Dancers’ Studio West tackles Metamorphosis in their annual Dance Action Lab

Artistic director Davida Monk hopes to bring contemporary dance performance to the regular summer event roster.

July is an incredibly busy month in Calgary, with annual stalwarts the Calgary Stampede and Folk Festival dominating everyone’s calendars.

But far from believing that events in the summer should be limited to music, midways and horses, Dancers’ Studio West’s artistic director Davida Monk is hoping to add to the city’s regular summer calendar with the Dance Action Lab — a showcasing of the talents of DSW choreographers and performers. Now into its third year, this year’s performance is Metamorphosis, which takes place July 20 to 22 and of which Monk has stated she is “…searching for a poetic aesthetic, a close and empathetic look into the human condition …”

Monk was gracious enough to talk with theYYSCENE about the performance and the process.

Q: Tell me about the Dance Action Lab: What is the preparation process that is undertaken by the company in order to get to the performance?

A: The Dance Action Lab is really the premiere program of Dancers’ Studio West, and it primarily features the work and performances and creations of our Dance Action Group, who have this creative outlet. But also during the year they participate in something called Undressing the Dance Dialogue, which is a public discussion about dance performance — sometimes (with) touring artists, sometimes local and they do outside work in the community and help me as artistic director in planning the season. The big reward for all that contribution is this eight-week creative. It’s a company style creation. This year we have three new works going into production — it’s Catherine Hayward, Shayne Johnson and myself creating work, and the core members of the ensemble are members of the Dance Action Group. We often are in a position to hire a guest artist or two, and then in addition to that, (thanks to) the Royal Bank of Canada’s Emerging Artist Project (we have funding) to support two young artists in the position who come into that lab situation as, one would have called it, an apprentice position. They are full-time participants and perform the work as well.

Q: So the eight-week intensive leading up to the Dance Action Lab is a culmination of this process.

A: We’re always looking for how to most rigorously apply ourselves to reach the greatest possible artistic product, and so the short period of time that we have in that eight weeks does feel limited, but the kind of thinking and exchanges that we do during the year does help prepare our critical artistic minds for that eight weeks of intense creation, so we’re already thinking when we go in. It’s not so much a culmination of the work that’s done during the year but more a feature for the artists that are members of the Dance Action Group — it’s a chance for them to be developed, exploited in the best possible way and have their work shown.

Q: This year’s theme is Metamorphosis. How do you come up with the themes?

D: The themes are chosen – sometime early in the winter we would have a discussion, “So, what are we headed for in the Dance Action Lab?” The first year the theme was Myth, last year the theme was Fear. The themes that we do bring forward for initial consideration are really large, really big themes, and so you could imagine as a creator many different ways in — each individual will have a very different way to enter that theme, so it leaves a lot of scope. But also those themes are old themes, in the sense that they are from the beginning of time for human experience, so when you go to research or delve into what else has been created, thought, written on these themes there is a wealth of knowledge to respond to and to be stimulated by. So we tend to look for themes that have that kind of weight.

Unknown Object
Members of the Dance Action Lab in rehearsal for Metamorphosis

Q: The music that is used during the performances is all local, mostly original music as I understand?

A: Shayne Johnson’s music is the exception in the sense in that he is using music that has been recorded before, for another purpose – it’s quite beautiful. Catherine Hayward (is) integrating the composer and single player for the piece into the performance; his name is Jeremy Gignoux and he plays violin and viola. (Gignoux) has a wealth of experience in productions here with DJD recently … and he’s also part of the jazz scene, a very able player, and is also very interested in doing things in other disciplines. Catherine has integrated him in live performance – he’ll be on stage with us, moving around with us as he is playing, so that’s how she’s approaching the music. I am fortunate to have a long-time creative relationship with (Juno Award-winning composer) Allan Bell, and Allan is making an electro-acoustic score for the work that I’m doing. So three different approaches.

Q: So the majority of the music is being composed specifically for the pieces.

A: Yes, two of the three are. It’s the sort of thing that one is very grateful for because it is of course a whole other level of contribution and collaboration and expense, and it is a great way to bring a work together. It’s more complicated yet more rewarding than going to find a piece of music that’s already been recorded. But that also has its own reward — last year my work was a recorded piece of Allan’s and it was a fantastic experience musically with tons of musical complexity, it was highly developed musical piece. So the challenge for me was how to make sure the focus stays on the dance … This year we’re reversing the role whereby Allan is looking at rough video footage of rehearsal, but it gives him a sense of where the material is going, what kind of flavour it is, and he is creating things in response to that.

Q: What can people expect from the performances?

A: (Katherine and Shayne) are each doing a quintet and I am doing a sextet. It’s a huge – you can imagine – it is an intense production and because we are all performing as well (as choreography), we are in each other’s work. It means we start the day with morning class, so we are holding to that great tradition that dancers train together, create together and perform together. Of course you could cut the class and say we have more time for rehearsal, but you lose something.

Q: From here on out, where do you feel the Dance Action Lab is headed? Do you see it growing in size, do you see more performances?

A: First let me say that I’m just delighted that we are able to do it. So this is our third year and there’s something magical about third years where you think, “Alright, this is in place, this is solid.” I would hope for two things: A few more resources going towards (the program) in a steady progression, that support indicating a confidence in the value of the program; and artistically I’m looking for a continual reaching out and stronger and stronger pieces – reaching forward for each artist who is creating, asking for more each year, you know really stepping forward. We do a lot of critical discussion, we’re in each other’s rehearsals often and some members are assigned as outside eyes to other people’s work, and it’s really important to develop the critical eye since as soon as you identify a problem you can work on it. And so what I’m hoping for in terms of the future of the lab is that continues to pay off in the quality of the work, and that it just continues to build … getting ourselves to the point where we’re really making the work we want to make – that takes a lifetime!

I suppose that another wish would be that it becomes something that the public begins to value and that’s on the calendar as well as the folk fest and the Stampede. It would be really nice if it could come forward because it is good quality work.

Q: It’s not just music in July in Calgary, there’s so much more.

A: And we made a very deliberate choice of our timing this year so that we could be between the end of Stampede and the beginning of folk fest — we are doing our very best given our restrictions in scheduling to make sure that people can come.

Metamorphosis will be performed July 20-22 nightly at 8 p.m. at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks. Tickets and info available here

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and The Culture Cycle. Contact her at