Canada Scene: Dollhouse makes some noise on the Arts Court stage

The dance/sound creation called Dollhouse mixes the unique talents of choreographer/dancer Bill Coleman and the sonic skills of avant-garde composer Gordon Monahan, (brother of RBC Ottawa Bluesfest’s Mark Monahan and the winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts). In advance of their unsettling, stimulating and comic performance involving Coleman’s journey across snapping mousetraps, beside bubbling beakers full of boiling water and across sticky floor tiles, on July 15, they answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Bill, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your dance career.?

A. I started tap dancing in England at age 15 in a small town called Hastings. I had no idea that anything like contemporary dance existed, so it was not until I moved to Toronto that I discovered this beautiful art form. Learning how to dance contemporary coincided with a desire to create pretty much anything that came into my head. Up until a certain period, all my works were funny. It is only with Dollhouse that humour has re-entered my work. These days my work seems to focus on musing about the internal condition.

Q. Can you describe to me the impetus for Dollhouse?

A. Dollhouse grew out of an idea I had about three or four years ago. The initial impetus was to create a room that fell apart. It was originally meant to be funny. But once we started into the creative process, a much more interesting piece begin to rear its head and from then on, Dollhouse grew out of experimentation and expiration.

Q. What will an audience member see on the stage?

A. They will see a vast array of organized clutter. Following my entrance they will journey with me as I interact with all the objects in a series of increasingly difficult tasks.

Gordon Monahan and Bill Coleman.

Q. Do you feel the combined effort has been a fruitful collaboration between choreographer and soundscape artist?

A. Gordon is a great person to collaborate with. He is very open at the same time as being informed independently creative and supportive. Working with composers of any genre is one of my favourite things to do. This piece was designed around the participation of Gordon, and the result is an almost encyclopaedic encounter with the music and sound of Gordon

Q. What came first? The music or the choreography?

A. We worked separately, getting together at several interludes during the two-year period to try things out. As we are both fairly experienced at collaborating many of the things that we decided to try ended up working although we could not keep everything

Q. Was this your first project together?

A. I worked with Gordon in 2004 on a project in Grasslands National Park. Following that we worked together on another site specific event in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. As this piece was designed to have objects that made sounds  in it Gordon was the ideal choice of composer

Q.Why did you want the performance to be so chaotic to “unleash Hell” as you told the National Post?

A. It’s rare that we can achieve anything chaotic and overwhelming in theatres. With the presence of Gordon, and large objects making sound, as well as having water present I thought it might be something we could strive for.

Q. What are you doing these days.

A. We are touring Dollhouse to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And following that we have a performance in Kingston at a music festival. So Dollhouse has been keeping me busy. I am also beginning to work on a variation of creation myths designed for all ages.

Q. Gordon, John Cage has praised your work which in itself is pretty interesting. is he a role model. Why?

A. John Cage is a role model; however I would say that Cage is a huge influence on music, culture, art in general. I don’t think that the average person is that aware, perhaps, of what a huge influence Cage is. I don’t think any musician working today is not influenced by Cage. Even perhaps indirectly, just because Cage had such a profound influence on changing the direction of music in the 20th century and redefining how music is made, what music can be. It’s hard to get into more detail without going on and on, but I often think of Cage when I’m working on a new piece and I come to a point where I’m wondering what to do next. I just think of how Cage might approach a problem that I might be having at any given moment. He continues to influence me a great deal.

Q. Can you explain about your approach to music/sound pieces?

A. I am interested in not just making music. I am interested in analyzing sound, analyzing the meaning of sound in music and using metaphors and finding ways to redefine what music is. The challenge is how to actually go about doing that. One approach is to avoid typical approaches to music and try to find new ways or new methods of producing sound or of deconstructing sound and reconstructing it after the fact.

Q. What will the audience hear in Dollhouse?

A. All of the sound in Dollhouse is produced live, no pre-recordings and no playback of any audio. All the sounds are produced live through an assortment of 12 contact pickups that are in various positions on the stage. In spite of the reduced technical aspects of this approach, there’s actually a fairly wide range and variety of sounds produced, even though everything is done just by picking up vibrations on stage during the performance.

Q. Do you feel the combined effort has been a fruitful collaboration between choreographer and soundscape artist?

A. I am really pleased with the collaboration that has taken place between Bill and myself. We worked on the piece over the course of about three years, not continuously but in periodic sections. As we went along, I felt there was something happening, something coming together, but I wasn’t necessarily convinced it was going to make a one-hour show.  When it actually did come off, and was quite successful, I was pleasantly surprised.

Q. Did you work together in close proximity or did you communicate long distance?

A. We worked together in the same space and we also worked separately by communicating through email and on the phone. Sometimes, Bill might have an idea he’d suggest to me, so I would go out and work on something and come back to him and show him the results. Then we would try integrating that into the performance. It was a lot of back and forth between us. I wouldn’t say either the choreography or the music came first, they both went together.

We’ve worked together in the past and we’ve known each other for about 30 years. We didn’t actually start working together until 2004 when I did the sound and music for one of his pieces. Over the years, we’ve done a few other projects, but this was more of a one-on-one collaboration. Bill had the initial ideas and guided the general initiation of the first concept.  Then we started working along, and it became a 50/50 collaboration.

We ended up developing a section where we use muscle sensors on Bill’s muscles to control sounds. That came about by trying to do something with the body and having the body activate sounds in the space. That was the initial idea and then it was solved by working out this muscle sensor interface to one of the computers.

Things developed along the way, we didn’t make any decisions about where we were going to end up. We worked on ideas and then we would take a break and go away for a few months. We would come back together and bring back some of the older ideas. We worked on those a bit more, and maybe throw away some things we had done and replace them with other things. It was a gradual process of experimenting with ideas, experimenting with technology and methods of finding ways to make the sound work with the movement and the body interaction. It was about finding something interesting and going in that direction, and seeing what we could assemble together.

Q. What are you doing these days.

A. We’re doing a lot of performances of Dollhouse and I’m also composing a piece for the London Contemporary Orchestra for pipe organ and an orchestral ensemble, in October. I’m also doing a lot of other sound art projects, developing some new installations.

Canada Scene
When: July 15 at 8 p.m.
Where: Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Ave.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.