To the uninitiated eye, the wide-ranging and ever expanding genre (if it can be called that) of western contemporary dance can be a fiddly entity to find a point of access to. Having amalgamated itself with what seems like an infinite possibility of facets including ties to jazz, theatre, ballet, performance art, as well as African and Japanese dance, it’s a shapeshifting thing to even try to pinpoint.
When you get choreographers like Anne Teresa Baroness De Keersmaeker making pieces that elevate the simple vocabulary of running, sitting, walking, and hopping into passages of whimsy,
/or when you watch a mainstay like Pina Bausch fluently morphing mental and emotional states into physical ones,
/or you get Bill T. Jones visualizing sound and poetry through his body,
/or the free flowing gestures that break away from any conventional rhythmic framework like Min Tanaka does,
it becomes all so fuzzy to know where to begin or what to underline as contemporary dance. If you ask Winnipeg based creative Jillian Groening she’ll tell you it is this same fact that makes it fun and intriguing to engage with. It is a space Groening has over the past recent years found herself contributing to after coming to it from a background in ballet. With the aid of her influential mentors and choreographers she’s been learning and working as an emerging dancer still beguiled that she does what she does. We recently had the chance to visit Groening in studio where she shared with us bits of a collaborative routine she’s been composing, we also conversed with her among other things the intersections of theatre, dance, performance art, the role of sound in contemporary dance, working in Winnipeg as a dancer/writer, and where she’d like to see her creative output go in the future.
"It is possible to be a part of the greater Canadian dance community while being based here in Winnipeg. Not to mention being able to pay my rent and buy groceries through dancing and writing. I think I would struggle balancing my various interests and artistic endeavours in a city that wasn’t so affordable. In Winnipeg, we can live as artists and creators and still be somewhere where there is an active, supportive and enriching community."
When did you begin to consider dance / performance was something you wanted to pursue full on?
I don’t believe there has been a singular moment where I thought “this is it.”. I was a very active child, I had a lot of energy — still have a lot of energy. I aways did lots of sports; soccer, lacrosse, water polo, volleyball and track. I discovered ballet when I was about 11 or 12, which is fairly late. Most people start when they are toddlers. But I absolutely loved it. I was enrolled in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Intensive Program throughout high school, which was a fairly big commitment. It meant heading to dance class everyday after school, as well as being at the ballet 10am to 5pm on Saturday’s. As it got close to the Manitoba Provincial Dance Festival and show times we would rehearse Sunday as well. I felt really burnt out after high school and stopped dancing to focus on university, mostly creative writing, art history and women and gender studies courses. But I missed it so much! I serendipitously ran into my modern dance teacher from the Ballet one day and she was looking for a body ‘cause she had a dancer drop out of a piece. So I started to take her casual adult class, which lead me to the Senior Professional Program at the School of Contemporary Dancers. I auditioned late and on my lonesome after a year of not dancing and by some miracle got in. So yeah! It has always been something that I feel like I just DO. I feel as though I have never made that decision that this is my one thing. It seems to just be a part of many things. I often question if this what I’m doing…
Pictured: Jillian Groening, Jess Southgate and Krista Nicholson in Hybrid Human by Jolene Bailie / Photo taken by Jolene Bailie during one of our performances at in/future in Toronto, September 2016
But it seems like you've been extensively performing and working with different productions…
True. I’ve been very fortunate. During the final year of my dance degree I had the opportunity to have my bridging project (similar to a mentorship) with Jolene Bailie and Gearshifting Performance Works (GSPW). My first professional project was in the fall of my final year and by summer I was touring to Vancouver and Toronto with Bailie and GSPW, performing the work Hybrid Human, which is a collaboration with artist Wanda Koop. And here I am today, about to perform with GSPW in a few weeks.
So going to school for dance was your biggest education for how to go about looking at dance aside from your ballet background which helped you do all these other projects…
Yeah, completely. Dance is tricky. It’s a hard one to break into. Being involved in training programs and taking classes was (and is) a good way to meet people and network and get a sense of the dance community. The Senior Professional Program, which is affiliated with the University of Winnipeg, offers help to students bridging into the profession and gets you working right after school. But it is usually three or four years after graduating, the ~emerging years~, that can be rather isolating.
What was your view on contemporary dance before starting the program coming from a ballet background?
Coming from a ballet background, contemporary work was especially what I wanted to do! I don’t have the best feet, I don’t have good turn out, and I don’t have a ton of flexibility like a lot ballet dancers. Modern dance classes were a requirement in the RWB Intensive Program and they were my absolute favourite. I was like “this is it! This is what want to do. This is the dancing I can really relate to” because it is so liberating and you are able to really put your self into it in a different way differently than how ballet permits. Once I started to learn more about the history of modern and contemporary dance I fell even more in love. It’s so much more punk. Not to mention the gender roles at play in a lot of narrative ballets which had my sixteen-year-old-self pissed off. I had a shaved head for the final year of the Instensive Program which was a really nice look with a bodysuit and pink tights until it came to exam time when a fake bun had to be fastened to my head with a whole lot of hair gel and bobby pins
Photo contribution by Laina Brown
It seems that the popular idea of dance, performance, and theatre are all blurring into each other and there’s nice intersection between all of it.
Yes, totally. The Canada Council have recently restructured, getting rid of dance grants being relegated to and other specific fields. This new framework will allow for a lot more interdisciplinary production, I think.
How do you go about performing for audiences and for auditions? Dancing on your own is one thing but bringing an audience in makes it another thing. How often did you have to perform in front of people when you were younger and doing ballet?
We would perform a couple times a year. I like performing even though it scares the shit out of me. I think learning to work with stage fright is something...I enjoy?...if I can say that.
Are you having to audition for shows now?
The nice thing about having a smaller community in Winnipeg is that you don’t really have to audition, compared to if you where in a bigger city with a bigger community. If you want to be working with someone, you take their class, or go to their show, or just be present. It’s more of a natural process. You work with people that you connect with on a personal level. You are not just a body. If you work with someone it’s usually because you connect in some way.
Photo contribution by Laina Brown
So then it becomes important who you work with it because you have to connect with them and have them be on the same page in terms of ideas for the work, the subject matter…so it is not enough to be a technically skillful dancer...
Yes, exactly. You are not just a body. You definitely have to be more than that in contemporary work, especially. It’s a little more raw and honest in that way. Your personality and who you are is often a big part of the work and the performance. Ballet typically takes place on a stage, framed by proscenium arch, and as an audience member you are quite removed from it. In contemporary work, your stage can exist a variety of places: a gallery, a public park, an abandoned arcade space, a hotel room, to name a few. It often takes place in very intimate venues. Due to this, the work confronts people in a very different way, because of both the subject matter and the method in which it is presented.
In thinking about the intersections of dance/theatre/ performance art, I seems like every movement is/can be considered as dance or rhythmic action either sitting or walking or stretching. I like your Game On! (choreographed by Jolene Bailie) performance which involves a lot of spitting out words and everyday movements. How do you see dance now you’ve been doing this for a while? Do you think it is less and less easy to define?
I don’t know if it was ever easy to define. That’s a constant question, I suppose, and I think that is why it remains so interesting and so relevant. It’s always in a state of flux. Because that question doesn’t have an answer, the idea of “what dance is” can always be changing.
Pictured from left: Carol-Ann Bohrn, Elise Page and Jillian Groening in Game On by Jolene Bailie / Photo by Leif Norman
How do you go about composing work having that mind? How do you go about making work that’s succinct in a way and maybe communicates something…and its not just arbitrary?
I often work with other choreographers, it’s definitely a more familiar thing for me. But it can be just as overwhelming and creatively exhausting. The visual artist Natalie Baird and myself have been working on a dance/film installation through the New Artists in New Media Program at Video Pool. Working with Natalie though, she already had a concept and certain motifs in mind, so it’s been really interesting in that way, because we have the bones of what we need and what we want to say. So, coming in I have something to bounce off of and work within. In regards to how constructing a piece works, sound is something that I think about often and end up incorporating into what I do. It is often how I process things. Found sounds and sounds made by the body on floors and walls and surfaces often find their way into the work and help me through creating, acting as a sort of structure or providing anchors. ….Dance is typically considered in relation to sound/music. Whenever you see someone dancing there’s some sort of music/sound involved. But it not necessarily a component of every contemporary dance piece.
Dance is typically considered in relation to sound/music. Whenever you see someone dancing there’s some sort of music/sound involved. But it is not necessarily a component of every contemporary dance piece. Can you talk about what role sound plays in performing and dance as you see it?
It can help as a framework. You’re right in that it’s not always a part of contemporary dance. But that’s when you pick up on things like breath or the sound of your feet on the floor or picking up on these other rhythms that can act as your soundscape. Because you are constantly making sounds, making noise. If a piece is in silence breath is often used as a metronome. Sound in contemporary performance is fascinating. With GSPW, we work a lot with sound artist Susan Chafe. She’ll come to the studio and observe rehearsal, and then will go and create the music. Sometimes in our first run with the music, we have to find our own cues. Susan is also a brilliant genius who somehow builds impeccably timed sound cues within her score. And sometimes the cues and the soundscape shift, living their own life within the work. Sound is always something fun to play with.
Photo contribution by Laina Brown
Let's talk about petite dances and how you became a part of it…
I came to be involved with this project through working with Jolene. Jolene is the founder and artistic director of GSPW, the company that is presenting Marie-Josée Chartier’s petite danses. GSPW has been producing full-length productions for over fifteen years, not to mention touring consistently to venues across Canada, the states and to China. Jolene has superhuman tendencies and has funnelled her talents into bringing Marie-Josée here to Winnipeg. Marie-Josée is currently based in Toronto and has been going back and forth since August 2016, when we started working on petite danses.I had the opportunity to work with Marie-Josée briefly while I was a student and it was an incredible experience. Since we were talking about music, this piece is interesting in how it plays with the perception of sound.
Going back to auditioning were you ever interested in moving to a different city to audition for more roles?
You bet. I love Winnipeg, but we simply do not have access to the kind of shows and performance opportunities that exist in bigger city centres. We do not get many productions and artists based in other communities coming through here. petite danses is a bit of a rare gem in that way. That being said, I’ve been fortunate to tour and get outside of the Winnipeg dance bubble and that has allowed me to see the value of staying in Winnipeg. It is possible to be a part of the greater Canadian dance community while being based here in Winnipeg. Not to mention being able to pay my rent and buy groceries through dancing and writing. I think I would struggle balancing my various interests and artistic endeavours in a city that wasn’t so affordable. In Winnipeg, we can live as artists and creators and still be somewhere where there is an active, supportive and enriching community. In that way, I feel very tied to Winnipeg and to Manitoba. My family is also really important to me. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t an anchor.
Photo contribution by Laina Brown
Who in your family would you consider as being creative?
I would consider everyone in my family to be creative! My mother sews and quilts and embroiders, my step-dad builds and constructs and fixes, greasy hands-on handiwork. My sister is one of the smartest, most creative thinkers that I know. One brother is a chef while the other is discovering his creativity through film studies, and my dad and the entire Groening side of the family are musicians, writers and builders
What have you been curious about lately?
It could be anything at all?
Anything at all.
One thing I’m constantly trying to break out of are these natural rhythms that I fall in to, these patterns to move a certain way because there is a tendency to depend on these pathways. The use of character in performance is really interesting to me, to be able to find different pockets of yourself. I recently presented a poem I wrote through Young Lungs Dance Exchange and that got me thinking more about my own history and figuring out how to use character to build on that. Trying to find these buried skins and how they interconnect through the body.
What do you think you get from writing that you wouldn’t necessarily get from moving and creating images with your body/performing?
I have more history there, with my writing. It’s something that feels very natural for me. I always wrote a lot as a kid and would sometimes present poems at McNally Robinson. Usually when I’m creating a piece, writing plays a big part in the process. I write about the movements and the kind of images that I want to be conveying before put it in my body. I think writing helps me to dig up and polish the images that I want to present. It helps my brain sort it all out.
Where would you like to see your creative pursuits go in the future?
I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do what I do. To be able to continue performing and writing and creating would be a dream. Maybe that’s not quite the word. Maybe more of a stress dream that’s riddled with self-doubt and waves of pressure and anxiety-motivation, but a dream all the same.
Photo contribution by Laina Brown