With the release of The Choreographer’s Trust package series, Peggy Baker has envisioned a behind-the-scenes look at some of her most well-known choreographic works. Her goal is to share these pieces with anyone who would like to learn, or learn more about, her choreography. All six of the packages — Brute, Unfold, Yang, Sanctum, In a Landscape and Brahms Waltzes — are available on loan from Dance Collection Danse.
These pieces are revealed through: DVD footage of rehearsals, coaching and performance; writing, and notation scores. This blog serves as an accompaniment to these materials, updated as each project occurs. Many thanks to the numerous contributors to this endeavour. – Natasha Frid
It was the final day of Peggy’s annual summer intensive at Canada’s National Ballet School. I was lucky to be in Peggy’s morning technique class and also to witness her coaching several dancers in her solo Unfold.
Peggy encourages us to be clear in our interpretation of the movement. The teacher/choreographer offers the map, but our exploration of the work is very individual. Through watching us move, the audience should vicariously feel our experience of the dance.
I think of friends describing vividly how stunning the scenery was, and how much they enjoyed their trip. I want to go there. This is why Peggy sharing her classes and repertoire with us is so precious. We see her dance and long to take that journey ourselves. Her generosity helps us retrace her footsteps and feel it in our own bodies. She inspires us to invite others on the journey, adding our own personal observations along the way.
At the second session of Peggy’s creative practice workshop for ‘In a
Landscape’, Peggy surprised all of us by putting on a different piece
of music, rather than John Cage’s. This new piece is by Henry
Kucharzyk, the pianist who performed ‘In a Landscape’ with Peggy in
Kucharzyk’s piece is for prepared piano and, like ‘Landscape’, is in a
cyclical 3/4 with a very melodious, calm beginning. However the music
soon transitioned to dissonant sounds – small stones are placed on the
piano strings, and we hear grating elements, as well as water and
The project was to discover more about the character of each movement.
The dancers adapted the choreography to this new soundscape, playing
with repetition, speed, direction …
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In a piece specifically created in response to a musical landscape –
Peggy would play the music over and over while improvising, then wrote
notes to establish the choreographic sequence – the changes to the
choreography during this exercise were significant.
How do we develop in a changing environment – how do we adapt, what do
we resist? What defines our personality and our values when the
outside world influences us? What makes us uncertain, throws us
off-balance, forces us to become alternate versions of ourselves in
response to the elements? Can we focus on our path and concentrate on
our goals if we’re distracted by the immediacy of stimuli? How do we
remember who we are – and how much of that still remains?
At the École de danse contemporaine de Montréal (formerly LADMMI) last week, I had the wonderful treat of seeing four dancers pass on contemporary choreography to the students. What I found fascinating was the diverse context surrounding each choreographer’s project: everything from Margie Gillis teaching Broken English, a solo she had performed forty years ago, to Marc Boivin teaching his latest solo, Une idée sinon vraie … , expressing a curiosity as to how brand new work could be distilled during this process.
I was there to explore Marie Chouinard’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’une faune, taught by Isabelle Poirier to her students. I had notated this solo for Chouinard last year, leading to a permanent job of notating her choreography. Marc Boivin called Faune a “jewel” in Canadian contemporary repertoire, and I was so delighted that there was something that could be called a jewel, so quickly do contemporary pieces usually disappear.
Students who are fortunate enough to be in a professional training programme like this one know how precious this sharing process truly is. It’s no wonder that several professional and emerging dancers attended Peggy’s repertoire workshop last Sunday, having learned In a Landscape from The Choreographer’s Trust DVDs, and now being coached by Peggy. In an art form that only utilizes repertoire at a very high level of training, Peggy’s objective in making her choreography accessible to dancers is a precious gift. And it’s available to anyone who wants it – The Choreographer’s Trust packages are loaned out free of charge.
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I stayed after the workshop to ask Peggy some questions about another solo, Unfold, which I am finishing up notating. I half-jokingly said that perhaps it was taking me so long to finish because I didn’t want it to be over. The piece is so rich that each time I return to the notation score, the dance reveals new connections to my own life. But seeing last week’s workshop with all those keen dancers learning Peggy’s choreography made me realize that the ending of Unfold is exactly as Peggy says – sometimes the ending is just the beginning of something new. And with Peggy offering these solos to the next generation of dancers, it might just be true for contemporary dance.
I’m completing my notation score of Peggy Baker’s exquisite piece Unfold. I was lucky enough to be part of the filming process for The Choreographer’s Trust in 2009, and as I’m now working in Montreal for Compagnie Marie Chouinard, The Choreographer’s Trust package makes this final notation process much easier.
I was at Sainte-Geneviève with Marie Chouinard a few weeks ago where her dancers were performing Les 24 Prėludes de Chopin. I was struck by something Marie said during her pre-talk with the audience. Normally Preludes are a precursor for something, like Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. But Chopin’s are a series of Preludes alone. They stand on their own, complete vignettes that are not introducing anything — aside from the next piano piece in the series.
I realized that I had never thought of Peggy Baker’s Unfold in this context, which is set to Scriabin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 11, but that the structure is identical. 24 Preludes that are independent pieces. Some further research revealed that Scriabin had in fact modeled his composition after Chopin’s, following the same harmonic structure.
But what really struck me about Scriabin’s Preludes was that they were written in different cities over 8 years, and not in chronological order. They were numbered by key signature. No. 6 was written in Kiev in 1889, but No. 1 in 1896 in Paris. It made me think of a diary, or perhaps an autobiography that is then edited and restructured when perspective is gained on the whole life.
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I’m about halfway through writing up the notation score for Peggy’s most recent piece documented in The Choreographer’s Trust, Unfold. I’m at the end of Prelude No. 10: one of Peggy’s favourites, from a construction standpoint, as the choreographic phrases fit so neatly with the musical ones.
Each choreographic phrase is repeated and further developed, just as it is in the music. But what’s really fascinating is how Peggy staggered the choreography from music: the prelude is danced partially in silence, then marked to the music as if asleep and dreaming, and finally dance and music join together with their matched phrases.
Finishing the last phrase, I look back over the quotes I’ve written from Peggy as she taught this prelude to Sahara Morimoto. Peggy tells Sahara that when the hand covers the eyes and the other arm is raised high, she can pause at this moment to accommodate the ritardando in the music.
Peggy suggests this moment as it’s an image which appears later on in the piece. Peggy compares this to a signature — an identifier which highlights one concept of Unfold — we learn about people piece by piece, opening them up like origami. However, there are defining moments in which we immediately recognize a key element of that person’s character. And then we remember seeing that trait before, at another time, in other circumstances, and it all suddenly makes sense.
The timelessness of Peggy’s choreography and the international impact of The Choreographer’s Trust are striking. Working at Dance Collection Danse for the past three years, I saw packages of The Choreographer’s Trust being shipped off to destinations such as Switzerland and the USA, and something inside of me glowed knowing that dancers all over the world wanted to learn Peggy’s pieces, and now they could.
I feel more distant as I am writing up the notation scores for the Year Three pieces —Brute and Unfold — in Montreal. But each time I sit down, the immediacy of Peggy’s pieces jumps out at me from the page and the screen. The powerful content of Brute floods back into my heart, reading the notes I wrote as Peggy taught the piece two years ago — “heavy clay comes out of your hands”, “the spotting for these turns originated from circling around the grand piano”, “you’re back at stage left, where you were trying to get away from” — and I can’t wait to get into the studio to check the notation through dancing. Having the DVD as a reference, and my draft score, it was pure pleasure in creating a (legible!) notation score, only having a very few items to check with Peggy and Sahara the next time I’m back in Toronto.
I am struck by Peggy’s commitment to documentation — especially admirable in these financially challenging times — and her recognition of the importance of these works. I’m starting to see a pattern between choreographers I’ve worked with: Paul-André Fortier, Danny Grossman, and now notating full-time for Marie Chouinard — as they look back on their work and realize there is something special here, an important piece of our Canadian dance identity that needs to be passed on, recorded and danced in order for it to live.
Being a part of this makes me feel I am really doing something worthwhile with my career. I smile, remembering how it all started — how I pounced on Peggy after seeing her perform in Toronto, offering a page of her choreography I had notated off a promotional video, and, with total inhibition, asking to work with her. There is everything to gain, and nothing to lose.
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Nova Bhattacharya and I were meeting up for coffee a few weeks ago, and I brought along a copy of the newly completed Sanctum notation score to show her. “Because you haven’t seen it yet,” I said, talking her through the opening sequence and explaining some of the symbols.
Peggy Baker reconstructed this solo on Nova Bhattacharya and Helen Jones in 2003 at which time it was partially documented. I completed the score from The Choreographer’s Trust package, Peter Ottmann’s notes, and a few emails from Peggy. Nova then told me that Sanctum would be included in one of her upcoming touring programmes, and Peggy would be coming in to coach her on March 14. Would I like to come by?
This special opportunity started with great austerity. I set up my usual work station of piano bench desk and sweater seat in a corner. Usually I like to be at the back of the studio to notate, since notation is read from the dancer’s perspective, but as I had already completed the score and would be only taking additional notes, I sat at the front. Peggy noticed me there and suggested that we use a beautiful, blonde wood table that was in the corner of the studio. I said no, it’s fine, but Peggy went and pulled it over for me anyways. She put it in the center of the front of the room, and I brought over two chairs. We both sat behind the table.
Ed Hanley, the musician in this piece, and Nova set up the stage. Hesitating before she started to dance, Nova cast a nervous glance over in the direction of our large table. “This feels like an examination,” she said. I laughed, thinking back over those torturous years of dance exams, and started a very poor impersonation of a dance examiner freshly imported from England for the occasion. Ed asked me where my gavel was. I reached into my bag to pull out my imaginary gavel, and Peggy carefully placed her chair away from the table. “So you won’t feel so examined,” she reassured Nova. In a very contradictory gesture, I pulled my pages towards me, grabbed my pencil and narrowed my eyes, watching Nova’s every move.