Dancers’ Studio West Invites Emerging Artists to LEAP

Sylvie Moquin and Dario Charles with Davida Monk, after rehearsal.

Dancers’ Studio West Artistic Director Davida Monk with emerging artists Sylvie Moquin and Dario Charles, after rehearsal in the studio.

Two years ago, Dancers’ Studio West made the decision to leave its theatre space, located in Sunalta. The company would instead operate remotely, renting both rehearsal and performance spaces, for its 2014-15 season. The decision was a difficult, but necessary one, says Artistic Director Davida Monk.

“The question of the DSW theatre space was a very difficult one for the board to resolve because the company had been there for 15 years,” said Monk. “Before that, it had been in a brewery over in the Inglewood area. In both cases, there was a theatre associated with the company. Productions and regular season events for the company were there, but not enough to really fill the theatre all the time.”

With the costs associated with the theatre unsustainable, DSW moved out of the space. (Presently, the space is shared between Calgary Young People’s Theatre, Ghost River Theatre, and Green Fools Theatre Society).

But ultimately, it’s not the space Monk is concerned about, it’s the artists.

“[We wanted] to channel what resources we did have into something that is effective for the development of the art form. If you ask me, it’s a lot more effective to put that into people than it is to put into a space.”

Founded in 1980, DSW nurtures contemporary dance artists through artist-focused programming. Two of the company’s major production programs are the Annual Alberta Dance Festival and the Dance Action Lab, a 10 week creative intensive that culminates in a full production.

This season, as part of the Dance Action Lab, DSW has invited Sylvie Moquin and Dario Charles to participate in the company’s Lab Emerging Artists Program (LEAP). Funded by The Royal Bank of Canada’s Emerging Artists Project, LEAP offers pre-professional dance artists exposure to professional practices, and the rigours of professional rehearsal and contemporary dance performance.

Originally from Ottawa, Ontario, Moquin is a graduate of Ryerson University where she received her BFA in Performance Dance.

“I’ve been here almost two years now,” said Moquin who left for Calgary shortly after graduation. “The first year I came, I did [Decidely Jazz Danceworks’] Professional Training Program. And I immediately found something that I really liked about Calgary, and specifically the dance community. I don’t know if I can pinpoint – I think it’s the idea of how welcoming this community is and how much people are excited about new artists and young emerging artists such as myself.”

“I was looking for an opportunity of where I was going, to find my voice and where I fit, and [LEAP] fell at the exact right time.”

Charles, an Edmonton-based dance artist, studied at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. He then later completed a five month international dance program in Israel with Vertigo Dance Company. Since returning to Edmonton, Charles has worked with emerging companies and artists like himself.

“This application came up and I just thought…it would be great to be a part of [DSW], because most things I’ve done have been with starting out companies or people starting out,” said Charles. “[LEAP] appealed to me for the sake of an emerging artist being able to work with professionals. I think there’s tons to learn with emerging artists, but also with this other group as well.”

DSW’s Dance Action Group form the artistic core of the Dance Action Lab. A diverse ensemble of choreographers/performers, the DAG includes DJD company members Catherine Hayward and Shayne Johnson, MoMo Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Ikeda, and independent dance artists Deanne Walsh, Kate Stashko, and Helen Husak. The group is led under Monk’s direction.

Since April, Moquin and Charles have not only rehearsed, but also trained daily in technique classes with the professional ensemble. The dancers’ day starts at 9:30am with open classes that are run by Monk.

“The ensemble creating together have a technical beginning to the day,” said Monk. “Their bodies warm up and refresh the basic principles that will support the body through various rehearsals and repetitions. We’re trying to bring a balance and a strength and a fluidity to the body so that when we’re in rehearsal, we don’t get injured. We can sustain and repeat and be strong. Class is intended for that purpose.”

When class ends at 11:30am, the dancers take a short break, then rehearse until 3:00pm in their respective sections.

“We got to be involved in the creation process right away from week one, even pieces we weren’t cast in.” said Moquin. “We’re part of it. We’re part of what is this about, what can we try, where can we go with this, what is the potential of every single idea.”

“We go into some unknown places,” added Charles. “We’re working with choreographers who are treading deep waters. It’s all questions.”

And though there may be a lot to take in, Moquin says she is committed to taking away as much as she can from the experience.

“I’m…taking in every bit of information I can from these amazing artists,” said Moquin. “I take a lot of notes, and sometimes I just feel like I need to run to my notebook and write something down, because [something they said] really just struck and you need to hold onto that.”

Retaining these concepts and exercises is important, says Charles, because dancers must be multi-skilled (e.g. teaching, choreographing, performing).

Moquin and Charles are also gaining valuable insights outside their studio rehearsals.

On May 11th, DSW invited the public to an informal showing of the Dance Action Lab’s works-in-progress.

“It was informal, so we were willing to try things,” said Charles about the showing. “There were times where we would stop and do it again…I think it’s really important to able to talk about the work with the audience and get them involved in it.”

“I think it was great to have that dialogue with a new viewer,” said Moquin. “We’ve all been working and seeing these ideas together. As soon as you have someone new looking at it, it shifts the way you or the choreographer sees it.”

“Often times, I think you create work, then you mount it…and get all this feedback and dialogue afterwards,” Moquin continued. “And it’s like, I want to keep going with that! We’ve added that stage midway, so that the choreographers have that chance to take it in.”

Later this month, DSW will formally present Mythbehavin’, four new works produced by the Dance Action Lab.

“They’re all based in myth in some way or another,” said Monk about the works. “The choreographers determined that we would find a theme that we can all spring something from. The aspects are all very different, the ways the choreographers are responding are different. In some cases, it’s the interpretation of the myth, Jungian archetypes for example. In other cases, it’s more looking at the gods.”

“I think there’s excitement within the community,” said Moquin about the show. “I know other dancers are excited to see what’s going to happen, because this is such a diverse, dynamic group.”

Then, upon completing what were a rigorous 10 weeks, Moquin and Charles’ time with DSW will be over.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if it were 12 weeks, three months?” asked Monk. “This kind of experience is so valuable that the way you improve it is to lengthen it.”

Unfortunately, Monk says, a lack of political representation for the arts and, as a result, insufficient funding makes such an extension difficult.

“There is no person in political authority to speak and represent the arts publicly [in Alberta], to even lead the public towards a well understood policy of support for the arts,” said Monk. “We’re a long way away from that.”

That means dancers feel they need to look elsewhere for work, says Charles.

“There are no artists that stay here,” said Charles. “There’s a few professional training programs in Calgary, but there’s none in Edmonton, so everyone leaves because they think they’re going to get more work elsewhere. So, it’s a hard time growing a community here in Alberta.”

How DSW and other organizations can make a difference, says Monk, is by supporting those who choose to stay here. But, she adds, these organizations have just enough resources to operate as it is.

“I hate to sound like a broken record, but more money would be nice,” said Monk. “These two young people are getting experience here and they’re getting paid, but it’s a tip. They’re not really getting paid. That’s good in some ways, but not in other ways because it’s really limiting. It would be nice to have a larger pot to draw funds from. We’ve been very successful – I think this is our 4th year being able to access those funds, but they don’t go very far.”

“In the meantime, you do what you can. You pour everything into the opportunities.”


Dancers’ Studio West’s Mythbehavin’ runs June 25 – 27 at the Victor Mitchell Theatre (Pumphouse Theatres).

For tickets, visit: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1626771

For more information about Dancers’ Studio West, visit: http://www.dswlive.ca/

Undressing The Dance: Dancers’ Studio West’s Latest Initiative Promotes Open, Critical Dialogue

Kimberley Cooper has been invited to partake in a public discussion hosted by Dancers’ Studio West surrounding her biography and latest show Year of The Horse. Leading the discussion is Davida Monk, the artistic director of DSW, who asks Cooper insightful questions about the dancer’s influences and where she is headed as a choreographer. Encouraged to participate, guests in attendance ask questions of their own along the course of the discussion.

This was DSW’s 3rd Undressing The Dance Dialogue.

Beginning in September of last year, the Undressing The Dance Dialogues are the latest initiative by DSW and its Dance Action Group to promote open, critical dialogue about dance with the involvement of audience members.

“We’re really passionately interested and committed in critical dialogue as a way to improve our own creativity and works, to raise awareness amongst interested members of the public and to build community in an effective way,” Monk said about the Dance Dialogues.

The first Dance Dialogue focused on the Alberta Dance Festival where audience members, choreographers, along with production crew, discussed the works in the program. The second Dance Dialogue, which took place in October, focused on Lev’s House which ran at the Fluid Festival.

In regards to post-performance discussions, Monk says the Dance Dialogues offer audience members a different sort of critical dialogue, one that she feels is not possible without some distance.

“After some time, some reflection on the work and a longer period of time not in the theatre setting – a different kind of dialogue can be done,” Monk explained. “You have to ask yourself what stayed with you after the week. When you go home that night something will stay with you, but after a week what stayed with you?”

DSW’s next Dance Dialogue will host Ame Anderson of Public Recordings. One of the topics that will be discussed is Anderson’s what we are saying which opens January 21st as part of the High Performance Rodeo.

The free event will be held at Ironwood Stage & Grill, Nov 23 from 12-2pm. Space is limited. RSVP to communications@dswlive.ca


Decidedly Jazz Dancework’s Year of The Horse: The Completely Fictional Adventures of Josephine Baker ran Nov 7 – 15, 2014, at Theatre Junction Grand. Cooper, DJD’s artistic director, choreographed the piece which featured eight mechanical horses.

Public Recording’s what we are saying runs Jan 21 – 24 at the Royal Canadian Legion #1 as part of the High Performance Rodeo. For more information about the show and how to buy tickets, visit: https://www.hprodeo.ca/2015/what-we-are-saying

For more information about Dancers’ Studio West, visit: http://www.dswlive.ca/

*This interview with Davida Monk took place Nov 23, 2014 at the 3rd Undressing The Dance Dialogue.

Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival Showcases Exciting Talent

Presented at the Pumphouse Theatre, Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival is a showcase of both emerging and established Canadian dance talent. This year, the dance festival is titled “Dance & The Image.” Nine choreographers workshopped their respective dance pieces over the course of a seven-day Creative Intensive with direction provided by the company’s artistic director, Davida Monk, and the Dance Action Group.

In this second week of the festival, six choreographers and their dancers take to the stage to present choreography influenced by various works of art.

First in the showcase is Choreographer Serenella Sol’s “Hollyhocks and Cacti,” an abstract piece that plays with the notion of female archetypes. Underscoring Sol’s piece are recited lines of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” which play over the speakers. Valentia Dimitriou and Kimberly Powley, Sol’s two dancers in this piece, go on to embody various archetypes, like the Seductress.

Choreographer Serenella Sol's Hollyhocks and Cacti. Dancers: Valentia Dimitriou (front), Kimberly Powley (back). Phototographer: Tim Nguyen

Choreographer Serenella Sol’s Hollyhocks and Cacti. Dancers: Valentia Dimitriou (front), Kimberly Powley (back). Phototographer: Tim Nguyen

As the piece goes on, however, there is a moment of rejection where the two dancers remove their dresses and show disgust towards them. We are left to wonder: what are they rejecting? If we accept dresses to be signifiers of femininity, then perhaps that is what the two dancers are rejecting: socially normalized ways of performing femininity. In only their body suits, the two dancers appear to find freedom and individuality; they no longer belong to any particular archetype.The act of rejection, then, can be taken as an act of defiance. This idea of defiance is supported by these lines of Angelou’s poem “You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I’ll rise” which Sol’s piece closes on.

In the following piece, choreographer Oriana Pagnotta continues on the topic of femininity, specifically the everyday experience of women, with her piece “We Aren’t Always in Pieces.”

From the beginning, Pagnotta, performing in her own piece, Eva Biro, and Lindsay Oehlerking generate a strong sense of uneasiness. They move about the stage frantically with exaggerated, physical movements where they sometimes hit themselves with their arms. The dancers repeat phrases like “don’t cry” and “don’t breathe,” which they then answer back with “I won’t.” We gather that there is more to the anxious quality of the piece.

What Pagnotta’s piece culminates to is a commentary on the way society at large frames violence against women. The instructions repeated over and over again speak to negative attitudes toward female victims that hold them exclusively responsible for their own safety, that if only they had done “the right thing” they could have avoided being battered and/or sexually assault. The frantic, uneasy movement of Pagnotta’s dancers, in effect, come to be understood as discomfort of being in one’s own skin, of being forced to believe that they are the problem, and they do not belong to the space which they occupy.

Pagnotta’s piece hits hard as she successfully conveys through movement and a choice selection of words a powerful and relevant message to her audience.

Choreographed by Chelci Blais, Quinn Kliewer, and Sisa Madrid, “Seiten” – the third piece of the showcase – stages a critique of media and consumerism. In this piece, newspapers fill the stage. Dancers Kelsey Clement, Valentia Dimitriou, Emily Henley, Raine Kearns, and Tessa Mark each sit with their fair share of newspapers. However, a frenzied competition and control of the newspapers overtakes the dancers. They fight each other, tearing newspapers in the process, until they achieve satisfaction. But what is enough? At what point does one have enough? The question is lost to the dancers, but brought to our attention by the choreographers.

“Seiten” is a smart, fun piece. The dancers bring plenty of expression and vigor to their movement. Even in the chaos of newspaper being torn and thrown around, the dancers manage to keep the choreography tight. Blais, Kliewer, and Madrid also do well to make clear their narrative and views on the effects of consumerism. The piece ends with a surprise where the dancers reach a resolution – by way of an act of kindness through sharing – only to have a bundle of newspapers drop downstage. (The cycle begins anew).

The showcase’s final piece is Pamela Tzeng’s “to be or not to be: A Very Important Verb (Part 1).” Here, Tzeng struggles to make peace between her Canadian and Chinese identities.

The piece begins playfully with Tzeng listening to a “How to Speak Mandarin (Chinese)” learning tape. Tzeng attempts the various common phrases the instructor guides her through, but fails. Then, moving beyond sound, Tzeng tries to look Chinese. She manipulates her face, sculpting it to read as Chinese. The most striking change Tzeng makes is removing the round appearance of her eyes. But as she goes on, we can see that Tzeng realizes the futility of her efforts.

The futility of Tzeng’s efforts to embody (signifers of) foreigness leads to a heavy frustration. Tzeng’s frustration nears higher levels when she cannot fit her head through a traditional Chinese dress. But then, Tzeng, now undressed, lays the dress over her body and pretends that she, perhaps for once, is finally Chinese. The joy Tzeng expresses is great. Tzeng proceeds to lose herself in a delightful dance with a red umbrella. The act of appearing Chinese suffices for Tzeng. But then the conflict between her two identities resurfaces, leading to a frightening madness where Tzeng’s frustration is finally too much for her.

Choreographer/Dancer Pamela Tzeng, after the show.

Choreographer/Dancer Pamela Tzeng, after the show.

Tzeng does a good job of exploring questions of cultural identity. Is belonging to a culture simply speaking the language and looking the part, or is there more? And for those with two cultures, how does one reconcile the differences between that of their origins and their host? Is it truly a matter of one over the other? As this is only a 10-minute excerpt of the final product, it will be interesting to see what conclusions, if any, Tzeng comes to at the Fluid Movements Arts Festival where the piece is set to premiere.

But the experience of the festival is marred by the noise travelling from the neighboring room into the performance space. Loud conversations and laughter remove us from the intimacy of certain moments throughout the showcase. Hopefully, the company will resolve this issue for future performances.

Ultimately, however, the DSW’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival succeeds. The talent of the dancers is impressive. But it is the clarity of the choreographers who demand us to listen to what they have to say that truly capture our attention. It will be interesting to see what the choreographers do next in their artistic journeys.


Dancers’ Studio West’s 33rd Annual Alberta Dance Festival – Dance & The Image ran from September 11-13, 18-20, 2014.

For more information about DSW’s upcoming season, visit: http://www.dswlive.ca