For Dancers’ Studio West artistic director Davida Monk, the company’s tagline, “never leave unchanged,” isn’t just an empty phrase. “When contemporary dance choreographers are given the opportunity to grow and flourish as artists, they will create work that will affect people,” she says.
“It will have a voice. It will touch people.”
Monk adds a proviso to her company’s goals — having the “opportunity to grow and flourish.” She says the ongoing challenge for contemporary dance artists is to find the kind of support that allows for artistic development so as to elevate the quality of the art form locally.
And that’s where Dancers’ Studio West and its annual Alberta Dance Festival comes in.
“There has been a historic relationship between Dancers’ Studio West and the development of contemporary dance work,” says Monk of the 31-year-old company. “There are very, very few opportunities here in Alberta to show work, so [the Alberta Dance Festival] has been a valued vehicle for developing artists.”
Besides offering contemporary dancers a venue to create and display their work, the festival, which starts this week, also offers audience members a valuable educational opportunity about an art form that, Monk admits, is often unfamiliar and misunderstood.
To that end, Monk says one of Dancers’ Studio West’s current objectives is to raise its profile within Calgary and, by doing so, illuminate the nature of contemporary dance.
“The choreographer works to create a theatrical whole that sustains your interest. The movement is the basic vocabulary and, like music, there is a strong abstract aspect to the work,” Monk says, describing the essence of contemporary dance.
Contemporary dancers represent a sort of evolution from the modern dancers of the mid-20th century, when several innovators broke away from the discipline of ballet to create their own techniques.
Since the days of modern dance legends like Martha Graham and Mercier “Merce” Cunningham, however, Monk says there has been “a flowering of the creative voice within contemporary dance, and an opening to influence from all sorts of forms, from street dance, to flamenco, to folk dance.”
While Monk says some contemporary choreographers seek to explore narrative in their works, most are interested in the “potential of things other than narrative, like image, rhythm, the relationship between movement and music, and the integration of elements like set and light.”
As such, Monk says, the ultimate aim in viewing contemporary dance is not to rationally interpret the underlying “meaning” of what is taking place onstage.
“In a new music concert, you don’t ask yourself what it means,” Monk points out.
“There is something that happens to us when we turn off the rational, or turn off the logical. Sooner or later, you will flip into the awareness that you start to look at the movement in the same way as you listen to the music in a music concert. There are themes being explored in the movement itself,” she says.
“We’re not acting something out. Movement itself has its own aesthetic qualities and what the choreographer is trying to do is make those aesthetic qualities expressive enough to demand your attention and affect you,” she says.
The Alberta Dance Festival showcases eight new works from nine choreographers, all of whom possess impressive resumés. Monk encourages audience members to see several of the numbers in order to appreciate the many “flavours” contemporary dance has to offer.
The Alberta Dance Festival starts this week, running from September 6 to 8 and from September 13 to 15. For more information, visit dswlive.ca.