Stand Your Ground – Act II
Assessment Prepared for Canada Council for the Arts
In order to prepare the assessment, the following steps were taken:
Review of documentation and previous work:
- Karen Jamieson Dance provided me with various documents including reports on the history and background of the project, interim reports and letters of observation from participating artists and partners.
- Though familiar with Jamieson’s work I chose to attend Mascall Dance’s presentation of ‘bloom” an evening of dance and feed-back sessions with a variety of dance artists including her recreation of Solo From Chaos.
Participation in one Dance 101 workshop at Carnegie Centre:
- I attended, observed and participated in a Dance 101 workshop, which were designed as a developmental step in the project;
- I conducted informal, unscripted conversations with participants.
Attended dress rehearsal:
- as well as observing the rehearsal I conducted unscripted conversations with participants and other audience members.
Attended two performances of the final production including:
- unscripted conversations with participants and audience members.
Brief interviews with organizational partners:
- Carnegie Centre Executive Director, Ethel Whitty
- Carnegie Centre Arts and Education Programmer, Rika Uto.
- Firehall Arts Centre, Artistic Director, Donna Spencer.
Scripted two-stage interview following the final performance conducted with:
- Stage one: senior artist Karen Jamieson, graduate dance student and project intern Su-Lin
- Stage two: Karen Jamieson, Su-Lin and a non-artist participant.
- I attended several other performances from the ‘Dancing on the Edge’ festival, including most pertinently for this review, Kokoro Dance’s Ghosts created and performed as a site-specific piece in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Jamieson has a long and celebrated history as a Canadian artist addressing the transformative power of dance. Watching the recreation of Solo from Chaos presented at “bloom” reconfirmed the sophisticated nature of her explorations of this theme. In her discussion of the Stand Your Ground II project Jamieson referred to several aesthetic principles for the work, including this transformative power; creation as a slow process of growing; and the inclusive nature of the project. She also states that, “Th(is) project rests upon the premise that in dancing, people embody the spirit of place.”
With this work Jamieson expanded the nature of her exploration of transformation while holding firm to the structural principles and allowing room for the community to embody the spirit of their own place in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.
Relevance to the Community:
The transformative power of dance is a particularly apt premise for any participatory practice as it resonates with each individual participants need and desire for personal transformation. As many people in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside communities deal with poverty, addiction, the impact of colonialization, disillusionment with society and personal despair, this desire, and in fact the desire for a transformation of society, is particularly acute.
Adhering to the Frame:
The work’s structural principle, that anyone who wanted to be a part of the project could be a part of the project, was adhered to throughout and meant that Jamieson and the other professional artists had to work on constantly shifting sands; participants who dropped out of the project then came back after an extended absence, musicians who joined in and had their own ideas about what they wanted to play, a woman with a video camera who insisted on filming ‘inside’ the performative spaces, etc. However the rich loam of the project was in fact the complexity of the individuals who participated (artists and non-artists) while the ’discipline’ of the project for the professional artists was to work with this unpredictability. Jamieson’s ability to draw people together, to inspire them with confidence in their own expression, to demonstrate an authenticity in her relationship to movement and in dance’s ability to communicate were key in both the workshops and in process of shaping the performance. She also worked collaboratively with the intern artist to identify roles for them that allowed them to support the community participants, to learn from being a part of the processes she led and for their talents and expertise to be celebrated as a part of the larger work.
Participants and audience members both spoke of the performance as an experience of this particular ‘site’ which has a special acceptance of ‘creative madness’ in its midst. Walking in this neighbourhood often entails encounters with people in various states of mind, (some influenced by drugs,) that can lead to behaviors not experienced in other neighbourhoods; it is also a neighbourhood with welcoming organizations such as the Aboriginal Front Door. The design of the performance incorporated a trip through this neighbourhood with performers and audience members intermingled and encounters with neighbourhood organizations and individuals scripted into the journey, allowing for the opportunity to experience the complexity of the neighbourhood either as a welcome friend and host (if you were a member of the neighbourhood), or as a guest, in the case of people from outside the neighbourhood who would not normally be comfortable there.
Risk-taking has been identified as a fundamental element of community engaged arts practice at many gatherings of artists working in a variety of disciplines. (See proceedings from “Art of Engagement” and the various iterations of the “Canadian Community Play Symposia.”) Any performance based artist undertaking a fully community engaged arts process is leaping into a void: promising a performance at the end of a process which no-one yet has committed to and with only the barest bones of what they have brought as ideas for starting points… and staking their professional reputations with funders and their colleagues alike that they will land the project successfully… that they can engage strangers, that they can shift gears in mid-flight and that they will deliver a performance worth attending to.
In fully engaged participatory works, the element of risk and its corollary of trust in the process, often leads to innovation in a disciplinary vocabulary. This is the case in Jamieson’s work with Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community. Jamieson brought ideas and core concepts to the work, the idea of four, (four directions, four elements), the idea of the body and its relationship to space, the idea of growth and transformation, etc. She introduced these concepts in exercises in the workshops then worked with the developments of these concepts as they shifted and changed with all of the participant’s interpretations and permutations. The process at this point was both parallel to processes she employs working with professional dancers during compositional stages and yet different. The direction of the works development was influenced as much by the differences between the participant’s understandings and interpretations of the concepts and movements as by Jamieson’s ability to knit together the movements into a coherent sequence. While a community of professional dancers often starts from an understanding of a common language of movement, the community Karen was working with here did not have that common starting point and consequently had to work to create elements of a shaded, reinterpreted and sometimes pidgin vocabulary of movement.
Response from participants:
Participants in the project spoke of the importance of the project in their lives, of the value they felt in the opportunity to explore and create movement. As well they reflected on the importance of being part of a group that was engaged in creating something meaningful. Participants spoke about their own understanding of the process and while they may have interpreted aspects of the performance differently, not always with full approval, they also all came back to their own sense of what they had contributed to the work. Their reflections revealed that they felt their contributions had been interwoven into the project in ways that retained the meaningfulness of what they had each brought to the project.
Response from partner organizations:
Again the response was positive. The partner organizations felt that Jamieson’s company had been a skilled and responsible lead partner in the project. Rika Uto and Ethel Witty of the Carnegie Centre both reflected on how the project had revealed both talents within members of the community and a recognition of new possibilities for dance based projects at the centre. However they both also regretted that there wasn’t any natural or well supported next steps for a few of the participants to move on towards becoming professional dancers. (Jamieson’s work towards creating a community-engaged dance program at the new SFU campus in the Downtown Eastside, if it materializes, could potentially become that ‘next step.’)
Contribution to advancement and development of participating dance professionals:
Intern artists expressed their gratitude for the experience of working with Jamieson and saw their participation as a rare opportunity for learning not available to most (young/emerging) artists as community-engaged dance of this caliber is rarely practiced and even more rarely taught. (Again if the SFU plan materializes this may be addressed.
Response of the critic:
Please see review by Kevin Griffin attached. In essence Griffin’s review provided an extremely positive review while also commenting on the need to reframe the criteria applied to the performance. “So if you judged Stand Your Ground by the same criteria as a professional dance production at a venue such as the Playhouse, you’d have to say it didn’t measure up. But that wouldn’t be fair to Stand Your Ground. It would be more accurate to say that it was more of a community experience.” He also wrote that, “Without the artificiality of the performance, I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to pause and find something valuable. Stand Your Ground allowed me to look at a neighbourhood I’d rather avoid.”
Excellence/success of this work in context of professional dance practice and the question of intelligibility:
The question of the assessment of the ‘excellence’ of this work in relation to non-community engaged --i.e. non-participatory, though thematically and socially engaged contemporary dance—can be addresses through a juxtaposition with one of the other ’10 for 20 Dancing on the Edge Commission Projects; Ghosts a work by Kokoro Dance. The Kokoro piece presented: “Twelve Dancers, three bagpipers and a drummer in a surreal return of the spirits of the different populations that worked and live in the Powell Street neighbourhood.” The Kokoro work was a precisely choreographed, beautifully danced, raw, painful and exquisite encounter with the social history of the neighbourhood. Stand Your Ground II was a complex mixture of wildly divergent movement forms woven together and punctuated by direct exchanges with the people and spaces of the neighbourhood; an encounter with the grace and awkwardness of this specific place and the people who inhabit it in this specific moment of time.
The conclusion of this assessor is that Stand Your Ground II by Karen Jamieson Dance Company, was a complex, risky and accomplished work of community-engaged arts practice. That both process and product were successful and required the participants, whether dancers or members of the audience, to reshape their ideas of what dance is and their perceptions of who the people in the Downtown Eastside are.