By costume designer Caroline O’Brien
Caroline is curating a beautiful costume exhibit at The Theatre Centre as part of Map by Years from Feb 21-25.
I first met Peggy Baker when she arrived to the stage of the Betty Oliphant Theatre for a rehearsal with a group of ballet students. I remember that day in the fall of 1989 as though it were yesterday; fast forward a few decades and now we are engaged in a project aptly entitled Map by Years. That first meeting marked the beginning of an important collaboration that saw the fashioning of many one-of-a-kind costumes created for Ms. Baker over the arc of her 20 year solo career.
Ms. Baker has always had a deep respect and appreciation for her collaborators, and the costume designers are no exception. Now, as she maps the years with a beautiful array of dance, she has chosen to offer a retrospective of some of the singular works through some of their designers: Susan Macpherson, Denis Lavoie, Jane Townsend and myself, Caroline O’Brien. During the 2018 performance at the Theatre Centre a spotlight will shine on some of the exquisite one of a kind costumes created for Ms. Baker, installed in the spacious second floor gallery that leads directly into the performance space.
The main narrative of the exhibition uses dressmakers’ stands to show finished costumes on display, as a way to emphasize the comprehensive design process with stages in the birth of each costume according to the style of each designer. It follows a number of pieces from inception and initial design through cutting, sewing and after life. This opportunity to showcase a collaborative process through different designers will include renderings, photographs, and archival documentation in addition to the garments themselves.
The intent of the exhibition is to offer elements of a creative process and the craft and making aspects that are often withheld from the audience’s purview. It will offer new perspectives on the development and construction of singular and traditional dressmaking techniques and the skills required to fashion them, through the work of several designers. Using a combination of visual and prose narratives, the exhibition is intended to deepen and broaden the viewer’s understanding of the creative and technical aspects of creating dance costumes. The objects on view illustrate a valuable contribution to Canadian theatrical dance history.
Sarah Chase is a Canadian independent dancer and choreographer and has established her reputation as a solo dance artist, presenting her works on tour across Canada and Europe. Sarah has choreographed and directed unmoored, which Peggy will be performing as part of Map by Years February 21-25, 2018 at The Theatre Centre.
1. How did you and Peggy meet?
I first met Peggy when I was a student at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre in 1988.
2. Tell us about your first experience dancing for Peggy.
Her teaching and presence were a revelation. She was dancing in New York at the time, and was our guest teacher for a week. She blew our minds: this striking, brilliant, tall, totally articulate woman, both in the way she moved and in the way she spoke. Forthright, full of light, with the passion, vibrancy and clarity of all that she had been inspired by in dancing in New York and internationally. She had been dancing for Lar Lubovitch, Mark Morris, and had been developing new ways of considering movement and kinesthetic anatomy with Irene Dowd. She made me feel like dance language was an illuminated manuscript sending paths of light through space. In fact she spoke this way about movement, extending imagery beyond the body into the architecture of the room, of the studio. We were invited to dance across the studio like flocks of birds tipping and tilting as we arced through our paths, or to consider that we were leaving light trails in the volume of the room and that by the time we had finished our dance we had left a kind of lit up architecture floating and resonating in time.
And these weren't just words, she was able to totally embody the tasks and imagery she offered us, firing our mirror neurons to new fresh experiences.
There was also the feeling in her dancing of having grown up in the open generous spaces of the high Canadian prairie, this understanding of big swathes of landscape and open sky were indelibly understood and carried by her.
I felt like a door opened for me. She responded to my dancing with excitement, affirmation, and acceptance. I had that intense and wonderful sensation of really being seen, and amazingly she offered to help me design a path of further study in NYC after graduation.
I would continue to study with Peggy whenever I could, in workshops and intensives in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. And I did end up in NYC for a year where I was able to study with some of Peggy's incredible teachers and influences like Irene Dowd and Christine Wright, and to be immersed in the company of the dedicated extraordinary people dancing in the major companies there at the end of the 80s.
In preparing for further creation on unmoored I was reading Rumi and Hafiz as translated by Daniel Ladinsky. In his introduction he writes: "I was recently asked if I could explain the Rumi phenomenon in the Western world in just one line. I thought for a few moments, then replied, "Well maybe but could I quote Hafiz? The line was 'The wing comes alive in his presence/ I think that is it, something of the answer. The wing, the soul, the heart, comes alive in the presence of a real teacher...'"
3. In 2003/04, you and Peggy created The Disappearance of Right and Left. What inspired you to return to develop this follow-up piece now?
When Peggy and I worked on The Disappearance of Right and Left it involved unearthing many compelling stories from Peggy's life and looking at their relationships with each other. There is always a major process of elimination, looking for stories that somehow resonate together and create a greater whole. In The Disappearance, the stories chosen all seemed to illustrate times when perception was turned sideways and changed or opened.
Often, when creating work it helps immensely to have some distance on past events and to know that it is safe to share the stories we are working with. We both knew that at the time of creating The Disappearance that Peggy was right in the middle of some excruciating life choices and fully immersed in taking care of Ahmed [Peggy's late husband]. We thought that one day we would return to this story, so central to her life, and around two years ago, it felt like the right time to begin.
It was an event when Ahmed would play for our classes when I was a student at STDT. He often sang while he played his array of instruments. I couldn't believe that one person could bring such a landscape of sound to the studio. So, I knew him before I met Peggy. And I was thrilled when these two people I loved got married to each other. At first, Peggy and Ahmed did some touring together and I would stay with Ahmed's daughter Shireefa, as a guardian; later on I would stay with Ahmed to help out when Peggy was away.
One thing that was a great pleasure about Peggy's teaching was her interaction with the musicians who played for class. She was deeply appreciative and aware of the choices they were making and her exercises were built around their musicality and sometimes involved unusual time signatures. There was a feeling of complete engagement both musically and physically. When Peggy made the solo, Garland, for me in 1997, it was an incredible experience to dance live to Arraymusic: four musicians playing violin, piano, vibraphone and tom toms, who shared the stage space with me. Over and again, Peggy has chosen to bring the musician right into the centre of her performances. Her solos transformed to an intimate duet.
4. Your career has been grounded in combining storytelling and dance, how does this inform your art-making process?
I think we are all in the middle of a mystery, and each of us experiences in our lives some kind of intricate predicament. In hearing other people's stories I often feel a deep sense of relief to know that I am not alone in feeling bewildered or overwhelmed by experiencing love and loss, which is inevitable in any life well lived. When I make work I am hoping that by arranging personal stories in a careful constellation, they become universal. A kind of poetic logic and rigour takes place, making sure that not more is said than needs to be said. I am always interested in specific details.
In the meantime I am creating movement patterns and loops that can speak emotional subtext or say what can't be spoken. These danced patterns also serve as a grounding task that keeps the performer in the moment and therefore safe to speak about personal emotional experiences.
To see unmoored, get your tickets to Map by Years, here.
Aleksandar is a photographer based in Toronto and was commissioned to take the company portraits that you see across this website and in the Map by Years campaign.
During my time as a Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada, the name Peggy Baker was always there, floating around in my consciousness. I did not know Peggy personally or her work, but for some reason I had an image of a uniquely gifted dancer with an established career in New York City. I was already interested in photography and I remember seeing images of an incredibly stunning body and face, taken by Cylla von Tiedemann, a renowned dance photographer.
I also remember going to a performance of the Spring Showcase at The National Ballet School and seeing a piece by Peggy, choreographed for the talented Jamie Tapper who later became a Principal Dancer with The National Ballet of Canada and Royal Ballet in London, UK. At the time I was impressed with how Peggy achieved such a mature statement from a young 16-year-old dancer.
I was thrilled to be asked by Peggy to capture her wonderful company for their campaign (the individual portraits of each dancer, found here). What a treat to be collaborating with a humble, generous and open person as Peggy! It felt like a true dialogue, in which we could exchange ideas and create a space where these artists would allow an intrusive photographer with a big camera to enter a sacred, creative, and personal space and I felt that Peggy and myself created something really special together. We captured human beings at their most vulnerable and authentic, in the moment of truthful and honest creative expression.
I have had the privilege of capturing Peggy for a personal and very intimate portrait project as well, where I sat there with my camera, speechless and in awe of a wonderful and delicate and strong human being, who wasn’t afraid to share her life experiences, so openly and proudly and in the process allow me to feel stronger and more connected with life.
Last spring, I again witnessed something extraordinary at The National Ballet School’s Assemblée Internationale: Peggy created a piece for female students that I shall never forget! She, in her quiet, understated way, allowed the women to embody sensuality and space and take the audience to a place where time didn’t matter. The atmosphere we felt emanating from the stage was of established ballerinas working as a group, breathing as one, and mesmerizing us with their beauty and femininity.
What a gift to have an artist such as Peggy Baker amongst us in the city of Toronto, gracing us with her spirit and talent and letting us witness her lifelong dedication to art, music and expression!