I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing a series of interviews with some lovely creative types I want to share with you. Since I’m heading to Alberta this summer maybe I have gold rush on my mind, but truly, each of the women I’ll feature here is a golden nugget of excellence in the career she’s carved out for herself! Therefore, I am delighted to present the inaugural:
Pocket Alchemy Nugget of Awesome Interviews: eight interviews with eight inspiring, artistic, self-starting women over the eight weeks of summer. I am proud to call each of them friend and am delighted to share them and their work here. Please note that I am replacing my regular Rearview Fridays posts with these interviews over the summer.
JENNIFER DALLAS is true colleague and friend — for nearly a decade now. For instance, she danced in a show I choreographed and co-produced in April of 2008 for 4 nights, then (because of course I went into labour on closing night) she stood with me through the 30-odd hours of labour and delivery for my first son Rudi. She is simply above and beyond in my life professionally and personally. Jen is a profoundly dedicated artist, she has stamina and curiosity to beat the band! She’s a prairie girl who’s found artistic truth in a number of African countries. She travels, creates, performs and teaches between Canada and Africa regularly. I think she is courageous yet delicate, serious and silly, an artist to the core. Full disclosure: I’m on the board of her company. I really believe in the work and art and intention of this woman. Jen is also a champion knitter, sweaters and blankets and scarves, oh my! And I think I helped her fall in love with pedicures and bright toenail polish this spring, we may or may not already have a spa date for the fall, ahem.
Jennifer Dallas is a Toronto-based dancer, choreographer, teacher and costume designer. Hailing from the Canadian Rockies, she began her formal dance training at a very young age in ballet and contemporary dance and is a graduate of the School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Jennifer is the artistic director of Kemi Contemporary Dance Projects, which she founded in 2008 after her first trip to Lagos Nigeria. Since then, trips to Africa have been a focal point of her dance research and include teaching and creating in Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Ethiopia.
Jennifer’s dance work has been presented by the Nigerian festivals Truefesta and Dance meets Danse. In Toronto she has been co-presented by DanceWorks and has presented numerous productions of her own. She has created commissioned dances for the Scream Literary Festival, The Crazyfish Collective and The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. Jennifer has performed in dance works by Tedd Robinson, Marc Boivin, Susie Burpee, Adedayo Liadi and has created two works with dancer/choreographer Bienvenue Bazie of Burkina Faso. She performed solo with the Juno-nominated afrobeat band Mr. Something Something from 2005 to 2009 and has presented movement workshops coast to coast. Jennifer is the resident costume designer for The School of Toronto Dance Theatre and has done costume design for Kaeja d’Dance, Princess Productions and Blue Ceiling Dance. She currently sits on the board of directors for the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists – Ontario Chapter.
Pocket Alchemy Question: Tell me about your artistic work.
Jennifer Dallas: I am a contemporary dance artist, which for me right now means that I am a dancer, choreographer, teacher, arts administrator and a costume designer.
PAQ: what is currently sparking your imagination?
JD: People in their habits, idiosyncrasies, languages, relationships and physicality as they move through the world.
Sound natural and created. Currently I am interested in the sounds of peoples’ voices and the different intonations within a personality and a voice. The changes in tone when communicating with different people reveals relationships, histories, desires etc. As I write this I am in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where the European language spoken (French) is not my mother tongue. I have learned to hear and understand the language through tonal nuances. Often the conversation shifts to a native tongue such as Mossi (most commonly spoken on the streets of Ouagadougou) I find myself following threads of speech to hear the song of the words. I try to stay awake to these nuances which reveal and inspire at the same time.
Spontaneity and physical reactions, habitual and instinctual are also filtering through my sieve of creative input. How does one’s culture affect the way they walk into a room, the physicality they present, the rituals of greeting and social generosity. Alternately, if I present you with a cold glass of water on a hot day – what does your body naturally do. What moves first? Your face your hands? Is it that you lick your lips, salivate, or do you reach for the glass immediately? Do you hold it in your hands for a while and feel the cold on your skin before you drink? I like to draw a parallel between the instincts we use everyday and new movement research [for dance creation], new language. They overlap more than you might guess.
The French language, and playing with words to find clarity. As a person learning a new language I often use the same, safe word choices (also because I still get so tongue-tied on conjugations…) but this uncertainty can translate to the studio too. The body is comfortable with certain movements, now I’m talking about words, even this movement is part of what gives a choreographer a signature. It is important to have a signature but I am currently shaping the dialect of my physical language while I am finding my way with an entirely new voice, a French one.
Improvisation, life is full of it. I almost always use it as a starting place when I am researching a new idea. I will give myself parameters to work eventually, but I always film my improvisations because the freshness of that moment can sometimes contain so much information. Occasionally I look at the film to see if something interesting has arisen or I look at it later in the process to remind me why I have chosen an image or where I might like to go with that image.
PAQ: How do you structure and manage your days/weeks/months to get it all in? Do you have micro/macro plans that you stick to?
JD: I have just finished a rough draft of a 3 year plan. I am learning that the dance world works at least 1 year in advance with bookings and funding applications etc, so instead of running alongside it I am trying to get in front of it. This is a great challenge for me as I am an improviser. I have been assured by various people that a 3 year plan still has room for improvisation!
Generally my work is structured on a project to project basis. I have 1 or 2 major projects each year, usually the creation of a new dance work and/or mounting a full-length production. Of late, my projects have been structured so that I have a creation period that is all-consuming and requires me to block off a specific period of time. I may not have very much time in the studio prior to or after the fixed period. Most administrative work and slotting-in of commissions or costume design happens around the major projects. I think of it like a pond of lily pads, including the balancing act involved in crossing it.
I have come to accept that I need a lot of processing time in my life. I used to think of this as procrastination but now I revel in it.
PAQ: What is a current favourite resource or material?
JD: Music of all kinds though generally I return to some old faves to get the engine going. I feel strongly about the connection between music and dance. I almost always work with music first then the dance. Hmmm, maybe this is a challenge for my next research period: sans music a la debut!
Photographs of people and places that I know and don’t know.
Fabic and clothing: I love to work in costume as soon as I can. I like to see how the costume informs the work, to allow it to become fully integrated in the work.
PAQ: Give me 4 great songs to work to!
JD: Abdoulaye kone: Djeli. I love the playful use of traditional sounds from Mali and full bodies brass sounds. | Duke Ellington (particularly the 1920’s era). I am currently researching a new work with music inspired by the Jazz great. | Feist: Metals. Love the play she has with her voice on this album, it is full of surprises. | Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko New Ancient Strings. I always spend some time with this album when I am researching. It’s like a first love for me.
PAQ: What about your work keeps you up at night (for good or ill!)?
JD: If I am creating I generally sleep very little. I like the tired energy that it produces. My mind is open somehow and I have less energy to spend on filtering and questioning. The energy and ideas come from an instinctual place when I am tired. What it is exactly that keeps me up I can’t necessarily pin-point. Images of where to go next with the work is something.
PAQ: How has your aesthetic evolved over the years?
JD: While I still like to work with line, rhythm and timing, I have stopped placing so much importance on finding and reproducing exact steps. Dance is a living art and I seek to create and enjoy an experience on stage rather than something constrained.
THE WRAP UP
Jennifer Dallas returns soon from a trip of teaching and creating dance in Burkina Faso and Israel. Her company Kemi has an event in Toronto in November where you can check out her latest work in progress. Jennifer will also return to her costuming work at The School of Toronto Dance Theater so watch for her thoughtful work, both textile and choreographic, coming soon!
Check out the other Nugget of Awesome Interviews: