Kelsey Todd, Alexandra Scarola, Rachelle Bourget, Zorya Arrow, Alexandra Garrido, Janelle Haucault, and Sarah Helmer
Words: Jill Groening / Photos: Josh Dookhie
The women of Nova Dance Collective are on to something.
The group began as a motley-crew of recovering bun-heads, flick-footed jazz babies, theatre school grads, and true-blue modern kids, meeting as young modern dance students while attending the Senior Professional Program at Winnipeg's School of Contemporary Dancers. Having graduated in 2012, the seven-member collective is now beginning their eighth year of dancing and performing together by bringing emerging talent - choreographer Riley Sims - to Winnipeg.
"I first met Riley when I travelled to Ottawa in 2012 to work on the project 'Dances For Youth By Youth,'" dancer Sarah Helmer recalls. "It was one of my first projects after graduating and it really pushed me outside my comfort zone and showed me what I was capable of as an artist. When Nova started talking about commissioning a work, I thought of Riley right away. I thought it would be amazing to be able to share the inspiring, creative experience I'd had with the whole group."
Fellow Nova member Rachelle Bourget was equally affected by Sims' creations.
"The first time I saw his work I was blown away. I thought, 'I want to do that. That is everything I want to be experiencing as an artist.' It's amazing that it's now being accomplished."
That quietly excited, too-good-to-be-true energy is palpable upon entering the studio, located on the corner of Main and Bannatyne. The bright-eyed dancers are folded against the wall, cotton-clad limbs draped on the barres over head. There's a necessary scattering of dance junk on the edge of the floor near the doorway, including water bottles, a bag of trail mix, TheraBands, kneepads, tennis balls, socks, tei fu, hummus, a tensor, notebooks, a laptop, and bandages. Lots of bandages. A couple of pairs of Chuck Taylors are perched on the piano in the corner.
The dancers are playing audience to Helmer, who stands alone in the centre of the room. The shift in her character begins with the tiniest of contractions in her gut, a tensing of the fingers as her bare feet shift back and forth on the floor. Her collarbone begins to jut and her neck is all sinew as guttural sounds creep from her throat. Helmer's face and body smoothly transition between an infinite array of emotions.
The intensity of Helmer's strange, hybrid-creature monologue grows to eye-bulging heights. It is eventually broken by a sort from one of the dancers, resulting in a gale of laughter from the entire group, Sims and Helmer included.
"When we're uncomfortable with what we're watching, laughter is what we turn to," Sims says as he goes to join Helmer, placing his hands on the tops of her feet. The monologue is repeated, this time with Sims' weight to help Helmer be aware of her body's natural reaction or instinct that she is wanting to feel and fight and eventually control.
"I'm trying to get them to bring the outsides of themselves, the outside of the emotional spectrum. And we're not sure how it's going to feel," Sims says in regards to his studio exercises, all of which are building up to half an hour of work. "You have to protect yourself, but they are very willing dancers. We've had a lot of discussions on ways of making pain performable."
"It's inspiring to watch him work," dancer Alexandra Garrido reflects. "We're going to the darker places that we generally want to hide from the public. We're finding ways of moving that are not socially acceptable, and definitely not comfortable, yet those places are natural. They're already in the body but it's something that we're taught not to do. It's exhausting at times, but so exciting. We're excited to be able to share it. This is a part of us. It's a part of everybody. That's what we're showing."
Bourget describes Sims' three-week long creative process as a playground, one that was able to function as comfortable grounds for exploration due to the non-judgemental and non-competitive studio atmosphere.
"Riley has a very open and host energy, which creates a safe environment to explore different emotions and qualities," dancer Kelsey Todd says. "Even though he's asking us to explore these darker sides, he's not asking us to go to an unsafe place. There was one particular exercise at the beginning of the process where a few of us got shook up so he played the song Bubble Butt and we laughed and got into a good mood and went on. Dance, regardless, is emotionally hard, whatever process it is. So it was nice to just be up front with your feelings and use them."
Sims is conscious about relaying clear and consistent observations and notes to the dancers throughout rehearsal. Feeling comfortable is necessary for taking the work further.
"With emotional work like this it's important not to go too far into the personal. The goal isn't to get really upset. It's to explore different states from a real place while maintaining an awareness of what is going on in order to recreate it in performance," Helmer states. "It also helps that everyone is in it together. We're all really close and supportive of each other."
"We're going to very unexpected places but it's therapeutic in a way. I've gone through a wide array of emotions this week alone. 'Raw' is a word which definitely sticks out," Garrido laughs. "But we are blessed and we're lucky that we get to explore. It's our privilege as artists. Some people don't get to go to those places."
Sims, a Toronto native who is currently based out of Ottawa, found dance through classical opera training, followed by musical theatre studies. Since graduating from Toronto Dance Theatre, he's had the opportunity to work intimately with the likes of Canadian modern dance behemoths Peter Boneham and Tedd Robinson. Not to mention the fact the he also has his own emerging company, Social Growl. Up and coming doesn't even begin to describe him.
"The benefits of working with an emerging choreographer is having them bring their fresh, energetic and flexible approach to the work," dancer Janelle Hacault says. "It was a risk to hire a fellow emerging artist but we really liked that. We picked him because he was different. His work was unique. Winnipeg hadn't really heard of him and that would get people's curiosity going."
“We felt it was important to connect with another emerging artist in order to really nurture and showcase new dance in the Winnipeg community,” Helmer says, continuing Hacault's thought. “It's been interesting working with a choreographer who is in our same generation and demographic. We are approaching the work from similar viewpoints and experiences of the world and the dance that has emerged from that feels very current and relevant. The biggest challenge has been finding funding from arts councils. It's more difficult for them to invest in a project when everyone involved is an emerging artist.”
Sims also feels affected by the constant struggle to attain arts funding as an emerging artist, but stresses the importance for collaborations such as this one.
“Both parties being classified as emerging makes for very contemporary work,” Sims says. “What progresses an art form is sticking to your own beliefs and aesthetics. I try to make the dancers human, relatable personalities. The audience should be watching people who are just like them. It's not just dancing.”
The vibrant energy surrounding the exchange between Sims and Nova is inspiring and highly contagious. One can't help but feel that something important is taking place.
“Riley challenges us to find the real person inside the characters, find the truth in them,” Garrido observes. “That's what makes it funny and heartbreaking, real human experience.”
Nova Dance Collective will be premiering Riley Sims' work officially in February, 2015.