Sarah Hopkin, a fourth-year dance student, moves fluidly around a dance studio on the third floor of the Ryerson Theatre School (RTS), nimbly and unseeingly avoiding the many tripping obstacles on the floor. Like many of Toronto’s architectural fixtures, RTS seems to be in a continual process of renewal, which involves a conveyor belt of construction implements strewn all around.
Her dancers don’t seem to mind, either. Whenever one of them looks dangerously likely to collide with a ladder or a platform of scaffolding, their bodies are redirected with ease in a way that makes the whole urban construction motif look intentional.
Hopkin can move fluidly between many roles. On one day, she is the astute student, dissecting themes from the real world to incorporate into her work; on another, she is the agile dancer, floating around a room and transforming it into her personal creative space. This semester, she is the experimental choreographer, translating imagination into reality in her piece Water is the Stranger Here for Ryerson’s annual New Voices festival. The piece was performed on April 8 at the RTS.
Hopkins’ choreographic journey began with a third-year assignment to unravel a work of fiction. She found threads to weave together into a new story told with movement, choosing to interpret a passage from the end of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.
“We die,” writes Ondaatje’s Katherine Clifton. “We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we’ve entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we’ve hidden in – like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body.”
Written on the bodies of Hopkins’ dancers is a story of love, loss and life-giving friendship. Water becomes the stranger that bears lovers apart, or else brings them newly together. And yet water is the thing that runs in the blood of every human, it is no stranger at all. The dancers who embody water onstage skillfully handle this paradox. They are the silken rivers through which the plot swims.
“I think of water running through my body,” said Olivia Aubrecht, one of the company dancers charged with becoming a current to carry the story. “There are moments when I am the subtle tide rolling or a giant wave crashing.”
Accompanying the modern choreography is a musical score that comes in waves, some delicate and some thunderous. A score is customarily written before movement is choreographed. In the case of Water is the Stranger Here, Hopkin had already brought her choreography to life when Julia Mermelstein, a Toronto composer, joined the project.
“It took me a while to find that kind of motif,” said Mermelstein. “But in section five with the group improv part, the constant piano motif…that is the whole driving force of the water and the waves.”
Water themes can also be found in the plunging textures Mermelstein created for piano and stringed instruments. At times, the music feels hauntingly close to your own pumping blood, and at other times it carries you away from your body so that you’re looking at the performance as you might look at an aquarium.
“The piece is challenging to stay in unison because the music is very sparse,” said Aubrecht.
Helping the dancers navigate the sparseness of the score was a challenge that Hopkin met by designating an improvised section in her piece.
“They’re supposed to be thinking of moving as water, as a current, so the implications of that are heavy weight, resistance and flow,” said Hopkin. ‘Those kinds of movement qualities are really evident in their interpretation…It’s one of my favourite parts of the piece.”
Dance students were required to dance in New Voices, or to create a piece for the programme. Hopkin said that choreographing was a great experience for her, developmentally. Though she sees herself as a performer and has her sights set on joining a company as a dancer, she may eventually return to choreography.
“I kind of want to do the performing thing first and work with choreographers and play that role and wear that hat for a little while,” she said.
One of Hopkin’s long-term goals is to invigorate dance performance on the east coast, where she was born. In that version of the future, Hopkin says she could easily see herself “starting a company and trying to bring some choreographic skills into that.”
In one of our meetings, Hopkin was straddling a camera tripod and negotiating settings on a Nikon DSLR so that she could film her choreography. Once she has it filmed, she can set it on any group of dancers and enter it in festivals after Ryerson. “I definitely don’t want to let it go after the New Voices festival,” said Hopkin.
As I helped her set up the camera, she shifted her full attention to the crew, who required direction before starting rehearsal. She commented at that time that she felt like she was wearing too many hats. However, regardless of how many hats Hopkin is wearing, she wears them gracefully.
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