On leaving the National Ballet, I went through a metamorphosis and into film and television. In many ways I started to understand the impetus of where choreography comes from – as I was choreographing for camera in tandem with working with other choreographers. Eventually, I started to do choreography for camera myself.
I had the great advantage of working with wonderful Canadian choreographers for my first piece, called Salute to Dancers for Life. Dancers for Life had been going, up to that point in 1995, for seven years, and it was a unique annual event that brought contemporary and classical dancers together. It was staged first in Toronto, then in Vancouver and elsewhere, raising money and awareness for AIDS. It was an extraordinary event, charged with passion and determination from the dance community to salute, to care for, to say goodbye to the people we had lost and to make all of us aware of how AIDS was a part of our lives and something we should do everything in our powers to acknowledge, prevent and to eventually eradicate.
I was able to persuade the CBC to let me produce a televised version. We christened the Studio 40 at the then new CBC Broadcasting Centre. I selected, from the seven previous years of Dancers for Life, the performances that would work best within a television context. My concept was to do a performing arts show that was very accessible and open to the public – and we actually got very high audience ratings for it (800,000 viewers), which I was thrilled about! Robert Desrosiers did Double Man, and Carol Anderson made a beautiful piece for young Anna Jaeger from the Canadian Children's Dance Theatre; and there were works by Pamela Grundy, Danny Grossman and Nacho Duato. Evelyn Hart and Rex Harrington did JiřŪ KyliŠn's Nuages, and Karen Kain danced the pas de deux from Roland Petit's Carmen with her partner Robert Conn. Edouard Lock's dance performed by Louise Lecavalier was spellbinding. We had a heady and eclectic mix of dance and dancers.
The film showed those pieces as they had been choreographed. Still I wanted the camera to penetrate further. I wanted the camera to enter the inner circle. I wanted the viewer to feel as if they were the dancer, as if they were experiencing rather than witnessing it. That was the beginning of my journey in taking dance – I don't like the word adapting – taking dance to film and television. I like the word re-imagining. Re-imagining how it can be seen and experienced through the lens and then altering the perspective of the viewer – changing that divisive proscenium line, changing that access and making the access of communication more direct. Rather than peering over a horizontal hurdle, you switch it around and forge a direct vertical connection. This was a new exploration for me in form and function and communication.
Margie Gillis was enthralling with her Torn Roots and Broken Branches in Salute to Dancers for Life. This led to the commission of a performance biography produced at the CBC called Margie Gillis: Wild Hearts in Strange Times. Margie Gillis is a beautiful, interpretive solo choreographer. She has not come from any specific school. She has formed her own base of choreography and is one of the leading lights in our contemporary dance world. What we did for that show was to take her existing choreography and re-imagine it, and ... I also asked her to start creating for the camera. She created two pieces – one was Take This Waltz, set to Leonard Cohen's song Take this Waltz. She told a very beautiful story of how she sang that song to her brother Christopher, who danced with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and who died of AIDS in 1982 – how she sang that song to him over and over again in his last days and hours. She took that song and in free-form shaped it for the camera.
I didn't think we had a big budget in those days, but now I know we did! CBC no longer produces arts television. Wild Hearts in Strange Times was produced in-house for CBC television, and we had a wonderful, vast amount of resources at our disposal in terms of the studio, in terms of sets, designers and skilled craftsmen, and being able to shoot for a week and really explore. What Margie did was actually free-form her dance on the set; then she came back later and we worked together very closely in the editing room to structure a new work, Take this Waltz. She was brimming with ideas on set, but the actual choreographic result happened in the editing room.
The first time I started editing was the first time I realized that I could have as much joy in my new worlds and expressions as I did as a dancer. I thought, this is exactly like rehearsing over and over again for a given role. You hone a process and keep refining and playing with it and experimenting. It's thirty frames per second and a shift of a frame by five frames this way or two frames that way could change everything. That whole distillation process was so exciting – and as I think of it now, in many ways it actually is a process of choreographing.
Next I did Karen Kain: Dancing in the Moment. This again was under CBC's auspices. That was a wonderful experience because it was the final year Karen was dancing and we did a combination of things for the show. We shot her final performance of The Actress, which was choreographed by James Kudelka, in Winnipeg, so it was chronicled. I also asked James to create a piece for Karen, so he choreographed a piece for camera, with her and Ben Heppner, called Les Chemins de l'Amour. Then we re-worked other, existing balletic pieces for the camera, one being an excerpt from James's The Miraculous Mandarin. There's a very sensuous, brutal duet between a mother and her son danced by Karen and Rex Harrington. When it was reinvented for the camera, the whole dimension and impact of this pas de deux took on a completely different life and meaning.
Then in 1998, CBC decided that they were closing down producing in-house arts programming. Any work was going to outside producers, so I formed my own company called Veronica Tennant Productions.
My first experience was at Banff with Peggy Baker. I brought her and Shauna Rolston, the brilliant cellist, together and they created a piece. Actually, I presented it theatrically at first; then we realized that the material was wonderful fodder for my first experience as a director. I had gone to the program at the Banff Centre called Women in the Director's Chair, and learned my ABCs of directing there. So it was a natural progression to work with Peggy and Shauna. Although she had designed the dance originally for the proscenium, and we did actually shoot it on a stage, many shots circled the two performers. The camera seemed to be almost inside Peggy's head, almost inside her gut ... her hands would fill the frame at times. There was a connection between her and Shauna that you would never see from a seat in the theatre; with the camera we were able to witness this riveting connection between them. Peggy actually choreographed the work upon learning distressing news about her husband Ahmed Hassan's condition with Multiple Sclerosis. She called it Words Fail and she spoke her dance with searing power.
I went back to Banff two years later to work on a film based on the ballet barre, which has always fascinated me – there is a uniformity and a repetition to our dance life through the daily routine of the barre. It is the throughline that extends from your very first lesson to your very last class as a professional dancer. In terms of my film work, I also wanted to portray life outside of a stage, outside of a studio. I had great support from the Banff Centre to create this new work that I called Trio. The beauty of Banff is the availability of artistic resources. For the film, the Beethoven Trio is played by the Rolston Trio – Shauna Rolston, her father Tom Rolston and her mother Isobel Rolston who founded the Rolston Recital Hall at the Banff Centre. The venue had never been photographed for dance before and I think it was made visually stunning by our trio of performers, Ronda Nychka, John Ottmann and Michel Faigaux.
Interestingly enough, Trio was done on maybe one-twentieth of the budget for other films that were submitted for Gemini Awards, which are top television awards, and we actually got two nominations, one for “Best Editing” and one for “Best Cinematography.” It won “Best Cinematography” and on Awards night no-one was there to receive it because we didn't for a minute think we stood a chance – the budget wasn't even as long as a shoestring! We were playing with green screen, we were playing with a lot of different film techniques. Trio is an example of choreographing expressly for camera – and is what hooked me on the whole idea of being choreographically imaginative with film technique.
A Pairing of SwanS came about because one day my daughter, Jessica, came home and said, “Mum I found this piece of music that I think you ought to listen to.” It was called The Swan Sees His Reflection and it was by a Canadian composer, the esteemed Malcolm Forsyth. His daughter Amanda Forsyth was playing the cello. It was a beautiful piece of music; I was intrigued by the title and I spoke to Amanda ... “tell me about this music.” She said, “It's actually the Saint-SaŽns's Swan that my father inverted. Basically it's his interpretation.” (We call it The Dying Swan with the ballet, but the music is called The Swan.) She said, “He did it for me, because it's a beautiful cello piece.” Instantly I thought of making a film – Evelyn Hart dancing the Dying Swan with Shauna Rolston onstage playing the cello – and then pairing the counterpart The Swan Sees His Reflection, for which I commissioned Matjash Mrozewski. The male swan was Rex Harrington and Amanda Forsyth played onstage for the Malcolm Forsyth piece.
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