Mocean Dance’s survival in a wild land

Premiering this month, Mocean Dance’s new piece, Sable Island, expresses the power and courage of Halifax dancers.

The barren, windswept landscapes of Sable Island have inspired artists and travellers for centuries. Among its recent devotees is Vancouver-based choreographer Serge Bennathan, who joins forces with Halifax's Mocean Dance to create a new piece, Sable Island, which premieres as part of Mocean's new show, Close Reach, debuting this month at Alderney Landing Theatre, along with a remount of 2010's Live from the Flash Pan by Nova Scotia choreographer, actor, composer and director Cory Bowles.

Sable Island, a piece for five dancers— Jacinte Armstong, Rhonda Baker, Sara Coffin, Susanne Chui and Gillian Seaward-Boone—was created for Mocean by Bennathan after he was invited to work with the company, following a previous series of workshops in Halifax. Reflecting on themes for a performance, Bennathan began by working physically with the dancers for two weeks, during which he contemplated a theme that would bring the five artists' experiences and styles together. Reading about Sable Island, the pieces began to fall into place. "You try to see the string you can pull to keep the differences between them but also make them come together," Bennathan says over coffee on a sunny and very calm morning. "I slowly found a connection between this piece of land and the dancers."

For Bennathan, survival of the horses and the few workers who inhabit Sable Island isn't the only survival taking place. Bennathan is admiring of the artists who stay in Halifax to survive among the wild forces of weather, economics and politics that blow through the region. The five dancers of Mocean Dance's company are all Halifax-raised artists who left the city and returned to work with Mocean, attempting to survive in the precarious arts climate here.

"I was trying to get the power out of the dancers," Bennathan says of the early rehearsals. "Sable Island became a metaphor." Bennathan was intrigued by the mythology of the island, the stories of survival and shipwreck on the islands and the Sable Island horses that learned to be wild and adapt. He saw the parallels between the horses and the dancers: "You have to have a lot of courage to be a dance artist in Halifax, to be a wild horse on Sable Island."

The more Bennathan read about the island, the more he was drawn to the theme. In Sable Island, Bennathan tries to capture the forces of nature in dance: the power of the winds, the waves, the eroding sand, "what it is like to be in a storm on the island." The piece is grounded in this motion, focused on the physical movement of the dancers.

Bennathan has learned the art of survival in the arts across Canada. Originally from France, he has spent the past 30 years living in Canada, working in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where he currently runs dance and multimedia production company Les Productions Figlio. A multidisciplinary artist, Bennathan also paints and has published several books of poetry and illustrated children's stories. Sable Island incorporates two poems he has written about the island.

He's fascinated by opera and has worked on several productions with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, collaborating with people like Atom Egoyan: "I think opera is the last world where you can do what you have in your mind as a creator." But dance is the basis for his interest in other disciplines, and he is interested in bringing the sense of space and motion of dance into these other areas: "Everything I do comes from dance," he says. "It's dance that brought me to writing."

The Sable Island production is also distinguished by its use of live music, composed and performed by Montreal composer Bertrand Chénier, a frequent collaborator. Chénier will perform on bass and piano with electronics, improvising while watching the dancers' movement, adding a "great poetic dimension" to the piece. The stage and sets remain fairly bare by choice: the lighting design and the dancers themselves provide the necessary atmosphere. "By looking at the dancers I hope we will be able to feel the storm coming," Bennathan says.

If we're talking survival in Halifax's arts scene, Bennathan has walked in at the perfect moment, arriving in Halifax a few weeks ago, just in time for the provincial government's announcement of the latest cuts to the cultural sector. Bennathan admires the resilience of the arts community, but has few kind words for the government's recent decisions. He went by last week's protest at Province House over the cuts to the film tax credit. "I don't understand why the government didn't do an audit," he says, seeing cuts like these as part of a larger reluctance in most governments to fully assess the value of culture. Cuts to larger institutions lead to a climate where it's harder for small companies like Mocean and independent creators like Bennathan to stay on their feet.

Dancer and Mocean associate director Sara Coffin understands the process of leaving. Coffin spent over a decade in Vancouver, leaving a program at Dalhousie to study at Simon Fraser after realizing she wanted to be an artist. Also a choreographer, Coffin returned to Halifax in 2011 to fill in as interim director for Mocean but left again to complete a master's degree in the US. Since finishing her master's, she has been a co-director at Mocean and dancer for the company. Coffin is eagerly anticipating Mocean's latest production and is pleased to be working with Bennathan.

"It's really fantastic because we're five really strong women, at a mature point in our careers," Coffin says of the company for the Sable Island production. "Serge demands a lot, it's physically demanding," she says, but admires the choreographer's devotion to his craft and the physical intensity of the production."Being in that heightened physical space is really invigourating.

"There's such a sense of mystique and mystery," surrounding Sable Island, she says. "We're tapping into our 'horse selves'–the courage of those horses stuck out on Sable Island, tapping the energy of the sea."

For his part, Bennathan hopes that viewers can take away that energy from the dancers who persevere on this stretch of land, "to be proud that artists come back to work here, building on what others did before. I hope people find a connection with the work." a

Laura Kenins is a freelance writer who is relearning how to survive in Halifax.

Close Reach
April 30-May 2 at 8pm
Alderney Landing Theatre, 2 Ochterloney

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