Dancing at a Distance: Interview with Jolene Bailie, Artistic Director of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers

Émilie Michalik – September 9, 2020

“Uncertainty” is the word that best describes the challenges faced by the arts and culture sector during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans are changed and organizations tasked with the reconfiguration of their activities, some being focused entirely on in-person and personal interactions with the public. How do they fare? Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers has a long history in Winnipeg (as well as Canada), celebrating its 56th anniversary this year. The company, established by the iconic Rachel Brown, continues to push boundaries and is ready to work within restrictions posed by COVID-19 to present the public with boundary pushing performances. Jolene Bailie, Artistic Director of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD), delves into the contemporary dance scene in Winnipeg and the new implications of her upcoming performance of Hybrid Human.

Culture Days MB: Beginning with Rachel Browne leading up to the present day, how has the contemporary dance scene in Winnipeg evolved?

Jolene Bailie: Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers (WCD) is Canada’s oldest and longest running contemporary dance company and Rachel’s legacy continues to inspire the Winnipeg community. I have been involved in the contemporary dance profession in Winnipeg for twenty years now and I believe the scene in Winnipeg has evolved through a complex network of individuals, both from Winnipeg and elsewhere, who are committed to the art form. Throughout the evolution, WCD has presented a broad range of creative work and served as an important place for creation.

Who are some noteworthy individuals who have collaborated with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers?

WCD has collaborated with hundreds of artists over its history. Last season was my first season as WCD’s Artistic Director and we presented Melanie Demers’ work Animal Triste. We are looking forward to continuing working with Demers in the future and I am really excited about this. Some works that I have absolutely loved over my lifetime as a patron include: Tom Stroud’s Under the Table: Wrestling with Dad, Peggy Baker’s performance of The Disappearance of Right and Left by Sarah Chase, Serge Bennathan’s The Trilogy of Sand/Sable, Roger Sinha’s Benches, Rachel Browne’s, Mouvement, and works by Jose Navas and Tedd Robinson. WCD presents a broad range of creative work each season, and there have been scores of noteworthy artists. The linkages created between artists at WCD is a wonderful contribution to the contemporary dance scene.

Photo by Leif Norman

Describe the dynamic between the artistic director and choreographer and the overall collaborative effort of a performance.

Each choreography and project is unique. As Artistic Director, I also choreograph. For me, working with dancers, designers, other contributors, and production is a collaborative process. Things evolve, sometimes day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Most often one never creates the dance they intended to.

Considering the physical nature of dance, how will the company engage with restrictions posed by COVID-19?

WCD is committed to creating a season that can adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. We are creating new works. We will follow government recommendations. This means we will create new works with physical distancing in place. Our choreographies will need to pivot as it will be some time before we can dance in close proximity, engage in partnering, or even touch. We will most likely be wearing masks in our warm-up classes and rehearsals, maybe even for some performances. We will most likely perform to smaller audiences due to physical distancing requirements at events. Our shows will have smaller casts. It’s not just the dancers on stage and the choreography that need to navigate physical distancing, it’s also the dressing rooms, washrooms and production personnel. We are expecting to do a lot of cleaning before and after rehearsals. We are expecting to do a lot of screening. Covid-19 is going to be with us for some time. We are aware that we need to be flexible and find ways to do our art. We are aware that we need to explore new opportunities to share our work. We are both cautious and optimistic.

Is there any precedent for choreographing group performances while social distancing?

I suspect for many choreographers, each will be setting their own precedents. I think it is realistic to expect that there will be more solo and smaller group works during COVID-19. I have presented many works outdoors, I suspect this will be a really great option as well. This season is my first season creating choreography with physical distancing as a requirement. WCD completed a small project in June with three dancers, outdoors, with physical distance. Before we began, I had many mixed emotions about how it was going to work with the restrictions of having to be spaced out, no touching, and no partnering, but as soon as we came together as a group, we all experienced that synergistic magic that can only happen when people come together.

Photo by Leif Norman

What was the original idea behind Hybrid Human?

Hybrid Human was a project conceived by Wanda Koop. I was invited into the project in 2007, and the work premiered in 2010. Hybrid Human was a collaboration between Visual Artist, Wanda Koop, Sound Artist, Susan Chafe, Lighting Designer, Hugh Conacher, and myself as choreographer. Hybrid Human was originally inspired by developments in robotics and artificial intelligence, musing on the possibilities and risks inherent in mingling human and machine. The original motivation questions the depths of human sensation and experience. The dance movement was originally representative to sketch out an imagined future for our species where humans were dominated by a screen.

How does the present moment re-contextualize this iteration of Hybrid Human?

I have been working on Hybrid Human for 10 years now. The dance keeps calling me, and I keep coming back to it. In many ways the themes it was created on - those of disembodiment, an unknown entity, and surveillance - are just as relevant to me now as they were when I was immersed in the initial creation process. There is a starkness to the dance that is simultaneously simple and complex. The combination of simplicity and complexity existing together connects to COVID-19. The directives to us (as humans) are simple: wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, respect physical distancing, don’t touch your face, and wear a mask. But as we can see by the spread of the pandemic, not simple at all for a society to do.

How do you see contemporary dance in everyday life?

I think many dance artists see every aspect of their everyday lives in a relationship to their personal relationship with dance. I see and feel dance when I move my forearm in spirals while washing dishes. I consider dance when I get dressed every single day. With the reality that I only perform occasionally these days, I still like to have the option to dance at any moment if that moment may happen to present itself. I am always wearing comfy shoes, clothes that allow for a freedom of movement, and things that are dance-able.

Photo by Leif Norman

What types of outreach programs are offered by WCD? How will they be affected by COVID-19?

This season, we are delighted to offer WCD’s Emerging Artist Initiative, WCD’s Emerging Artist Studio Show, professional level classes, and workshops with Guest Artists. We are fiercely optimistic and are hoping to be able to deliver all of our programming. We are planning for smaller groups due to physical distancing, daily screening, and advance reservation. We are prepared to pivot programming to other platforms should Covid-19 continue to spike.

What can audiences expect as you move ahead with a new season?

As WCD begins its 56th season, the company is committed to delivering programming and performances within government recommendations and to creating and presenting work with physical distancing (as required). We are excited to offer a three show subscription series, new creations, and a return to live performances. We will announce our new season line up on the opening day of Culture Days, on September 25th.

Will there be a digital approach this year to share performances?

Yes. This is a brand new activity for us. We are planning to create digital components for three of our projects as well as planning to offer virtual performances and/or live streaming.

As part of Culture Days Manitoba, Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers is hosting its Season Launch and a dance projection of Hybrid Human.