4 min

Exploring the body’s poetry

Dance meets on-stage cameras in new search for divinity

Credit: Xtra West files

In Grace, a new multimedia work premiering at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Oct 6, two renowned queer artists take the attributes of their respective media to create an eccentric and mesmerizing new whole.

Visual artist jamie griffiths and dancer/choreographer Joe Laughlin are co-creators and costars of the new piece, which the press material calls “a new media duet.”

Grace incorporates dance with video images, remote cameras, and interactive visual software to tell the story of a cyberscientist, played by griffiths, who is looking for divinity inside an Everyman, played by Laughlin. Laughlin goes through a life cycle, and griffiths-with unfailing rigour-documents, charts, and records his each and every move.

The work deals with the omnipresence of technology in today’s society and its attempts to infiltrate and control even our spiritual inner lives. But apart from any moral thesis it may present, the show is effective on its own terms, suffusing the audience in its energy and ambiance.

What is known today as “multimedia,” or “interdisciplinary,” or “new media” art, is in essence, according to Laughlin, not a new concept at all: “I think that in certain cultures, even in our culture, interdisciplinary art has always been. It’s only a Eurocentric kind of term. I’ve been going to Africa for the last five years-I did a project with a South African dance company. Those dancers could dance, they could sing, they could story-tell, they could speak, they could play instruments. They’ve been doing that for generations.” And the Western world, says Laughlin, has opera. “It’s dance, song, music, set, costume. Everything together.”

The fusion of new media is something that both artists and audiences are gravitating towards, he notes. “I think that [new media] is about connecting with another community. I think artists are interested in accessing each other and finding out about each other’s discipline and trying to mix them together. And maybe audiences want that also. The younger audiences are used to processing all this imagery in television and computers.”

For griffiths, a UK-born visual artist known for her raw, sexually charged photographs and images that have been exhibited and distributed around the world, her involvement in the ostensibly unrelated field of dance constitutes “a natural progression. Just as I used to work with photography and still images, it’s always been people and the human experience that I’ve been drawn to. It used to be more the erotic experience, but it’s shifted a lot more now towards the spiritual experience. But as I’ve moved into moving pictures, I’ve just moved into moving bodies. So it’s the same thing-the poetry in the body. So it’s just a natural extension of what I was always drawn to, which is, who are we as people? What are we?”

Working with other art forms is griffiths’ bread and butter these days: She is currently developing live new-media performances in collaboration with not only dance but also orchestra, opera, and live electronic music projects.

The Saskatchewan-born Laughlin, artistic director of the Vancouver dance company Joe Ink, says that griffiths “has a very good eye for dance. That’s the reason why people always wanted her to either shoot photographs of dance shows or shoot videos of them, because she has an instinct for shooting them, for whatever reason.”

Adds griffiths: “I’m in love with the human body.”

Laughlin says that working with new media presents challenges for the traditionally trained dancer: “Basically, traditional choreographic experience is about body and space and time. You can’t change time in a live performance with just the body and space. We’re just watching what’s happening chronologically. But in our piece, time can be stretched and snapped back, the environment can be totally changed. Time can be recalled, what just happened can be brought back up again.

“In traditional work you have a relationship with the other dancers and the audience, but in new media work you have a relationship with the camera, the visualist, and with the projections of yourself, so there’s a whole range of relationships that you can explore,” he continues. “The possibilities are limitless. It just depends on your imagination.

“And traditional choreography is concerned about the language of the body, in a trained way, in the language of dance,” he adds. “The language of new media is much more subtle-it is a language of the body but it’s much more intimate. In traditional dance we have all these big moves, but in new media we can just breathe into the camera and something will happen. It’s very evocative and visceral.”

The work’s theme-the search for divinity-is one that is close to both griffiths’ and Laughlin’s heart. “What happened was we were asking [ourselves about spirituality] at the same time. And when we sat down to discuss doing this project-what are we going to create?-we realized that we were both interested in the spiritual life and the lack of it in this society, and in the world in general. And we weren’t interested in the religious life; that’s not what we were looking at. We were looking at… the hunger in society for a spiritual life. I think that’s what’s missing.”

“Even in the gay community,” adds griffiths, “I see that the search has become a lot more visible.”

Both griffiths and Laughlin describe themselves as spiritual, although neither grew up with religion. “I always wanted to be a preacher,” laughs Laughlin. “I actually wanted to be a black preacher, which of course was impossible.”

“I was raised an atheist,” says griffiths. “But in my adult life I’ve actually had to get over that and I’ve myself become spiritual and religious.” She laughs, “You think of religious families having problems when their kids say they don’t believe in God. But my family it’s the opposite. They get all squirmy when they hear me taking about God.”

So why should people see Grace? “Because it’s totally new,” says Laughlin. “People won’t have seen anything like it before. And it’s completely accessible. You don’t have to be a dance fan to come to the show at all. And you’ll be completely engaged.”

“And Joe’s naked,” adds griffiths with a smile.



Oct 6-16. 8 pm.

Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie St.

Tickets: 604.257.0366.