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what’s on(line) + a conversation with peggy baker

February 14, 2022
Illustration by Lorena Torres Loaiza

keeping our doors closed to the public allows us to offer space for artists to meet safely and develop their work.

Back in December, Explorations alumni Neema Bickersteth and Nikki Shaffeeullah—along with their team Intisar AwisseSasha Tate-HowarthGabriella HamiltonRoya del Sol, and Rachel Penny—spent a week working on Black Paris in the Incubator. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen Kong KiePeggy Baker, and Adam Lazarus as well as Residency artists PJ PrudatJonathan SeinenViktor Lukawski, and Prince Amponsah come through the space, and we’re taking you behind the scenes to learn more about their processes. Follow along on Instagram for artist takeovers or right here for exclusive interviews. This month, we sat down with Peggy Baker (dancer, choreographer and artistic director of Peggy Baker Dance Projects) to talk about her new project Beautiful Renegades and what excites her about the next generation of artists.

If you donated, showed up to an event, or told a friend about us during our December fundraising campaign, thank you! Your support allows these artists to continue safely creating work in the theatre, and we can’t wait to welcome you back soon.

in conversation with: peggy baker

Photos courtesy of Peggy Baker Dance Projects

Theatre Centre: Tell us a bit about what you were working on in the space.

Peggy Baker: We’re working on a huge project that’ll go on stage at The Theatre Centre in September. I have been looking back to the 1970s in Toronto and this is a play about the dance world at that time. It’s called Beautiful Renegades. I felt that this was a beautiful time to look back for a few reasons. First of all, that history has sort of slipped through our fingers and we don’t quite remember what was going on in dance then. It was also a really charged time on societal and art-making levels.

It has lots of resonance with the present moment. We were dealing with the Vietnam War and all the anti-war protests. There were a lot of so-called draft dodgers arriving in Toronto and really vivifying theatre, dance and visual art right across the board. Women’s liberation, gay rights, Black power—it was a time of big political movement among most, especially young people; that’s where change often comes from. The work in dance that was being done was exciting because it was sort of a first wave of avant-garde work in Toronto, and it was not only arising out of excitement around dance, it was also arising out of really serious critique around dance. Who is dancing, what the content and the form of dance was, ideas about high and low art… bringing forward really new ideas about who is making art, what it looked like, what the process was, and how it was received.

So, I have looked back to 1970s Toronto and particularly to a space called 15 Dance Lab. I’ve reached out to six different choreographers from that time, and we’ve created these distillations of their work. They’re little historical fantastical miniatures, and that’s what we filmed in The Theatre Centre, a series of nine short films, based on the work of five of those six choreographers. These films, directed by William Yong with director of photography Jason George, were placed all through the building. We used both the Franco Boni Theatre and the Incubator. We shot also in stairwells and hallways, and I think people who know The Theatre Centre are going to be so touched by the sort of intervention of art through the whole building because that’s how you feel when you’re there. It was really beautiful to be everywhere in that building because of what a great community space it is and what a great art-making space it is. In some ways, it’s a bit of a love letter to the space itself and a thank you note. We love this space and we thank you for bringing it into the community and for making it such a vivid and incredible place to be.

TC: Last year, you announced you’d be winding down your company to create room for up-and-coming artists and I want to know what excites you about this next generation, but—seeing as there are so many parallels between then and now—I’m also curious to know what inspired you to look back to glean lessons we’ve already learned.

PB: It’s an act of solidarity with the current generation to say the dance community is with you across generations. There’s always been a huge urgency around new working dance and to bring out the history of that time to affirm to creators working right now that this big questioning is always an important part of any art-making. There’s sometimes an idea like it’s happening for the very first time, and this kind of disruption has happened before and it’s always led to more understanding, to bigger and more nuanced ideas around how we live together and how we make work together, and what acts of culture are arising out of the society that we share. For me, the excitement about this particular generation is how clearly and strongly their own politics are at the centre of their work. Who they are on the most primary level and how they can find their voice most aesthetically—not as a generalized idea of a dancer, but as the actual explicit and irreplaceable person that they are working in this form. For Beautiful Renegades, we’ve also commissioned site-specific work. So as the audience arrives at The Theatre Centre, they will encounter work outdoors by new generation artists; they’re going to directly encounter the “disruptors” of this moment. The play is fiction but it takes place in the same city at a different moment—a very highly charged and consequential moment that led to great change in the way we live together and in the kind of art that is emerging through the communities that we build.

You know, 15 Dance Lab was quite a social scene. People didn’t go there necessarily because a certain person had work up, they went to find out what was going on that weekend. It reminds me of The Theatre Centre in that way that it’s a social hub as well. In fact, the Incubator matches the footprint of 15 Dance Lab almost identically. The dancers at 15 Dance Lab were doing everything—printing programmes, making posters, hanging and focusing lights—everybody was learning how to bring art into a performance space. This thing of art arising out of community, out of conversation, out of deeply held notions around identity and politics that were at play in the 1970s were really epitomized by the work that was going on at 15 Dance Lab.

TC: Alright, last question: what’s bringing you joy these days?

PB: Oh well, this! I’m somebody who wants to be with other people and be generating and excavating and discovering and learning, and I do that through making and being a witness. I love to be an audience member, whether that’s observing someone in a rehearsal that I’ve been privileged to be invited into or watching a performance or watching my collaborators at work and being at work with them. It’s the most beautiful kind of serious play. Like, taking play seriously and understanding how play is a fundamental creative act that allows us to transcend our assumptions about who we are and who other people are, and how we build together, whether we know we’re doing that or not.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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