by Tessa Perkins Deneault

“I never dreamed it could lead to so much,” says Caitlin Griffin about meeting modern dance icon Margie Gillis at a workshop in the summer of 2015. Although the Vancouver dancer, educator and choreographer had never seen Gillis perform live, she knew of her career and had jumped at the chance to be in the studio with her. Not long after, Gillis invited Griffin to join her Legacy Project.

The project is based at Gillis’ property in Acton Vale, Quebec, where the dancers absorb her choreographic style, teaching method and performance technique. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be around Margie and learn from her directly,” Griffin enthuses. The experience is valuable not only for the chance to be mentored by Gillis, but also to work with some of the other participants, who number more than 50 dancers with a strong commitment to Gillis’ legacy. Among them are Makaila Wallace and Maggie Forgeron, formerly with Ballet BC, former Gallim Dance member Troy Ogilvie and Montreal’s Le Broke Lab co-founder, Susan Paulson.

For more than 40 years, Montreal-based Gillis has been creating and performing her own original works. Her uninhibited, grounded style has garnered comparisons to Isadora Duncan, and her iconic long, free-flowing hair is unmistakable. With a repertoire of more than 100 pieces, Gillis is primarily a soloist, but has danced as a guest artist with companies including Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal and the National Ballet of Canada. Tours have taken her to almost every continent, and she is the recipient of many honours, including the Order of Canada, the Ordre national du Québec and the Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts.

The Margie Gillis Dance Foundation, created in 1981 with a mission to represent the human condition through dance, facilitates the Legacy Project, an initiative aimed at preserving her creative output. In a video documenting the project, Gillis defines legacy as “an abundant river flowing from source to source.”

At the Legacy Project’s March 2017 public launch at Montreal’s Place des Arts, Griffin performed Gillis’ 1999 solo, Loon. “It’s so rooted in the natural world, with a strong sense of Canadian identity,” says Griffin. “I fell in love with it. The character is a little bit crazy, a little bit of an animal, and a lot of fun.” The connection to the natural world was emphasized during her second performance of Loon at the 2017 Vines Art Festival in Vancouver as she danced outside among a grove of trees.

Gillis’ pieces are constantly evolving, says Griffin, and there is plenty of room for editing and interpretation. “Margie guides each of us to develop a deep understanding of the personality and ‘life’ of each of the pieces while being true to our own artistry,” she explains. “As I become more acquainted with Loon and familiar with Margie’s approach, a whole landscape of possibilities is unfolding for my own journey through the work.”

Troy Ogilvie, Susan Paulson and Caitlin Griffin (foreground) in Margie Gillis’ Broken English
Photo: Michael Slobodian

The Legacy Project includes creation and mentoring, performance technique, teaching, conflict transformation and social change, and performances that include Gillis dancing one of her solos as well as the project’s dancers in repertoire and new creations.

The conflict transformation component involves dancers committed to
social change and humanitarian endeavours; Gillis solidified her commitment to this work during her facilitation of a conflict theory project from 2009 to 2013 in Switzerland: Dancing at the Crossroads. That project resulted in a book, The Choreography of Resolution: Conflict, Movement, and Neuroscience, to which she contributed two chapters.

Involvement in the Legacy Project is individually tailored. Griffin has met with Gillis on six occasions so far, usually in the summer months or before a Legacy Project performance, and each time they spent about two weeks together working on technique and repertoire. In between those meetings, Griffin works on the material on her own.

With so many choreographers creating new work, why is it important to pass on Gillis’ repertoire and philosophy to the next generation? “She’s a pioneer and a master of what she does,” says Griffin, referring to Gillis’ uninhibited performance style and generous teaching methods. “There is an element of ritual to her work that I think we’re seeing a bit less of. It’s important to hold on to and understand that ritual.”

Griffin describes “ritual” as the constant practice of approaching and observing work with an expectation of brilliance. “Margie is teaching us to create and perform, but also how to constructively observe and nurture each other’s processes, too. We make a ritual out of seeking the humanity of the dancer and the work.”

Participating in the Legacy Project has had a transformative effect on Griffin. “It’s given me a boldness I didn’t have before,” she says. “It’s deeper than confidence. There’s an assuredness I have around being an artist, woman, teacher and creator.”

As Griffin passes Gillis’ teachings on to her students, she finds validation in Gillis’ thriving career. “Seeing the value of what she has done, not just in the studio but for dancers and the community — there’s a lot of affirmation in seeing that it doesn’t all go away when the curtain comes down.”


Caitlin Griffin in Margie Gillis’ Loon
Photo: Sheng Ho, courtesy of Vines Art Festival