by Jillian Groening

I am scared of performing. I am terrified of blanking and being stranded, dumbstruck, in front of the lights. The thought of mucking up a movement or not fulfilling an emotion gives me such anxiety that before going onstage I sometimes vomit or break out in hives. Backstage and in the wings, I’m usually slick with a cold sweat and struggle to contain nervous yawns.

And yet I keep dancing. I’ve become accustomed to pushing my panic into a faraway corner of my mind. But recently, something strange has been happening. The intense stage panic is beginning to fade, which is completely discombobulating for my entire sense of performance.

Choreographer Jolene Bailie | Photo: Bruce Monk
Choreographer Jolene Bailie
Photo: Bruce Monk

It’s a chilly grey day in December 2015, and I’m back in rehearsals with Jolene Bailie and Gearshifting Performance Works. NAfro Studios, with the white winter light coming through the windows, is cozy in the odd way that a scalding bath makes you shiver. I’d be resorting to jumping jacks if it weren’t for my thick socks and turtleneck. The lofty room, located on the second floor of an old church in Winnipeg’s much-loved and equally maligned Osborne Village neighbourhood, is nothing short of an historic site. Once home to Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers as well as their school, the space is now run by NAfro Dance Productions and plays host to almost every contemporary group in the city, as well as to community classes and rehearsals ranging from flamenco to ballet to Ukrainian to hip-hop to belly dance. After about a month off from rehearsal, my body feels awkward, all tendon and bone and stiff quads. The lightness and fluidity I had possessed when we last worked in October seems a far cry from my current state. I may as well be moving on legs made of golf tees. Only my hips have benefitted from the time away; they’re prone to grip and the first few days of rehearsal offer glorious, if fleeting, freedom.

I’ve come to find that no matter how much class I take or how often I cross-train, nothing can compare to the athleticism required during the creative process. Whether it’s the unfamiliar movement, the repetition of patterns or the ferocious will to be there for the choreographer and throw myself into whatever possible action comes next, the satisfying exhaustion connected with creating a new piece never ceases to amaze me.

All told, I’m a lucky dancer.

Jolene arranges her rehearsal schedule thoughtfully. For Aspects of Alterity, the very first piece I did with her in 2012 when I was still a student at the School of Contemporary Dancers, we spent the first couple of rehearsals concentrating on a complicated lifting section that happened to be at the very end of the dance. This involved me sprinting while in forward curve, at the same time as five other dancers took turns leaping and being lifted above their partner’s head. This would have been intimidating to learn closer to performance time, but because Jolene rehearsed the section early on, we were able to gain the strength and endurance necessary to pull it off.

The process has been similar with her latest work, the full-length Happyland. In August 2015, at the very start of our rehearsals together, Jolene began by working on the most rigorous movement. We were pushed to go faster, bigger, cleaner, with more repetitions and more laps, leaving me red-faced and panting, disappointed at my tired, jelly limbs. By the time we return to the movement in December, the sequence that had felt so taxing before is now executed with ease, despite my stiff muscles. My body isn’t necessarily in better or worse shape, but during the time away I had the chance to unconsciously absorb the patterns, similar to using a good night’s sleep to resolve a difficult dilemma.

When we come back to the studio, the focus is not on re-learning, but on remembering the movement. “Memory is magical,” Jolene said one day over after-rehearsal coffee. “There’s musicality in the body when people remember things that is so different from when they are in the midst of learning the combo.”

Now that movement patterns learned earlier are engrained in our bodies, the piece starts to develop a life of its own. Jolene provides imaginative visuals to help us embody the movement more richly: “You are a massive ear against the wall,” she says, or “You have long neon pink armpit hair.”

Odd vignettes begin to develop, beginning with one featuring sinewy Ian Mozdzen, who lurks around the edge of the dance floor. Sitting and observing the action onstage, sometimes fiddling with his kneepads, Ian asks the audience what they think of the performance. He intimidates and aggravates. He even berates Leelee Davis as she pushes through a difficult solo. Yelling at Leelee to curve her spine more, get her leg higher, emote, emote, emote, Ian’s heckling puts into question the audience’s role as passive observer.

Elise Page, Ian Mozdzen and Jillian Groening in Happyland | Photo: Hugh Conacher
Elise Page, Ian Mozdzen and Jillian Groening in Happyland | Photo: Hugh Conacher

In another section of Happyland that also speaks to the objectification of the performers, Elise Page and I stand on chairs, heads down with hair covering our faces. We are still as Ian discusses what does and doesn’t make an “ideal” dancing body. He orders us to move, and Elise and I wiggle like cartoon characters at a sock hop.

Relationships, both onstage and in the studio, develop within the cast naturally. From the youngest dancer, Camila Schujman, who is a pre-professional student, to Krista Nicholson, an emerging artist, to Helene Le Moullec Mancini, an experienced pro, there is a firm foundation of commitment to the work as well as trust and compassion toward each other. Our relationships fuel the work, after all.

While Jolene must be open enough to be able to absorb every fragment of inspiration as it happens during rehearsal, she only uses what works for the piece as it evolves. “You have to be like a bus that picks up everybody, but you still go on your route,” she explains.

This outlook on creativity is reminiscent of what film director David Lynch has said about harnessing the imagination. In his book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch describes how he has learned to be receptive to good ideas and important connections, which can come when you least expect them. Like Jolene, he picks up seeds of ideas that come his way and harvests the good ones when the time is right. At some point, all these seeds begin to grow, connections are made, and the piece starts to break open.

Through her fluid method of creation, Jolene encourages sincere intention in rehearsal as well as in performance. Similar to how contact improvisation focuses on the ever-changing point of connection between two bodies, while rehearsing Happyland relationships between dancers and movement details are constantly evolving, and we must be open and engaged with each other in order to deliver an honest and dynamic performance.

This type of candidness lives in moments between set movements. The glimmers of accumulated experience and genuine physical and emotional connections are the gems interpreters need to be on the watch for, ready to catch and transform into ephemeral performance magic.

“The seconds are set, but the milliseconds are lived,” Jolene explains. Striving to always find this in-between spot, this moment of destabilization, the performer has no option but to be fully present and available to whatever might happen.

“Outside the world floated like a mote in a straight shaft of glory,” Canadian author Sheila Watson writes in her 1959 novel The Double Hook. The image is one I’ve held onto in order to find the precise focus Jolene demands, helping me to be aware of my tiny place within the whole, floating like dust in the sun, while still being able to concentrate and perform fully and with awareness.

It’s a state of mind that has been crucial to me in combating my stage fright as we move into the last phase of our creative process in March, and begin run-throughs of Happyland. Entering into this focused inner-outer state is now part of my pre-performance ritual, along with the deep breathing and Pilates lumbar imprints I do in the wings. Having an expanded view of myself onstage in relationship with the audience and the world outside the theatre somehow lessens the fear of performing. Realizing that the work is bigger than seven bodies in front of a crowd has allowed me to connect to my fellow dancers and to the movement in a greater and more humbling way.

Each moment, every glance and every motion, is filled with points of inspiration, more than enough to help us keep the heart of the piece alive. A whole river of information, of visual stimuli and purpose, flows beneath the structure of Happyland.