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Emotional performance kicks off 10-day in-person and online festival from Dance Victoria

John tells the story of Helen Walkley's brother, who went missing in 1969, when the choreographer was 13.
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Josh Martin, left, and Billy Marchenski star in John, choreographer Helen Walkley's contemporary piece about her brother's disappearance more than 50 years ago. CHRIS RANDLE

ON STAGE

What: John

Where: Charlie White Theatre, 2243 Beacon Ave., Sidney

When: Thursday, Jan. 20, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $44.14 from tickets.marywinspear.ca or 250-656-0275

Note: John will also be staged Jan. 22 at the Malaspina Theatre in Nanaimo

John, a contemporary dance/theatre piece by Vancouver’s Helen Walkley, has remained largely unaltered since it premiered in 2019. Which is likely by design: The emotional ode about the disappearance of her brother, John, in 1969, when she was 13, is not something the director and choreographer would be keen to revisit on a regular basis.

During rehearsals for an upcoming production of John, which is part of Dance Victoria’s upcoming Dance Days festival, dancer Josh Martin noticed some slight derivations, however. “Not a lot has changed in the approach, but of course time does do things to a piece,” Martin said. “The performers are a bit older, and have been through a bit more. A deepening occurs when you come back to a work the second time, and while you kind of retain the essence of what was there, you allow new things to infiltrate a little bit.”

Dance Days, a 10-day in-person and online celebration with workshops, performances, and classes on the menu starting tonight, is lucky to have Walkley’s creation on its itinerary. John is purposely spare — only Martin and dancer Billy Marchenski appear on stage — and the backstage cast and crew is limited to Walkley, lighting designer James Proudfoot, costumer Leah Weinstein, and composer/sound designer James Maxwell.

With content which includes letters from Walkley’s parents to her brother’s psychiatrist, among other items, it was evident early on that additional contributors were not needed, Martin said. “That wouldn’t really serve the energy of the work or the tone of the work. It’s very much about minimalism and subtlety.”

Walkley based John on an archive of family letters dating from 1959 to 2010, which Marchenski reads through the course of the production. Walkley inherited the letters when her father died, but could not bring herself to open them for several years. Her reluctance in creating the piece, and depths she explores, gives the performance its emotional heft. “There’s a theatricality that exists because of the content,” Martin said.

“And because of the the act of these letters being read, [Billy] has to deliver a lot of this language on stage. There’s a lot of deep detail and specificity about the way in which these letters are being held. There was a way in which we walk around one another, and the way in which we hold our posture and gesture.”

For more information on Dance Days, visit the Dance Victoria website.

mdevlin@timescolonist.com