furious, spasmic solo for Jamieson herself, evoking the agony and pain of her own wintertime automobile collision in northern B.C., accompanied by real-time video close-ups (face, limbs) projected on the wall behind her.

No one smiles, though, in Karen Jamieson dances. The faces convey solemn purpose, like acolytes at a religious ceremony. Important matters are afoot, the faces tell us. Ceremony, in fact, is an integral element of much of her work, and certainly of Collision. (Interestingly, the emotional impact of the piece was for me muted by the formality of its structure.)

So we were watching a very modern form of ceremony and ritual, or myth-making – methods by which human beings formalize ideas and beliefs. But it was ceremony poeticized, in part by the music that is created for it. Collision listed three composers: John Korsrud as musical director, Jeff Corness and Kristen Roos. At one point, Korsrud contributed a moving and eloquent live trumpet solo as the aboriginal group mimed paddling across the space. Always, the music was entirely apt in its amplification of the mood or feeling of the moment, to the point that we (I) didn’t pay attention to it until it was over.

Confused and confusing sometimes, even messy, yes: but the overall effect was strangely unified and unifying. We were left with the sense that out of all this difference – all these collisions – has emerged (is emerging) something coherent and alive: which is nothing less than how we are now, as people together. The child who wanted so much to join in (and eventually did), the good, ordinary people who enacted the river and the rails, the quiet, sustained dignity of the aboriginal dancers (and their willingness to integrate with the “immigrant” dancers on their own terms) … from many unexpected directions, the event provoked thoughts about how we became who we are and the potential for what we might do together in the years to come. It was a richly fruitful product of a lifetime of engagement and exploration, and a fitting and moving summary of the many things that Karen Jamieson has discovered and, in her own distinctive language, laid out before us for contemplation.

Max Wyman
August, 2011