No fear: Into the dark with Peggy Baker

Dancers Kate Holden and David Norsworthy perform in the Peggy Baker Dance Projects' who we are in the dark. Photo: Jeremy Mimnagh Photography

“When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin

For the legendary Canadian dance artist Peggy Baker, the idea of creating a work called who we are in the dark was full of meaning, both metaphysical and deeply personal.

The idea sprang out of a 2015 project called Fractured Black that she created with the Arcade Fire violinist Sarah Neufeld.

Peggy Baker. Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

Baker had been approached by a Toronto dance festival and asked if she wanted to dance a solo. Baker had not danced professionally since 2010. Even so, she decided to do the piece, but it had to be a new work and she wanted to work with san indie musician half her age.

Baker was given Neufeld’s email address and made her pitch. Neufeld gave an enthusiastic yes and the two started work on Fractured Black.

As part of that, “I asked Sarah to write a prologue for the piece of music we were using and she wrote some lyrics that opened with the line ‘who we are in the dark’.

“I found this to be a beautiful, rhetorical question. It encompassed such things as who are we when we are confused? when we suffer loss? when we are angry? I wondered: ‘Who am I when the frame of my life drops away?

“It is one of the most basic questions we can ask ourselves.”

The words also became an immediate jumping off point for the two women to work together again.

And it was a way to try to present what Baker believes are the two realities: light and dark.

“Our universe emerged out of darkness. We emerged out of the darkness of our mother’s womb. We will go back into that same darkness and what is all that about.

“For me darkness is not just one thing. It’s not pitch black and it’s beyond being terrified.”

Human beings have a Circadian rhythm that governs our daily lives. Part of that means we spend a third of our existence asleep, usually in a dark place.

The idea of darkness brings to mind many themes that fit Baker’s work.

“I have to say my work is a kind of poetry as opposed to circus or literary. My work is very much a distillation, so darkness is an incredibly rich subject for me.

“It lends itself to poetry.” And she referred to poetry, and philosophy and literature to form the ideas behind her choreography.

“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow? I must have a dark side
also if I am to be whole.”

― Carl Jung

Some of the writers that inspired her thinking were Carl Jung and Dean Koontz. She said she needed a horror writer. Also on her list: Pablo Neruda, Jeanette Winterson, Rainer Maria Rilke and the French writer Henri Michaux.

She started work on the project with Neufeld about 2 1/2 years ago, working in bursts of intense creation.

“This started with me generating a huge amount of choreographic material.” Then she started building out from that to what is now an hour long piece.

Baker starts a work with “choreographic episodes. I had to get very far into process before other collaborators could start.”

She has been working this way for the past 10 years.

“We are used to the idea that the music is first. For me, choreography is the jumping off point. I love the idea that dance is the primary art form and not secondary to music.

“There is something in the language of the body that can emerge that has its own logic.

“I find I am more successful when I ask myself first to create choreographic studies or episodes and that it is the primary building block.”

Once the choreographic ideas were in place, other artists, such as Neufeld, joined in.

One of the collaborators was the Montreal-based visual artist John Heward.

His role is a bittersweet part of this project. Heward died in November, 2018, and the piece premiered in February.

“All the practical work with John was done, however, he was not in the theatre with us. That meant all the decisions about placement, timing and use of the ‘drops’ (artworks) was left to the lighting designer and me. Actually it was a very profound experience to be left with that responsibility.”

Heward was a well-known artist whose work has been seen in galleries across North America. But this was the first time, his work had been on stage.

“I’m really happy that this was a project for him in the last year of his life. He was extremely excited about it,” Baker said.

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” 
― Mary Oliver

The ‘drops’ are large versions of Heward’s work. He painted on large pieces of material that Baker calls drops.

Using a large brush, Heward painted on repurposed and damaged canvas, on tarpaulins and on fiberglass mat. The works were cut up, moved around and ultimately suspended. In the work, the ‘drops’ appear on stage during the performance and the dancers “activate” them.

Some of the drops have large black ovals that Heward called self-portraits.

There are about 10 drops that “enter the performance at various points. They are out in the space with the dancers. They are moved and pulled and the dancers handle them and they move.” In addition there are projected images that flicker across the stage. There is a lot going on.

“Only the floor is static,” Baker said. On the stage “we are in a world that is constantly changing. It is always getting darker or getting lighter.”

With the musicians, Sarah Neufeld and Ottawa native Jeremy Gara (also of Arcade Fire) on stage, this is a true multi-disciplinary work.

The piece has been touring and is headed to Ottawa after shows in Kingston, Ontario.

“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

When ARTSFILE spoke with Baker, the dancers and musicians had been back in the studio refreshing the work.

“We have to put it back together again,” she said.

The rebuilding of the work had her returning to the themes of the piece.

“It makes me want to ask this question who we are in the dark of myself to be able to extrapolate what that would be.

“I am thinking about the death of my husband (the musician Ahmed Hassan) eight years ago.

“I think about not being a dancer any more. The piece takes me to really personal places of loss and transformation where you have to go back and start again and ask yourself without this thing that I thought I understood that was central to my life, now I am thrown back to a place of tremendous introspection again.

“It’s heavy and yet if we go through our lives and we don’t look and ask ourselves, how will we prepare for the deaths of those we love or for our own death.”

Baker doesn’t call herself a dancer any more.

“I am performer now and sometimes I am performing choreographic elements but honestly I no longer consider myself to be a dancer.

“I can trace it back to the death of my husband. That was a complete paradigm shift in my life and it threw me into a completely different place as a person and as an artist. It isn’t about a standard and of course I have an aging body but it is more profound than that.

“I can say that I lost it when I lost him. I can still go on stage but I’m not that person any more. For the first year after his death I kept saying I will heal and I will want to be back in the studio and going back on-stage and it never happened.”

That profound moment in her life is in this work.

“For me, in the middle of who we are in the dark, there is a couple and the woman’s partner is swallowed up by the dark. It can be read in a multitude of ways but for me this is the heart of the dance and the heart of my life’s journey for past decade.”

Baker’s piece was funded by the National Arts Centre’s Creation Fund, something she calls a game-changer.

“This enabled me to rent a theatre for a week and put up my entire show and work out every single thing about all the complex design elements. The week showed us how to set the show up, how to run it and pack it up.

“I have never been able to work at that level before.”

Peggy Baker Dance Projects
Where: Babs Asper Theatre
When: April 12, 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.