Propeller Dance goes full on full length in new work at GCTC, Living the Desirable Life

A scene from Propeller Dance's new creation Living the Desirable Life.

For 10 years Propeller Dance has been showing how anyone can join in and dance. The celebrate the decade, ARTSFILE asked Propeller’s co-artistic director Renata Soutter about her newest choreography, Living the Desirable Life, why Propeller started and where it hopes to go.

Q. Can you tell me about your new performance Living the Desirable Life.

A. This is our first full-length evening piece. At Propeller we have created and produced dozens of full-length evening shows with much success, yet they have consisted of a few pieces each evening.

The show is around an hour long, and created over a series of months, after extensive research of the company’s personal stories and experiences of living with disability, or as women, as queer, as human beings.

There are eight performers, six core company dancers and two guest dancers – Bella Bowes, Robert Chartier, Amelia Griffin, Sioned Watkins, Geoff Dollar, Liz Winkelaar, Sylvain Bouchard, Nathalie Joanisse and Monica Hoffman.

Jesse Stewart has created and performs the music on the reactable.

The piece consists of about 14 vignettes that take us through individual and collective experiences, all based on real experiences. That being said, the piece is still an abstract non-narrative raucous romp through the joy and oppressions experienced in life. My choreography is both abstract, serene, intense, spacious, duets, trios, ensemble sections, emotive.

Q. What prompted this work?

A. The need to share our stories; to shed light on inequities, and to move through experiences of oppression and prejudice to acceptance and joy. My passion for creation that highlights the unique movements and potential we each have, weaving together diverse ways of moving and being in the world – seeing this as a strength and something of beauty to make art out of. Disability is not something to be overcome, but rather part of our human experience. Pride in who we each are.

After 10 plus years of myself and co-director Shara Weaver advocating and working so very hard with the company, we are seeing a shift begin. The funding bodies and presenting worlds are beginning to change and support artists with disability and integrated work. There is still a lot more work to be done, and the next 10 years will be really exciting to see where things land.

Q. There are some new accessibility options being added to the show. What are they?

A. Thanks to a New Chapter Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and support from the 150 Alliance of Community Foundations of Canada and VLN technologies, we are able to do much more this year. Things we have always wanted to do, but couldn’t afford before. This year we will have captioning of text and ASL interpretors on site for people who are deaf or hearing impaired. There are also sensory seats to experience the music of Jesse Stewart via vibrations. We have support workers on site to assist audience as required. We are developing an audio program and some audio description of the piece for people who are blind or have visual impairment. We are opening our dress rehearsal to people in a more relaxed format (although actually we have done this all our years – relaxed performances are what we just do – not a new thing).

Mostly though our creation methodology and teaching methodology is all about inclusion and collaborative creation, and that is really the essence and soul of our commitment to access. We build it from the artistic work up.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I came to dance later in life –in my twenties, after travelling the world and working in education and community development. While travelling in Cambodia I was struck by how integral the commitment to culture was in re-building a resilient war-torn country, and in Korea I was struck by how elder artists were considered national treasures.

Dance for me was a form of self-expression, community building and an authentic connection to the world around me. I immersed myself in dance, worked my butt off, and came through a contemporary dance degree with a focus on choreography from Concordia. My interest was always two-fold – dance for aesthetic purity and dance as community development. The arts are a powerful vehicle for social change, and I don’t think that has to be at the expense of creating very good high quality art. Making meaningful art is my aim, art that touches audience and performer, and art that makes a difference in the world, as most art does.

When I started teaching dance to people with disabilities in Ottawa in 2003, I quickly realised that from a human rights perspective it struck me – why were the arts not available to people with disabilities? I was shocked. Diving in, it just quickly grew and grew – finding collaborators with Shara Weaver and Alan Shain who shared similar visions for what the dance and art world needed – the voices and unqiue movements and creations of artists of diverse abilities. My values were more strongly aligned to that of the disability arts sector than of the typical dance world in many ways. Now I see the value of both and that they are not mutually exclusive for me, but aligned through the aesthetics we are creating at Propeller.

Dance for me, is the most important of the art forms – it is the body moving, a visceral experience, sometimes shared, sometimes experienced. Dance comes in so many forms and ways, and integrated dance is yet another exciting dance form.

Q. What is your philosophy of  dance performance? Why this direction? What do you hope it accomplishes?

A. Contemporary dance is about innovation, stretching boundaries, researching new possibilities in movement, questioning and challenging the status quo…..I love it for its abstractness, and for its ability as a form to communicate something deeply resonanate of the human condition that cannot be said with language or text or narrative.

My hope is that people will reflect – on their own assumptions of themselves, of others of our society. Idealistic, but my hope is that our work at Propeller will make a contribution towards people being more accepting, and respectful of diversity and celebrate our uniqueness and difference. There is place for all.

Q. Propeller has been going for a decade, which is a real accomplishment. Why did it start and can you detail some of its history. How many shows that sort of thing.

Thanks! We (Shara, Alan and I) co-founded Propeller 10 years ago in 2007. Prior to that we, individually and collectively, had been teaching integrated dance for many years. We started Propeller so we could give full focus to the needs of the artists involved, and be sure we could develop the company into what it is today – a professional company creating, touring, and a large education teaching wing as well. (more history available on our website). Shara and I have been co-artistic directors of Propeller from 2007.

Q. Now that the first 10 years are almost up, where do you want to take Propeller in the next 10 years?

The next 10 years of Propeller….my goals are ambitious, and include:

• Touring repertoire and new company creations;
• Delving deeper into my choreography;
• An outreach company working more for young audiences;
• Continuous innovation in contemporary creation;
• Mentoring and staffing our Artistic Associate role for an artist with a disability;
• Ensuring equity and that new voices of artists with disability and from  artists diverse backgrounds are creating and have their voices heard;
• Sharing our unique methodology for creation and teaching
• And … if millions were to fall from the sky … we would create Canada’s first centre for Integrated Performing Arts – a fully accessible performance and teaching facility – with ground floor studios (so we don’t have to keep calling the fire department to carry out Moni and her 500 pound power wheelchair when the elevators break down – which has happened twice in the last two weeks).

We have big goals and ambitions, but ultimately it is about creating meaningful art of excellence that highlights and celebrates our shared diversities.

Q. Anything else?

A. Please do come to our show and experience it live – Open Dress at 2 p.m. June 21, PWYC and Shows June 23 and 24 at 7:30. tickets at – talk back June 24.

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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.