Dance reflects on the life of Joe

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Joe Ink + Ballet Victoria

When: Feb. 6 and 7, 7:30 p.m.

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Where: McPherson Playhouse

Tickets: $29, $38, $55 (plus service charges) at rmts.bc.ca or 250-386-6121

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Sometimes inspiration arrives just when you need it.

On a night when choreographer Joe Laughlin couldn’t sleep, distracted by thoughts about his next piece and his newly formed dance company, he came across a photo of his father and three uncles. They were still young men, dressed in suits and sitting together with their legs crossed on a couch.

“The expression on their faces was like they were looking into their future and what was in store for them,” said Laughlin, 52.

He used that image to create Harold, Billy, Stan and Jack, which debuted in 1997 and returns to the stage Feb. 6 in Victoria, where his father, incidentally, will watch it for the first time. But while their youth gave one layer to the story, Laughlin took equal inspiration from Splendid’s, a rarely produced Jean Genet play. The film-noir homage centred on a group of men — gangsters — during what may be the last hour of their lives.

“They kind of go into this deep psychological and emotional reflection on their lives,” he said.

Both themes seem fitting, as Laughlin reflects on his career and considers the future. Harold, Billy, Stan and Jack is one of three pieces his company, Joe Ink, will perform at the McPherson Playhouse as part of a retrospective show of highlights from Laughlin’s 25 years in dance.

Asked how he selected pieces for the program, presented by Dance Victoria as part of Dance Days, Laughlin said: “I just kind of zeroed in on the pieces that felt closest to my heart.”

He created Left, a solo piece danced by a man with a teacup, while working in South Africa for several years and coming to terms with his Eurocentric heritage.

Dusk is based on a series of life-changing events. About three years ago, Laughlin suffered a heart attack. As he recovered, his long-time friend and fellow-choreographer Lola MacLaughlin was dying of cancer.

“Things change at [dusk], your visibility changes,” he said. “So with Dusk, I was looking at those things: loss, change, things breaking down and also things changing that you have no control of. And ultimately, you have to surrender to them and hopefully you can surrender with some sort of grace.”

Each of the pieces represents a particular moment in Laughlin’s career. But fitting 25 years into a two-hour program means some formative parts of his life in dance may take stylistic form instead — like the athleticism he regularly incorporates, thanks to his background in gymnastics. Laughlin only began dancing at 21 because of an ankle injury he incurred while tumbling — dance was recommended as part of the rehabilitation process.

“I always had an athletic sensibility in my work,” he said. “Although in dance, less is more, which I had to learn. It’s not the same fast, full output of muscle power that gymnastics is.”

It’s much more economical, he said. “You can’t work that way and sustain your body.”

Sustainability is what it’s all about for Laughlin now. While he often danced in his own pieces in the past, he moved to the choreography-only side of things soon after his heart attack.

Unlike many retired dancers, he says he’s fully satisfied to be finished with it. His body has done decades of hard labour, after all. And as long as he’s in a studio with dancers, he’s happy.

“You see these moments that no one will ever see. You see these moments of discovery that you’re sort of privy to witness. And I just love that.”

Laughlin has also included a première in the program. He created the piece for Ballet Victoria, thanks to a commission from Dance Victoria. He described it as a fun homage to Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineur.

He likes to include history in new pieces.

“I think there’s a value in looking back,” he said.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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