Posted in Features

Footloose from Main to Granville

Site-specific dance mixes local history, architecture, and our bodies’ movement

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Image Credits: Averi Balleza

Site-specific dance: it’s dance outside the studio, outside the theatre, outside of the controlled environments where you would expect to see it. Site-based dance brings dancing bodies out to engage with the world in all of its complexities.

Look around.

Where are you right now? What architecture do you see around you? What are the people around you doing? What did this site look like 10 years ago, or 100 years ago?

These are some of the questions dance artists consider when creating site-specific dance, one method of contemporary dance.

“Moving dance offstage is exciting because it allows it to cross paths with people who might not be interested in dance otherwise,” said Alana Gerecke, PhD.

As an SFU alumna, Gerecke has concentrated on site-specific dance through practice and research for over a decade. After graduating from the SFU dance program in 2004, Gerecke co-founded Behind Open Doors, an interdisciplinary dance group that makes site-based work in Vancouver. Since then, she and four other SFU alumni have explored and performed all over the city.

“The False Creek area and Olympic Village is one area we spent a lot of time in,” Gerecke told The Peak. “[In and around the Vancouver 2010 Olympics], we were trying to find ways to explore what the new social mixing was looking like and also engage all the dynamic features of the new architecture down around the waterfront.”

She and the dancers immersed themselves artistically in the area, experimenting with trying to fit their bodies along the urban architecture and dancing on a makeshift stage by the water.

Gerecke explained that site-based dance is unique because it “makes practitioners think long and hard about the places they’re using and inhabiting.” Before choreographing their routine, the artists will spend extensive time researching and observing the area and how local people already use it. Rather than just parachuting into a space and imposing dance movement onto it, the method allows the performance to be a response to the site itself.

Other artists in Vancouver have used site-specific dance to engage social and political issues, making performances in conflicted areas like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). In 2008, Vancouver artist Althea Thauberger’s project Carrall Street was inspired by film crews. Thauberger used film lights to illuminate an area of Cambie Street between Hastings and Cordova one evening, setting the stage for a number of different commissioned performance pieces that addressed pertinent social issues.

Artist Karen Jamieson has also made community-based dance projects in the DTES for decades. Her noteworthy 1998 work The River happened along the historic Brewery Creek, one of the major waterways in Vancouver’s development. Over four nights, hundreds of people came to see the show and trace the path of the waterway. The piece raised questions about the relationship of urban development to the natural landscape and the life that it supports.

“Any time work is sited outside, especially in areas that have really rich or complicated histories, whether the work intends to or not it’s engaging with those histories,” Gerecke adds. As well as dancing herself, Gerecke has done postgraduate studies in site-specific performance through SFU’s English department. Right now she’s working on a postdoctorate that looks at more colloquial contexts, like flash mobs.

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In the drizzly October weather, a group of third-year SFU dance students experimented with site-specific dance creation around Downtown Vancouver. The group danced beside the Georgia Viaduct, in a bubblegum pink painted alley off Seymour Street, at Blood Alley in Gastown, and even inside the Woodward’s complex. Much time was spent thinking about the histories of the locations and social issues there, but also trying to highlight the depth, length, and scope of urban architecture compared to human bodies.

As you can imagine, the dancing caught the attention of passers-by. By changing the “movement vocabulary” of the area, site-dance can trigger the people who see it to think differently about how we all move through everyday spaces. According to Gerecke, this can expose the “classed” and “gendered” habits of city dwellers, and bring to light the unofficial codes of the use of space.

Compared to sculpture, dance in public spaces is fleeting and can seem to disappear quickly. But to those who experience site-based dance, the site could be forever changed in their memory, leaving the “ghost” of the performance behind.

Site-based dance is exciting because even if for a brief moment, it bridges the gap between performing artists and public through the shared use of public space. It also uniquely roots us as artists to make work that is local and speaks to issues that are here and now.

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