A choreographer explains the presence of dance in Against The Grain's production of The Messiah
by Jennifer Nichols
Jennifer Nichols, choreographer and dancer, was classically trained at L’École Supérieure de Danse du Québec and the Quinte Ballet School. Currently a company member of Atelier Ballet, the ballet ensemble of Opera Atelier, she has also danced professionally with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, Banff Festival Dance and choreographers such as Robert Desrosiers and Newton Moraes. Jennifer is owner and director of Toronto’s Extension Room, home of the acclaimed ballet fitness program she founded in 2003, The Extension MethodTM. She is also Co-Artistic Director of Hit and Run Dance Productions. Jennifer Nichols’s performance and choreography can be seen in several film and television productions, including the upcoming CBC primetime television drama Reign (principal choreographer), feature film Barney’s Version, BRAVO’s docu-drama Nureyev, and the National Film Board’s Dance of Death.
But taking on the Messiah? This is a cherished tradition!
When Against the Grain Theatre’s artistic director, Joel Ivany, asked me to come on board to help create a Messiah that was just that, I jumped at the chance. First and foremost, I was honoured. My respect for AtG was established when I saw my first of its productions, The Turn of the Screw. I was an instant fan. I then had the joy of hosting the company’s Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág program at my downtown Toronto dance studio, The Extension Room. It was innovative, exciting, and presented in a context far different from what one would expect.
At the heart of my choreographic approach to the Messiah is the idea that beneath its theological and spiritual origins lies a timeless common narrative to humankind: BIRTH, DEATH, REBIRTH. It speaks to the idea that we are all, at least on one level, equal—even the son the God. This notion brings the piece down from an elevated, spiritual place to something more grounded and human. As such there is weight in the movement, an earthy sensibility. This is not meant to be disrespectful to its origins, but rather more palatable and modern. It is, as Joel says, ‘”stripped down”.
From a singer’s perspective, one faces a double challenge: memorization of not only the libretto, the “vocal text”, but also the “body’s text”’. As a dancer myself I have only had my body as a silent instrument to use. Beginning the choreographic process I was sensitive to this and tried to add as much repetition to the phrasing as possible (which actually is complementary to the text of the oratorio, short phrases which are repeated in an A, B, A fashion). Chatting one day with a few singers, however, they pointed out to me that in many instances the addition of movement is helpful for vocal memorization because there are landmarks they can use to make connections. It becomes a type of roadmap.