Two Ottawa artists seek the choreography of resistance

Laurie Young and Justine A. Chambers. Photo: Peter Robb

When people take to the streets, there is a certain choreography in their actions. Think of the Hands Up gesture used by Black Lives Matter protesters.

The motion inherent in political action on the streets of our world today have caught the very aware eyes of two dance artists with Ottawa connections.

Both Laurie Young and Justine A. Chambers are working together on a project they call One Hundred More. And for the next many months, up to April 2020, they will be supported by the NAC Dance department’s Visiting Dance Artist Program. 

In the course of several residencies under the program, they will have the resources of the NAC at their disposal to create a work that will investigate the embodiment of all the incremental micro-movements that make up a recognizable expression of resistance. In their work will be gestures, along with rhythm, time and internal musicality and exploration of theatre readings. They spoke with ARTSFILE recently about the work and their careers.

Both the artists grew up in Ottawa and both had a connection to Le Groupe de la Place Royale’s Dance Lab but at slightly different times, so they didn’t meet here.

These days Justine A. Chambers lives on the West Coast on the unceded Coast Salish territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

She says her work sees choreography as a living archive. She says in her artist’s statement on her website that she is “concerned with a choreography of the everyday; with the unintentional dances that are already there.”

Laurie Young lives in Berlin where her work “focuses on the embodiment of unauthorized histories and their representation.” It looks at how relationships are choreographed between human and other than human beings in the theatre, the museum and the city. She is also involved in work that connects art and science.

The visiting dance artist program is a residency that supports the creative development and advancement of Canadian choreographers. The first artist in the program was another Ottawa native, Dana Michel, in 2018.

When they spoke to ARTSFILR, they were “working through the idea of readable and legible bodies,” Young said, and trying to understand how these gestures are created.

Chambers said: “I am interested in what we already do (as people). My choreography is not movement invention. As a choreographer, I’m actually terrible at making up movements so if I was that kind of choreographer things wouldn’t go well for me.

“Most of my choreography has really been centred on the way we move, how we move through cities together, how we have been choreographed by our families.” That could include how a person cross her legs or keeps her elbows off the table.

“I like to think about our individual bodies or our collective bodies as an archive for those movements and then taking those actions and working with them as art, as expression.”

She pursues her examination assiduously.

“I spent a year riding the bus in Vancouver trying to copy everybody’s body posture on the bus before they got off. You try to do it very carefully so you don’t offend anyone.”

She said she hopes her choreography will encourage empathy and connection.

These days some social scientists call this embodiment theory.

“What,” Chambers said, “if we use an art practice to delve into something and ask questions about why we always walk up this path this way?

“Why, as a person of colour, don’t I feel safe here, when my friends who are not people of colour do.”

Putting these movements into a dance performance brings attention to how the body is being moved.

“It’s about personal awareness and also a larger societal and global awareness. That’s why we are dealing with resistance and bodies protesting.”

They are examining how things can change because people are willing to put bodies in peril.

Young is looking at how the body can take over a public space.

“I have started working a lot in museums in the past few years, specifically natural history museums to explore how we are choreographed through this very particular space. That was also about connecting human bodies to non-human display objects.

“I was interested in natural history museums in particular because I’m interested in how nature is represented. I was interested in idea of the diorama as a theatre. It’s expanded from that.”

Chambers and Young met for the first time at Kits Beach in Vancouver in 2013 where they danced together.

“I think we were both taken with how easy it was for us to dance together. It was magic in a bottle and it still feels like magic in a bottle,” Chambers said.

Chambers is a mixed race person.

“I moved a lot as a kid. I have this thing of always being an in-between person. I think that that is sort of how I have been able to cope. I go into a space and assess. I know how to slide in.

Young grew up in Blackburn Hamlet. In the 1980s, the suburb was quite white. There were two Chinese families.

“I was asked all the time, ‘Where are you from?’ Now I live in Berlin, so the question of where is home always very present for me.”

The piece they are creating together is very present to today. When the interview happened they were working with some of the music which is being created by a sound artist DJ from Berlin.

“We are also working to examine the pleasure of moving as well as of resistance.”

For bodies of colour, Chambers said, “moving with pleasure is a kind of resistance. For hundreds of years a certain kind of human has been trying to annihilate us. Our bodies aren’t safe.

“When we have access to our bodies and feel safe, we can move with pleasure. It could be seen as a threat, but it’s also taking a joyous space. This resonated with both of us. Here I am and I can enjoy myself and I don’t care what you say.”

After their stay in Ottawa earlier in the summer, they will next convene in October and then back to Berlin for two final weeks with the premiere in Berlin in December.

This access to resources for this work is something rare for Young and Chambers.

Neither has made a work in a theatre for about four years.

Chambers has been working in galleries.

“I have been invited into the visual arts world. They have included me so I have been making work in galleries.” She has also done one project called Family Dinner which was performed in a home.

She has been dancing some, but most of the time now other people her work.

Having a son has also focused her work on choreography.

“This is the first time in years I’ve made anything in a theatre. It feels exciting.”

Young has actually been doing a lot of writing, working between the arts and academia. Entering new vocabularies.

She has been engaged by the Volkswagen Foundation to bring artists and scientists together.

After the premiere in Berlin, the piece, One Hundred More, will be performed at the Agora in Montreal. And there is talk of it coming to Ottawa.

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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.