Rough Cuts: Works by Rachel Browne and Constance Cooke
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Dance Victoria’s performance lab
Tickets: $15 at the door
Rachel Browne, widely called the matriarch of modern dance in Canada, was the kind of woman who commanded a room as soon as she walked into it.
“She was a small lady, but she seemed tall to everybody,” said local choreographer Constance Cooke, who this month plans to pay tribute to her late mentor, alongside many others, through dance.
Browne, who died in June at age 77, is heralded as the founder of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, the longest-running modern dance company in the country. The classically trained ballerina developed the professional company from the amateur group she formed in 1964, over the course of her 20 years as artistic director.
Although Cooke danced under Browne for only eight years before moving to Victoria in the 1990s, she said they maintained a close relationship in the years since.
“Once you had a relationship with Rachel, it was for life,” she said. “I’m one of a number of people who she mentored for the rest of their lives.”
She called Browne a dedicated note-taker who always had feedback for her past and present students. After one of Cooke’s final performances under Browne before moving away, she was greeted with the usual sheets of notes. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t likely have an opportunity to dance that piece again.
“That’s how she was, really obsessive and driven and fantastic,” she said. “It’s been one of the biggest losses of my life, losing her.”
Browne died in her sleep in Ottawa, which she visiting to watch students perform in the Canada Dance Festival.
Cooke plans to pay tribute to Browne when her own dance company, Fizzik’l, performs Willow Island by Browne — first as part of a presentation of Rough Cuts in Victoria and then as part of a Browne tribute show in Vancouver.
Willow Island is one of eight signature works that Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers has selected from more than 80 that Browne choreographed, for Toward Light: A Tribute to Rachel Browne. The company will perform the show in Winnipeg (Jan. 8 and 9), Toronto (Jan. 12) and Vancouver (Jan. 15). Cooke and Fizzik’l were invited to participate in the tribute, as guest artists touched by Browne.
“Having us perform is greatly meaningful to me, but it shows that so many of us stood on her shoulders, from coast to coast,” Cooke said.
While Toward Light will not reach Victoria, Cooke plans to perform Willow Island on Saturday as part of a new program of works-in-progress presented by Dance Victoria called Rough Cuts.
“Willow Island is where her cottage was and it’s a place that brought her great happiness,” Cooke said. She described the piece as organic, uplifting and serene.
“She’s intricate in how she moves dancers around the stage with patterning, but the movement itself is fairly simple,” she said. “It was contemporary in its time, but now when we look at it, we would see it was made by a senior artist. So her work reflects what modern dance was in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Those who attend Rough Cuts Saturday will also have the opportunity to see two new works-in-progress by Cooke.
Everything All at Once is a piece about inner dialogue.
The second is a contemporary ballet with the working title Herding Butterflies. It features classical technique, which Cooke learned in her 20 years as a ballet dancer. But she said it emphasizes athleticism, with dancers making use of their knee pads.
More than informing her style, Cooke said Browne taught her to constantly ask questions of herself about the choreographic choices she made.
“I think I’ve taken her notes and I’ve found my own language from them,” said Cooke, who is also artistic director of the Victoria School of Contemporary Dance.
She encourages her dancers to avoid “first choice” movement, which is always predictable, and instead move out of their comfort zones to their “third choice” — something she learned from Browne.
“I try to train dancers who work with me to look to the third choice. To go to that place, to ask questions of themselves, to keep themselves uncomfortable. Because I think that’s where the interesting work is,” Cooke said.
WHAT IS ROUGH CUTS?
Rough Cuts is a new program hosted by Dance Victoria, where dancers and choreographers present new works in their final stage of development to audiences in an informal setting. The audience is encouraged to ask questions of the performers and vice versa.
“What we’re hoping to do is cultivate an audience that is interested in learning more about the dance process and creative process,” said Dance Victoria producer Stephen White. “So we’re hoping the general audience responds.”
The first presentation of Rough Cuts features Willow Island by the late Rachel Browne, as well as two original works by local contemporary choreographer Constance Cooke, who studied under Browne.
Cooke said too much weight is often given to the final dance product, with perfect lighting and costumes.
“This is much more process-driven,” she said. “And sharing that with the audience, which is one of my favourite things.”
The next tentatively planned Rough Cuts features work co-created by Vancouver’s Daelik (Hackenbrook) and France’s Fabrice Ramilingom, in April.
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