Wednesday, August 7, 2013

In a Word... Tracey Norman, dance artist

                                               (photo by Craig Chambers)
Looking for a visceral experience
feeling lost isn’t the worst thing that could happen
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

For the past decade, Toronto-based dance artist Tracey Norman has been a driving force in her community, splitting her time between choreographing, teaching, performing and researching dance. Her choreography has been presented across Canada with credits including, DanceWorks, Dance Ontario, Festival de Danse en l’Atlantique, Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival, Kinetic Studio and the Season Finale of Series 8:08. Her work has been described as “refreshing and original” (the Globe and Mail). Currently on faculty in the Department of Dance at York University, Tracey received her MFA in Choreography and Dramaturgy in 2010. She works as an outside eye to several artists, teaches dance at studios, and creative process workshops in public schools. Ms Norman worked for Series 8:08 from 2006-12 as Alternative Technique Class Program Manager and Program Assistant, and served on the board of directors for the Canadian Alliance of Dance Artists from 2008-11. She recently collaborated in two successful productions: the sold-out run of episodes | andscapes with JDdance and DanceWorks, and no permanent answers with Human Atoms at the Toronto Fringe.

CHARPO: When we decided to cover dance at CharPo, we felt that it was right because the days of having a vocabulary that included the Beauchamp postions and "entrechat" were over - that dance had become more of a visceral experience. Were we wrong?

NORMAN: Well, I would argue that in contemporary dance and modern dance before that the visceral experience of dance has always been of utmost importance. Technique, such as the codified positions and jumps you refer to, are still an important part of the training of most dancers but they aren’t necessarily used as 'vocabulary' within choreography. Perhaps you’re referring to classical ballet? 

Contemporary dancers are trained technicians, in the same way actors learn a variety of techniques to support their craft. That doesn’t mean that the vocabulary of our technique shows up in choreography. There’s such a range – from highly crafted, traditionally virtuosic dance to transdisciplinary work where choreographers are blurring the boundaries and asking their collaborators to partake in multiple modes of performance. There’s definitely been an expansion on the definition of dance and I’d say we’re all looking for a visceral experience for both the participants and viewers of dance-based performance. (cont'd)

Jesse Dell and Sky Fairchild-Waller in Tracey Norman's 43N 79W (Photo by Craig Chambers)

CHARPO:  I'm thinking of Cirque du Soleil and Carbone 14 when I ask this, but are dance, acrobatics and movement the same thing now?

NORMAN: In a macro approach, I guess you could say anyone who performs or creates from or for the body is united in that we’re all movers. But, I wouldn’t say they’re the same thing. People train in different ways. I just read an article about a circus artist who went on to become a contemporary dance performer. She noted how she had much of the technical ability she needed and what she didn’t have she could learn easily, but the other ideas that are part of our contemporary dance training – improvisation, breath, imagery/imagination – were something she was still trying to grasp. The lines get blurred because movers love to collaborate, share their expertise and train together. So we have choreographers working with contemporary dance mixed with elements like aerial work, or you have Cirque du Soleil hiring contemporary dancers. 

Beth Despres, Sky Fairchild-Waller, Marie France Forcier,
Brittany Duggan in
Tracey Norman's what goes between
(Photo by Craig Chambers)
CHARPO: How does a choreographer or dancer train now?

NORMAN: Most professional dance artists have done an undergraduate degree, or college diploma or have a certificate from an accredited training institution in dance. Professional training runs the gamut from daily class in dance technique or alternative techniques, different somatic work, and body work like yoga and Pilates. Professional development is big in dance since you can’t really step away from working on your body or your craft for very long without repercussion. Dancers train at home and abroad and like in other art forms this is how we learn of the innovation happening in other parts of the world and bring what we learn home with us. Training is really personal, I think, and specific to what is asked of you in what you spend your time doing in your dance career. The company model still exists, although in much smaller terms, and so a dancer on contract needs to train in a different way to an independent dancer who might be running from different rehearsals or teaching gigs. Of course, finances play a role in our training and sometimes dictate what is possible. But dancers are resourceful and disciplined people and will find ways to work in a studio together with little cost or barter for training.

CHARPO: Now more specifically, tell us about prep for your own next production?

NORMAN: I’ve just come off of two productions in which I was co-producing and choreographing so it’s been a busy season. In April I collaborated with JDdance and DanceWorks CoWorks on our sold-out run of episodes | andscapes. I created two duets for that show. Then in July, Angela Blumberg (Human Atoms) and I collaborated on a Toronto Fringe production, no permanent answers. I created an ensemble work for the show and one of my upcoming projects is to get back into the studio with that group of dancers and turn the 23 minute dance into a full-evening length work. The big job is finding a way to have that work produced. So that’s on the schedule, as well remounting a couple of dances for a production in Hamilton in early 2014. Aside from that, I have ideas for a new solo which I’ll be workshopping in the Fall. 

CHARPO:  What would you say to someone who is nervous about going to that performance (as they might feel lost)?

NORMAN: I would say feeling lost isn’t the worst thing that could happen. The viewers need to know that it is never an artist’s intention to alienate them or make them feel lost. But certainly an appreciation for contemporary dance is developed over time. I remember one of my choreography teachers used to say it was similar to how one develops a taste for dark chocolate over time until it’s all they want. When I’m making a piece, I think about my audience but I must juggle that with following my artistic vision and so accessibility is a concern but for me it can’t trump the many other concerns of making art work. 

I often feel lost when I watch a dance performance but it doesn’t concern me. There is so much to appreciate when watching dance and many choreographers are interested in having the audience interpret as they wish – creating their own narratives or conclusions for what might be happening. But often I think people are focused on 'getting it' and they’re disappointed when they don’t. I’m not sure dance is that tangible. It is a fleeting art form and we have to be present with it to appreciate it. It seems right now in our culture we’re very used to getting answers quickly – we watch TV shows where everything is presented to us so we’ll 'get' it; when we don’t immediately know an answer to a question we google to find it; the answers to our daily questions about weather, navigation and calculation are right there on our phones. My point is when we believe we’re certain about so much, it’s hard to suspend judgment when we attend contemporary dance in which the choreographer might be posing more questions than answers.

Tracy Norman's website

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