The Big Hit

With her dance project (decoding the) undertow, Sally Morgan has created a multimedia epic with elements of movement, film, tumbling and skateboarding.

photo Scott Munn

If there is such a thing as a higher being, she is probably smiling down at the North Street Church right now. Not because of an enlightened sermon or confession of juicy sins, but because of the loud movements and joyful sounds that are echoing off its peeling walls.

For the past two months, the Church has hosted rehearsals for choreographer Sally Morgan’s new dance project, (decoding the) undertow. Before thoughts of austere ballet plies and legwarmers fill your head, you’re moving the wrong way—the film, and two accompanying live performances, examine the similarities between Improvisational Contact dance and an unlikely partner-in-motion—skateboarding.

A false wood floor fills the space and the nostrils, its rawness evident by the occasional splinter quietly pulled out of a dancer’s palm. Along one wall, where a narrow platform rises a couple of feet from the floor, Chuck Taylors mix with grey wool socks, empty coffee cups, notebooks, bicycles and yoga mats. Up on the stage, a drum set and an electric guitar arouse curiousity. A line of skateboards rest along one side of the room, anxiously waiting to be ridden down the two ramps—one, a wheelchair ramp blocking half of the entrance from the kitchen, the other a fresh wooden skateboard ramp bringing the outdoors inside the house of prayer.

At first glance, the tattoos, muscular physiques and athletic wear make it difficult to pick out dancers from skateboarders (there are three of each). Skater Selwyn Sharples (also a musician with Beat Material and NSCAD U student), is lying on his back with his legs up in the air, his long limbs steady in anticipation. An anxious look gives him away as he waits, ready to take the weight of Swiss dancer Tinu Hettich (an experienced Contact Improvisation, Capoeira, martial arts and contemporary dance performer). Hettich runs towards Sharples, and, in a move that would make the uninitiated very nervous, Sharples throws and releases Hettich over his body, through some sort of headstand-meets-backflip. The sound of ripping fabric fills the air.

“That was my favourite t-shirt!” Hettich exclaims, who quickly abandons the torn shirt for a fresh one out of his knapsack, revealing a well-toned torso. The scene breaks concentration for Sally Morgan and Mike Lewis (musician and painter), practicing a sequence together on the far side of the floor. Morgan runs up to Lewis’s back, and visually sizing up the space, unsuccessfully tries to lift up and over his shoulder. After several attempts, she asks for Hettich’s assistance; this time Morgan is successful, and Lewis lifts her up and over. They carry on a fun sequence of moves, rolling to the ground, which they kiss before dusting each other off.

The group grows by two. Raw food chef Tyler Haut, who says he’s “come out of skateboard retirement” to join Morgan’s project, cycled here from Toronto. He compares bruises with Contact Improvisation expert and dance-researcher Elske Seidel, who travelled from Hamburg, Germany, to take part in the film. They call themselves “Team Injury.” Seidel warms up before practicing a lovely duet with Sharples called “Wrestling with Affection” which involves rolling over each other, tangled on the skateboard, before Sharples stands up and pulls Seidel around by the feet, and with slow and controlled movements, wheels her head-first towards each wall, softly making contact.

“Usually when I have to explain Contact ImprovisatIon, I give them a demonstration. It’s easy to feel that…” Sally Morgan firmly pushes against my hand, wrist rolling back against the tension. “It’s like in Tai Chi, someone’s hand tries to move under the other’s—either you’re going to take me somewhere or I’m going to take you somewhere else.”

She moves her hand away and proceeds to eat her salad and samosa, a quick bite after a full day of rehearsal, a short break before she continues the night’s work of preparing scripts for the film. “What’s the tension between two bodies and how do you use that to move through space? Basically, how can we run and jump on each other and land softly without hurting each other, and roll away?”

Morgan explains that Contact Improvisation was started in the early 1970s by dancer Steve Paxton, who combined his athletic gymnastics and Aikido skills with contemporary dance into a movement where partners move in and out of physical contact—tumbling, spinning, spiraling, jumping and falling.

“The first experiments were someone standing and someone else running and jumping at them and throwing their weight and the other person softening into it, and moving together,” recalls Morgan. “It’s become a duet form—often two people—coming from the idea of momentum, weight, counterbalance, using your weight and your own centres, but then finding a balance between the two bodies. It’s always a give and take.”

Although it’s now over 30 years old and improv dance jams have spread worldwide, its unconventional nature is still a relatively underground movement within the dance world. Not unlike skateboarding, whose particpants, despite the sport’s marketable popularity, are still considered outsiders. This is what initially drew Morgan to the idea of bringing the two groups together.

Then, one day last summer, she received a call from Marcus Behrens, a film director for the French-German arts channel Canal Arte, which focuses on the dissemination of dance, producing three, 25-minute films per year. As it turns out, Behrens had been on a two-day stopover in Halifax while on his way to meet with choreographers in Chicago and New York, and had fallen in love with the province.

“The beginning was actually a cool story, when I start to think about it,” Morgan smiles and pauses, then continues. While on the plane, Behrens read a small piece about Morgan in Air Canada’s EnRoute magazine. It was only one paragraph (two, if you count the French translation) with a striking photograph, but it was enough for Behrens to make another stop in Halifax on his return flight.

Morgan was living in Toronto at the time, working on her yoga teaching certification, but the two found each other and began corresponding through email. They met in person last September and tossed around ideas. Usually, dance films are created out of existing works that are reworked for the camera, but Morgan proposed a new piece. “I think he was a little bit wary,” she recalls. “First, the skateboard idea, I’m sure he was thinking, ‘I dunno, skateboarding?’ Also, the process of how I create the work is through an improvisational process, and that’s not necessarily a great thing for film either.”

Behrens presented the idea to the network and it was accepted, but as a co-production. Canal Arte offered partial funding—mostly post-production, shooting and filming costs, but not enough for the dancers or the choreographers. Morgan successfully applied for funding through a Canada Council for the Arts pilot program called Dance on Screen. “They’re really excited about this project—really, really supportive,” she says. “It’s the first time that a network, a television channel, has approached a Canadian choreographer.

“We didn’t even fit into any category in the CC to apply to. There’s never been an international co-production of dance in the Atlantic provinces in film like this, so that’s a big thing too—it will be broadcast all over France and Germany.”

Unfortunately Nova Scotia’s Department of Tourism and Culture didn’t think it was such a big deal; they turned Morgan down for funding. Ever resourceful, a documentary was proposed to Bravo Television, a big supporter of Canadian-made dance films. Now, when broadcast in Canada, the two separate films will be shown together—the half-hour Canal Arte dance film and a half-hour, homegrown documentary.

When Morgan first applied for the funding, she had to give the project a name. “We broke it down to what we thought it was supposed to be and decided it works. (decoding the) undertow—the idea that both of these forms are underground, not really mainstream cultures, both of them have their own culture, attitude, language; they question and challenge the norm. We’re really coming from a lot of the same places. It’s also what draws us together.”

“Sally. We’ve been over this before. It’s you and me together,” Sharples encourages Morgan as she prepares to drop in off the skateboard ramp. Lewis jumps on the stage and starts playing the drums, in what could be a tribal-thrash version of “Wipeout.”

Morgan looks grim: “That music is really intense. I’m scared enough as it is.” She takes a deep breath and conquers the ramp with such controlled focus that your own muscles ache. She’s joined by a determined Seidel, who hurt herself earlier on the concrete of the Halifax Common skatepark, and a more comfortable-looking Hettich, who used to skate as a kid. Everyone cheers.

Later, Morgan asks excitedly, “Did you see us? Did you see us go down the ramp? Could you tell we were scared?” For someone who has only been on a skateboard for two weeks, fear is an entitlement. “I feel like that’s OK to show it. I don’t feel like we have to pretend anything. There are a couple of parts where we’re going to come off that ramp and go into something else and that scares the crap out of me, but I can do it!”

The neophyte dancers aren’t getting off easy either. Sharples admits that some of the rolls make him scared. Haut agrees that overcoming a fear of “squishing the girls” took some time. Still, Morgan is amazed at how well this experiment is going, and how the three skateboarders took to improvisational methods of moving.

“They are coming from a background of taking risks and jumping right into it,” she says. “Physically, there are different parts of the bodies that haven’t been isolated in the way that I’ve had to teach them to listen to their bodies or move with me, how to be present and focused in their bodies. Energetically they’re ready to do something, but when they actually try it, they’re stiff and fall to the floor and hurt themselves.”

There’s one stomach-churning move during the afternoon’s rehearsal which best exemplifies the group’s trust, patience and skill. A dancer, running from one direction, suddenly tumbles to the ground; arching their body across the floor, never losing momentum. At the same time, a skateboarder drops in from the ramp on the opposite side of the floor, and jumps over the dancer, landing back on the board. Sharples jumps over Hittich with such speed, you seek proximity to the closest payphone, just in case there’s a need to dial 9-1-1.

Then Lewis begins his ascent over Morgan. Something isn’t quite right—he lands too far off the board, or his foot slips off. Everyone has suggestions; he jumps too high, too soon, too far. He attempts the move 10 times. The quiet frustration simmers, but Lewis never loses his cool. Then—success. Everyone screams and claps. This must be what pure joy sounds like.

After the rehearsal, the six gather in a circle, lying on the floor like its kindergarten story time. In fact, there’s a sense of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, a group of kids who don’t need to play by the rules. Perhaps that’s why the group calls Morgan a “gang farmer.”

The six really bonded after a workshop with performance artist Sandy Plotnikoff, whose creative exercises led to a costume-hunting trip to Value Village and the transformation of the 20-foot wheelchair ramp into a giant skateboard, which they all climbed on and took down Citadel Hill.

It’s not all fun and games. Plotnikoff also taught the group how to use space and composition. San Francisco choreographer Scott Wells took them through rigorous improv exercises. Their heartfelt written explorations about skating and dancing are posted on large papers, taped all over the Church’s kitchen. The group knows that there are challenges ahead—shooting the film outdoors at various locations around the city, performing for a live audience, more tumbles and bruises.

“It’s changing a lot right now, even today,” Morgan says, uttering a small, tired laugh. “There’s lots of work that we do, to be the most authentic, to know each other and to know how each other works and learns, and our stresses. But it’s making us better performers—together.”

Live performances from (decoding the) undertow at the North Street Church, 5657 North Street, Thu Oct 20 & Fri Oct 21, 8pm, $10.

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