Artist Profile: Justine Chambers

Justine A. Chambers is a superhero. She is an incredible dance artist, a beautiful teacher, a wonderful creator/collaborator and one of the most generous people we know. Justine is always a very welcome presence in our studios. Justine teaches the company often and assisted Emily Molnar in her creation of “RITE” last season. We interviewed Justine a few weeks ago in her apartment in Gastown. She recently welcomed a beautiful baby boy into her family and the Vancouver dance community’s hearts. Max bounced on her lap during our interview, and interjected his opinion wherever he saw fit. Here is what the four of us talked about.

A: What are you obsessed with right now, besides your baby? Or it can be your baby.

JC: I’m pretty obsessed with my baby. One of the things about being obsessed with Max is that it distills time around my work. Before he arrived my work spilled over into everything, every moment and all things. I wasn’t efficient somehow, in my mind or in my actions. I would do things forever and be very “navel gazey” about it. Having him in my life now and trying to accomplish anything is complicated. It’s like, “Okay I have 45 minutes to get really clear about this.” As a deadline approaches, I think about projects/work when I’m breastfeeding, and then I’ll actively work through ideas in the small increments of time I have.

But obsessed with?

I think I’m obsessed with the same things I’m always obsessed with. Where dance happens in the every day. Artistically that is what I have always been obsessed with. Not the supernatural abilities of dancers. Not what we train to do, but how the training can be applied to the way we are in our bodies everyday. I don’t mean simplicity, I mean how we are with each other, physically, every day. Whether or not someone can look you in the eye, whether or not a door is held for you, how we negotiate space with others in public places, how that changes our bodies and how we move through space. I’m always obsessed with the same things. I feel like I make the same dance over and over – different iterations of the same thing. There’s a different context but the same dance. It’s always about the physical interrelations of the everyday. That’s what keeps me the most interested as a choreographer.

Also Lady rap. Right now I’m also obsessed with lady rap……and fashion. Always.

C: From growing up with you as a teacher at Arts Umbrella. I have learned a few of your phrases you worked with for some of your creations and projects. They were unbelievably hard and very complicated. Formulating “the everyday” into dance for you is… It’s not at all simple . How do you process taking every day stuff and transforming it into something that you think is relevant and “performable”? Whatever that means…

JC: I think that is changing incrementally. The way I’m making is changing. I often take actions that strike me. For instance I made a piece called “ENTERS AND EXITS” and stole all the gestures that formed that dance from different liminal spaces (I’m beginning to hate the word liminal because it is overused, but it was, in fact, liminal space) people waiting for the Seabus, elevators, and arrivals and departures at the airport. I videotaped the movement that I saw, then I worked to put them together to remove any narrative. That became my first task. Can I put all of these things together and obliterate its intended narrative? So if the gesture was of someone saying “hi, how are you?” how can I put it with someone else’s thinking gesture to obscure the original context. Then I played with abstraction, which was unsuccessful, because a new narrative emerged – this is what happens when you use familiar gesture. So there’s the first layer. I then looked at those phrases and saw where there were problems rhythmically. Like what I talk about in class. How do we not get stuck in one rhythm but rather create an overall sense of rhythm while playing with each individual action rhythmically?

A: I think that your “Family Dinners” are absolutely amazing. You host a dinner where the audience comes to have a meal alongside the performers, and the whole evening is the performance. Could you talk a bit about them and the incorporation of everyday into performance in that context?

JC: With Family Dinners, it’s a process of accumulation. I keep the dancer very occupied so that they can’t act and they can’t get slick or ‘good’ at it. It’s about creating a number of layers of activity so that they stay engaged in the act of instantaneous composition. We work on tasks instead of movement – although there is a specific movement vocabulary sourced from our dining guests. In my previous work it was more about my love of honing movement in a really specific way (which you’ve both experienced in the studio with me) and getting more and more complex. But now it’s about adding layers and layers and layers of tasks so that the performer never has a chance to get a complete handle on things. You’re always working. I like the attention that comes with intense concentration. Something about how far I can go with a little bit. So okay, we are eating dinner and performing dining gestures, but…how far can we go with this?

A: What is it about an interactive performance space that you like and how do the “performers” relate to the people that are “guests”?

JC: Actually it’s funny I really dislike being an audience member at anything interactive. I worry about being screwed with. That was a big consideration for me with the dinners. We used our minds/bodies as documentation devices to compile the guest’s gestures. At the end of the night we would teach each other the new gestures so we could add them to the next performance. But there was never a moment where we were taking advantage of them. Using those people’s gestures was really about making sure that no one is ever forgotten within the history of the work. In that way everyone who has ever been at the table is always at the table. It’s about a reverence for people.

Our overarching score is hospitality. So that becomes the first choreography that we do. If we feel like we can’t make people feel welcome we drop all of the other things and make them feel taken care of. I am a diplomat brat and I grew up at dinner parties, so it’s anthropological from a personal point of view because I play the role of my mom. I do some cueing for the other performers, but I work to be the host – I sit at the end of the table and make sure that everybody has wine and enough food. If things get awkward I wait, let them get more awkward and then I will swoop in to relieve the tension.

What I like about immersive performance from a choreographer’s standpoint is the unknown. There is something so compelling about not knowing what is going to happen and having to make do as a performer. It’s about giving up control and still being able to be a performing artist inside of that and really dance what is happening rather than what you would like to see happen. I think that works no matter what kind of dance you are doing. From Nutcracker to Medhi to 605, you have to dance what’s happening. If you don’t you’re screwed. It makes you more in touch with reality as a performer and not some distilled dream existing outside of the present. It makes performance something really concrete and not otherworldly.

C: Immersive work also throws the “responsibility” of the performance at the observer in a way. It makes the audience feel more accountable for the “success” or “failure” of the performance, which is kind of a wonderful thing. It frustrates me when people will just come out of a show and say, “that was terrible.” and leave it without considering why. Maybe they didn’t agree with it or maybe went in wanting to hate it.

JC: There are those things, right!? Like, what happened to you (the audience member) today? Did you have a fight with your boss, did you get splashed by a vehicle, did your favourite pants rip? All of these things that happen that can ruin your experience as a viewer. I don’t think it is generous to say something is ‘no good’ without some self-reflection. We should ask ourselves why we didn’t like it. It’s possible that you didn’t enjoy it, but it is important to remember that effort was made to realize the work. I don’t have to like what you are doing but I don’t have to diminish it’s value by dismissing it.

C: Okay, it’s time to talk about fashion designers you like.

JC: Haider Ackermann and Yohji Yamamoto are probably the two designers who move me the most. They are both poetic and philosophical in their approach to clothes.

I found a big article on Ackermann in AnOther magazine. He went to design school in Antwerp but ended up dropping out because every Thursday he had to show new work. He just couldn’t produce that quickly so he just stopped going to school on Thursdays. We suffer from this need to constantly produce in dance, too. In the article he said something like, “people just don’t want to take time anymore.” and when I read that I burst into tears. What is wrong with taking time? All it does is give us the time to really think about our work – no matter what you do for a living. Take the time to let it happen – give due process. Ackermann has had this slow burn career. He dropped out of school and just kept doing his thing the way he wanted to do it – on his terms. This takes courage and inspires me.

There’s a quote from a movie Wim Wenders made about Yohji Yamamoto where he said something like (I do a lot of paraphrasing), “We transcend trend by making what we care about.” The idea that “slow and steady wins the race” grounds me somehow. In terms of making work it seems to take me two years to figure out what I’m making. Thinking about these two fashion designers, how they talk about and believe in what and how they are making…it just makes sense to me. Figure out what you have to say, if you have anything to say at all – follow your interest. Or work to figure that out, instead of being trendy, “good” or working on being popular.

C: You are quite political, so how do you bring that into the dance world, which can be not the most socially responsible art form?

JC: Jacob Wren, a bad-ass artist/writer from Montreal talks about being the “killjoy” and I guess I just try to be that wherever I experience bad behavior around sex/sexuality, race, feminism etc. I think that it is my responsibility as a ‘big kid’ in the dance community. I try not to be preachy about it because I think people hear things better from you when you’re not being preachy about it, but being vigilant is important. Something about being able to admit that you are wrong or misstepped makes you really human. To me, the most beautiful moments are when people are able to admit the they screwed up – then learning can happen and there is progress.

The biggest thing is trying to be responsible. If I am in a work/life space where I think uncool things are happening or being said then I try to call it out. “It’s okay if you didn’t know it’s not cool, but now you do know.” We could be right all the time about everything, but how incredibly boring that would be? Needing to be right feels so rigid to me, like a bad dance partner.

I co-facilitate a platform for conversation called The Talking Thinking Dancing Body – created by Su Feh Lee of battery opera. This has become a really productive space for working through the more political discussions we need to be having in our community.

I think the culture of dance is changing. It’s becoming less hierarchical and rigid in a good way. That excites me.

A: What does being grounded mean to you?

JC: It means being right where I am and not panicking about it. You know when you get so emotionally wrought it’s like you are outside of your body vibrating? It’s about being able to be in the present. Actually being here with the three of you, feeling my body, being comfortable in myself and not feeling panicked. I feel like I felt panicked a lot of my life, but that has been changing incrementally over the last 10 years. I think I just had a big shift having Max. I was a super anxious person. I could be super grounded for other people but seldom with myself and having Max here is really helping me look after myself. Coming back to dancing has been a joy because I was away from this dancing body for what felt like a long time. Teaching class these past two weeks has been truly wonderful. I used to always be assessing what I didn’t have and what I wasn’t doing well, instead of reveling in what was happening.

To feel what is happening is a true delight.

~C+A Consulting Artists

You can see “Family Dinners” this June at the Canada Dance Festival in Ottawa.

And to stay updated on what Justine is doing around the city check out her website!