Space, Place and Inter-cultural ChoreographY (cont.)

Contemporary dance is often relegated to the conventional stage, which sets up the art form to create “place”. Whereas, when dance is done in unconventional spaces, especially everyday outdoor spaces, it has to move with the space it inhabits to collaboratively make space. The impact is different too for audiences of both.


The stage audience makes a point to pay money and sit and watch the work. In everyday spaces, audiences don't plan to see it and have a variety of unpredictable responses. When everyday dance is in an everyday space, it can have a more tangible immediate impact.

I am always asked about whether I think about my audience when I choreograph for stage and theatre. While I am interested in the impact of the work on my audience, my priority is not what they are getting from the work. I am usually preoccupied with the choreography and how I might manipulate the stage area to conform to my idea for the work. However, in my moving-site work I find the audience response is my main impetus, and the source of my sense of intrigue and curiosity.

Garden could be said to be a small study on the impact of dance on the ecosystem of its location. To me, the most profound parts of Garden occur when one sees the connection between what is happening in the moving-site performance work, and its synergy with its location, or when one sees a relationship between the work and one's own life/world. It happens at different times for different people. The response is real and sincere, at times remarkable and touching.

SCSiteSpecificFenceI wanted to see if one could mobilize emotion in on-lookers to negotiate constructive change in the perception of space. Some people are made uncomfortable by changes in their environment. It is easy to understand why people run quickly by a moving-site performance such as Garden or Fence, or pretend not to look, or try to become invisible as they pass through the performance. Voluntary participatory response is averted in those cases but, no matter whether passers-by are conscious of it or not, their presence has impact on the work.

In my moving-site work, it felt good to allow nature to be involved in decisions and adapt creatively, as choreographer and dancers, to its taciturn ways, as well as the human changes that occurred. Halfway through Garden, a tree was cut down by construction workers. Some days it was so windy and cold that hats were a necessity and were incorporated as a costume item in Fence. Most people who commented on the work said they had never noticed the locations before, yet many had walked or driven by on numerous occasions. Many said the dance had an impact on how they would view these locations in the future.

Seeing these clips in this way also highlights the energy or chaos (depending on how you look at it) of the natural sounds and the movement of things in the environment (for instance, the cars) as it relates to the movement of the performers. The cars add a “Cage-ian” [as in John Cage] chance element that becomes significant, and a part of the performance.

Moving-site performance work requires some different kinds of skills for dancers to negotiate in the unlimited, vast and sometimes daunting space. I am just starting a new moving-site performance work with the York Dance Ensemble and I want to gather the performers' experiences this time. For Garden and Fence, I surveyed onlookers. For my new work, Path, I want to document the dancers' responses to the process of moving space. Some of them may be here today, and even though we have just begun our work, and only in the studio, some people have been dreaming of it, and the relationship of the subject matter to them as humans. For dancers to experience moving in everyday spaces gives them a new understanding of the “place” they inhabit in their bodies, and in relationship to environment.

SC00042Stationary Cranes is another moving-site performance work that I would like to do with performers who are not afraid of heights. One dancer in each “cherry picker” will stand in these baskets and wear long wings of parachute silk, painted by a Mohawk painter I have been in touch with. The wings will be attached to one another, and create one huge crane in the sky for passers-by. I want to challenge the notion of visual distraction. On Highway 400, I expect to get a lot of interference.

I believe that strands of ancestral ties connect us to the natural world. These strands become complexly intertwined, in this globalized, trans-national world where we live. Because if a space in nature is compromised, withheld, disrespected or damaged, it can have effects on the people around it. In my moving-site performance work I try to invigorate the strands that lie dormant or have been numbed by inactivity or convention, so that we can experience natural life as it relates to art and everyday life. The one constant that assists us in moving between cultures is that we are all intrinsically bound by nature. It shapes the way we see everything.

I want to further explore this dialogue between being in the spiral of nature wherever I am, and engaging others in this same possibility. This spiral of nature forms the ceremony and ritual of life for me: it is the creative exploration that exposes the ecosystem in dance, and at the same time enacts a recovery for myself of my own cultural and ecological heritage.

The idea of making place in nature through dancing space is intrinsically linked, I feel, to my own Mohawk roots. The awakening of my native roots has also led me to my theories on the fluidity of culture and its ability to merge, loop and link us to one another. So my collaborative work with Azerbaijani dancer/choreographer Sashar Zarif is an example of what I call multi-centric dance. While in my moving-site work I talk about making “space” “place”, in my collaborations with Sashar, we make work together that has no fixed culture; yet we weave a place of inclusion that has global meaning.

We have an instinctual approach, together, when we work. We use tons of different processes to come to each aspect of the work. I feel that through this process, we have merged our individuality to find a new “one-ness”, or rather to find more of our one-ness, in creating new culture.

I think this is a new way to work collaboratively, in Toronto's multi-cultural climate, and a rewarding way to bring out our cultures, from levels that are conscious and unconscious.

A blood-line kept hidden, and down-played, full of shame and mystery, has always haunted me. Yet, who I am today, or what I have become, the work that I create, and my perspective on the world has undoubtedly been shaped by the fact that I am, also, Mohawk. My innate aboriginal heritage was/is at the core of my creativity and humanity and is the construct of a home or “place” for my identity.

Just so for Sashar, who has moved through many lands to come to Canada, and has been shaped by these experiences. Together, in our work, we find where our identities converge. This is exciting.

Together, we did a site-work for Nuit Blanche at Toronto's Distillery District in September, 2008.


Dance has always been the language that connected me to life and rooted me in place. Keith H. Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places says, “… place-making is a universal tool of the historical imagination.” (Basso 1996: p. 5) “… place-making is a way of constructing history itself, of inventing it …” (Basso 1996: p. 6) “We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.” (Basso 1996: p. 7)

I feel that when Sashar and I are doing our work, that is what happens. We are inventing our place-worlds.


Thank you for letting me speak today. (Q & A on Next Page)




home l shop dcd l history l links l donations l the collection l services l shipping policy l CIDD l exhibitions l CDFTP
educational resources l
visits & lectures l making archival donations l grassroots archiving strategy l personnel l RWB alumni


Susan Cash
McLean Performance Studio, York University,
Back To: CD Home Page
 /  Prev. Page