New ways to love and live: Vancouver International Dance Festival explores the complicated, innermost self on stage

The 24th annual Vancouver International Dance Festival (VIDF) provides opportunities for dancers to dig deep into themes that spring from their personal experiences through the years, melding technical prowess with social commentary. Aside from dance performances, the festival also features sculpture, photography exhibits and life-drawing sessions.

Artists Tony Chong and Jennifer McLeish-Lewis number among the festival’s solo dance performers whose craft draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Bruce Lee’s influential film Enter the Dragon or the daily meditational act of yoga.

This year’s festival will be held from Feb. 25 to Mar. 9.

Breaking through internalized limitations

A choreographer and dancer from Montreal, Tony Chong partnered with long-term collaborators from his dance collective Remember Not To Forget to helm the contemporary dance solo Invisible. He found himself incorporating themes into the piece that he was turning over in his mind during the pandemic as a member of the Asian-Canadian diaspora.

“We grew up in a place where we always make excuses for taking space; our existence is always being excused or not looked at properly,” Chong explains. “My mother was always like ‘don’t make waves or just hide, go under the radar,’ and that mindset, I kind of took it into myself whether or not it was real or not. I was coming back to that feeling during the pandemic when there was Asian hate coming back again.”

Chong wondered if those feelings of inadequacy were self-imposed or whether they emerged from others’ judgments as well, blurring his own sense of self. As Chong revisited these feelings amidst the onslaught of anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, he formed the theoretical basis of Invisible, which uses lasers and mylar (silver foil) to reflect the illusory racial boundaries or stereotypes that he fights his way out of.

“I was creating this work with Bruce Lee’s work Enter the Dragon in mind, with his glass houses,” says Chong. “So I started working with lasers and there was a mental image of walls and structures and barriers and how I break through it. But it’s all an illusion; how do I surpass that?”

| Photo courtesy of Vancouver International Dacne Festival.

Despite the racial implications of his work, Chong resists the idea of pigeonholing himself as an Asian artist; he resisted doing work about being Asian until the last few years with Invisible. The piece is tied to the fundamental concept of racial ‘other-ness’, but he wants viewers to relate to the universal concept of struggle and the realization that some of our obstacles can be attributed to internalized limitations.

“I hope they get something out of it. They might not get the feelings of racial exclusion, but there’s something fundamental about struggle and the idea of liberty and revelation,”
says Chong.

Expressing all types of love

For Jennifer McLeish-Lewis, the process of creating her interdisciplinary work New Skin was as smooth as she’d originally hoped, resting on input and help that she received from multiple contributors. After meeting dancer James-Amzin Nahirnick at a dance festival as attendees, the two quickly struck up a conversation, leading to their dancer-choreographer partnership that propelled the show into existence.

The technical details of the work span diverse mediums, including song, dance and theatre. In New Skin, McLewis says Nahirnick relies on his expansive skill set to play the piano, sing, dance and voice monologues.

“I really like that cross-pollination of contemporary dance culminating in what we can do in front of an audience that is different, unique and in the moment. I have to give credit to James for that because I think he’s really strong in all three of those,” she says.

Although the piece touches on themes of gender identity and auto-eroticism, McLeish-Lewis ultimately wants the viewer to form their own interpretation of its meaning. As a gender studies scholar, she has been studying gender dysphoria for the last two years. Her past relationship with someone facing gender dysphoria influenced the work’s depiction of being transgender, and functions as a meditation on being comfortable in one’s skin or not.

While the work depicts the sadness and frustration accompanying the feeling of gender incongruence, it’s also suffused with lightheartedness.

“I want the audience to have the experience with it that they have, and I don’t necessarily want to put [exact] meaning into their heads. I think it’s a bit multidimensional because it takes you through many different emotional states. There’s emotion to it, but there’s also lightness to it,” McLeish-Lewis says.

When it comes to the work’s focus on auto-eroticism, she asserts that there’s a balanced approach to love inside everyone.

“I think most people identify as allo-erotic, or having attraction to other people’s bodies, and then for an auto-erotic person, the attraction goes inwards instead of outwards. There’s no judgment, it can be healthy if it’s understood, it can be romantic instead of sexual, and it has to do with self-acceptance and embracing every part of yourself.”

Beyond New Skin, McLeish-Lewis is working on a new piece with multiple dancers using expandable screens made of paper to explore emotional and physical boundaries on stage.

She has also just premiered the dance piece To Fetch a Pail of Water at the Scotiabank Dance Centre which was inspired by the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill.

“To always have a creative imagination flowing for me is really life-giving. Even with [two ongoing projects], I feel like there’s enough imaginative energy inside of myself that I’m already working on the third thing,” says McLeish-Lewis.

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