Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 124: Aerial Dance, Circus, and Artistic Production — with Gabrielle Martin

Speakers: Paige Smith, Am Johal, Gabrielle Martin

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Paige Smith  0:01
Hey listeners. I'm Paige Smith with Below the Radar. A knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host Am Johal is joined by dancer, choreographer and producer Gabrielle Martin, talking about her journey with aerial dance and circus performing. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

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Am Johal  0:26  
Hi there, welcome to Below the Radar. Excited that you could join us again. I'm here today with Gabrielle Martin, our guest, who is a choreographer, aerial and dance artist and artistic producer. Welcome, Gabrielle. 

Gabrielle Martin  0:40 
Hi, thanks so much for having me. 

Am Johal  0:42  
Yeah, I wonder if we can begin, if you could just introduce yourself a little bit 

Gabrielle Martin  0:47  
Well you got bases covered there a bit, but yeah, Gabrielle Martin, originally from Vancouver, unceded territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh. And then, you know, moved to Montreal, where I did my dance training and started working with the circus, ran away with the circus and then kind of came back around to producing my own work as well as others' work. So kind of now working on the producing side of things. After a long career of, after many, many shows, and a few injuries, you know, all the stuff that goes along with that. 

Am Johal  1:21  
Yeah, I'm really interested in speaking with you about your journey into your professional practice, particularly because I know some SFU contemporary art students will likely be listening to this. But before we get there, you grew up in Vancouver, at least partially and you spent some time in the alternative education system. So wondering if you can talk a little bit about that part of your formative experience and what you gained from being in a different type of educational environment. 

Gabrielle Martin  1:49
Yeah, I grew up on Commercial Drive. And you know, very early on, the school system was problematic for me as it is for many young people. But my parents just saw how unhappy I was and made a decision to homeschool me. And then there was a school that opened up in the neighborhood, an alternative school called Wonder Tree. And so I went to that school, which was I think about 10 kids ranging in ages. And it was really kind of a process of deciding what we wanted collectively to learn as a group and then pursuing those opportunities. That was a very eclectic kind of collective, eclectic style of learning and way of living. And then I think that I kind of, from there, I evolved. I mean, I went on to study and, or experience other alternative schools like Windsor House, and then do some of my own homeschooling or deschooling, unschooling. But I think that what that gave me was an ability to research and to find what I want to learn about and, and then go after that, and kind of self-directed learning, basically, and research, which I think is kind of my secret weapon. 

Am Johal  2:59  

And in your time in the kind of alternative school system where you are already getting interested in arts and cultural work and dance in particular?

Gabrielle Martin  3:09  
Yeah, I was more into sports, actually. So I think, you know, I have always been creative and artistic, but was really serious about ice hockey, and I played competitively for quite a few years in my preteens and early teens and played at a national level. I had dreams of the Olympics, but then, but then I found fire dancing and, you know, intentional gathering rave parties. And then the team sports and everything that came with it, and kind of a clash of lifestyles I was experiencing with, you know, my teammates who were still in high school, and I had stopped schooling at that point, and had moved out on my own and was working by 15 and was really into spitting fire in the park with my hippie friends. And then that actually led me into realizing I really, you know, the physicality that I loved about sports, there was something missing in that for me. I was missing that performance. I realized I loved performing. And then that kind of led me to dance through stilt walking and fire dancing and hula hooping and stuff like that.

Am Johal  4:15  
That's like quite a, it's an embodied learning experience in terms of those kinds of somatic practices, and, and and and and wondering what, you know, how you how you started getting into more professional dance after that.

Gabrielle Martin  4:29  
Well, first of all, yeah, I started out fire spinning in terms of my what I was doing in terms of being a performer, and I realized that I loved the creative side of things and started to choreograph with friends and choreograph fire dance performances. And, and then you know, just kind of wanted to keep taking it to the next level. But I was performing a lot of the time at parties where people were not sober. And they were really into everything I did. And I realized there was a voice in my head that was like, maybe this is not that good. I had this critical voice in my head, which, yeah, I mean, for better or worse, I think a lot of us do as artists, but I think it was actually like a saving grace because it pushed me, you know, I think, had I stayed in that environment, it would have been comfortable, right? And I just wanted to, I realized I wanted to have more capacity to express myself physically and tell the stories that I wanted to tell physically, with technique. And so then I, I also was getting really into circus and aerial dance. And so I auditioned for a few different schools. I auditioned for the National circus school in Montreal, which was very comedic, because by 22, I was already kind of, like, aged out. I remember showing up to that audition here in Vancouver, and I was quite a few years older and quite a bit taller and bigger than everybody else. They invited me to come. They said, you know, like, I contacted them, they say, for sure, you know, come and you know, audition, because they also make money off of it. But I was really, really out of my league. So I looked around for some other dance schools, and I really settled on Concordia, not settled on, But I realized that it was a school that really promoted creative process and choreography through each year of the program. And so that was actually a really good fit for me.

Am Johal  6:15  
And what kinds of projects did you work on while you were at Concordia? 

Gabrielle Martin  6:20  
Well, I was choreographing every semester. And I think that's something that's unique about that program. I mean, a lot of other programs, you dance in the repertoire, or the choreography of established choreographers, which is a great learning process in and of itself. But I did appreciate being able to create short work, it was always short work. But yeah, just really focusing on my own creative process and generating material and developing my own work. And, you know, I think, just recently, I created my first full length work. And that kind of has been a three year process, because I created it in collaboration with another choreographer. And then we realized there was a lot of work to be done. And so we've recently remounted it, because it's a totally different beast. And I think in school, you're used to this short form. And it's really different, yeah, it's just a really different kind of structure and way of expressing yourself in the long form. So that's what I'm experimenting with now.

Am Johal  7:14  
And Montreal is such a great city for movement and dance practice in general. And wondering if you can share the story of how you ended up getting involved with Cirque du Soleil.

Gabrielle Martin  7:28  
Well, I was really, really compelled by aerial dance, like many people are. You know, I saw a Cirque du Soleil show many, many years ago, Quidam, and something really, really drew me about that. And then I started, you know, I was training on the side of my dance training, but Montreal is one of the best places in the world to do that. And I just really wasn't very good at it. And I just kept plugging away at it for so long. And I really, my body is not really built... I'm not a gymnast body. And it took me forever to get my straight leg inversions. And I had so many moments of just thinking I should give up on this because clearly, I'm not gifted at it. But I think one of my big big gifts is tenacity and perseverance. Actually, that is my, my greatest gift or that's got me very, very far in my career. I think, yeah, for me physically, as a performer, like as a choreographer, I find the aerial dance element interesting, I think circus kind of brings in apotheosis, this idea of surpassing the limitations that we see or that we think exist for us as humans. And there's something that I just find really mesmerizing, powerful about that. But I think what's compelled me to work in circus and in the aerial world is as a performer as a physical mover I just love that defiance, like defying gravity, kind of with my own sheer strength and that has kept me in it. And yeah, it took, you know, the right coach at the right moment, who gave me the right skills. And it took a friend at the right moment saying, No, you should really audition me saying oh, no, but actually, the first step was Cavalia. Cavalia is a company that one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil started, very similar kind of contemporary circus format. And I auditioned for them a few times and got rejected and then got accepted and then toured with them for four years. And in that time, I knew that I really, really wanted to work for Cirque. That was like my secret dream goal that I hadn't told anybody for many, many years, but secretly had wanted to do for a very long time and finally admitted it to myself. And then I kind of set myself on a warpath or like that's not a great metaphor, but like a very clear trajectory. And I, yeah, I kind of, I think, I got in because I just banged on their door. I mean, being in Montreal was really helpful. And also, I mean, I auditioned and then I got accepted. After that you're put on their roster, sort of. And then I just, I learned as much aerial choreography from their shows that I could based on YouTube videos and that kind of thing, and then would send them those videos and then heard through the grapevine that they were working on a new show, inspired by the movie Avatar, and I contacted casting and said, will you consider me for this specific show? And they did. Yeah. And then there was more of an audition process. But yeah. 

Am Johal  10:18  
Yeah, you know, just from obviously, the kind of international profile of both of those shows and the kind of, yeah, death defying gravity built into the shows as well. As a performer. You know, just after one of those shows, like, what did you do to unwind after that, like, let alone, you know, if someone does a theatre performance, they need to have a couple of drinks at the end of the night. Like, there must be some, like, how do you deal with the intensity of the schedule and the type of physically exhausting, performance aspect of these large-scale shows?

Gabrielle Martin  10:56  
That's a great question. That's really insightful. It's very, very, very demanding. I think kind of what prepped me for it was my sports training a little bit. Like my ice hockey, like that kind of really this kind of tough mentality with your body and take a beating and keep going? 

Am Johal  11:11 

Gabrielle Martin  11:12 
Also, well, when I first started Cavalia, two weeks after starting, they had me doing what is more a stunt really. So you know, I had no acrobatic background other than aerial dance, and more so the dance side of aerial rather than the acrobatic side of aerial at that point. And my first kind of role I was doing bungee trapeze so that I would stand on that platform, 40 feet in the air. And then at a given moment, spotlights would come on me and blind me and I had a harness that was attached to bungees. And I would just dive off this platform headfirst into the audience. And it was a freefall for probably about 15 feet, and then bungees would catch me. So it was bungees on a pulley system, all very complicated. And then I would do like, you know, a series of rotations, and then they'd lower a trapeze bar, and I'd catch it. And it was so terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying. And I had a lot of anxiety. I had the most anxiety I'd ever had in my life at that point. I was about 26 at that time. And there was quite a few other stunt-like things that I would perform in that show that I went on to perform. And I had a couple of near death experiences in that show, too, just adds to the anxiety a bit. So to be perfectly honest, I really struggled with my anxiety for a long time in that show. I don't know how I kept going. I did about 600 shows with Cavalia. There was a lot of wonderful aspects to the tour and to constantly being challenged and performing in different numbers, different types of aerial and dance numbers. And you know, like, alcohol, I'm gonna be honest. Yeah, really, because there's the physical, there's like the adrenaline and those nerves. And then there's all the emotional side of things and the competitive side of things and the criticism and all of that stuff. And yeah, drinking was a really big part of that tour, as well as with Cirque du Soleil. I mean, I was, people have this idea that we live this very pristine life. But then the reality is when you do seven to 10 shows a week. Like it's not about you know, your body is a temple and you I mean, it can still be, but it's not like you don't do anything else in the day and you completely like meditate all day on the one performance because it's just, it's life, like you just live on stage. So you're going to be there on no sleep, sometimes. You're going to be there hung over sometimes. I mean, it's maybe not appropriate to say it, but it's like you live on stage.

Am Johal  13:41  
Yeah, yeah.

Gabrielle Martin  13:42 
That is a coping mechanism, though. I know. I did turn my life around. [laughs] No, I didn't have major problems, but you know, wasn't healthy at the moment. And I did make some changes.

Am Johal  13:54  
In terms of touring as an artist, though, you know, incredible set of opportunities with those shows that we're traveling across the country, nationally, internationally. and wondering if you can sort of speak to the kind of, what you really enjoyed about it. And what was maybe not so great about being on the road with a high profile shows like that.

Gabrielle Martin  14:16 
Yeah, I mean, I love performing. I think, you know. I think I actually don't know if I still love performing. I did love performing. No, I think there's something that comes alive, being onstage. I loved, for as much as I might admit the anxiety, I think I loved being in a really demanding environment. I think there's something about that that's just like you finish two shows on a Sunday after a full day, and you didn't think you could make it through and you've made it through. And it kind of proves something about your own capacity to yourself. I really had a sense of, I'd never before in my life had a sense of a community of people, that a community of friends that I was very tight with. Well, I've always had, you know, close friends, but you go everywhere as a group. You travel as a group. You live in the same hotel. So there's just a comfort. It's kind of cliche, but on some level, it's like a big family, in the sense that you're very comfortable with a large group of people, which is quite nice socially. And it's not something I'd necessarily experienced before. And you have all these shared experiences, some of which are kind of intense. And so that having that shared experience together, it's bonding. Cavalia was really nice, because it was a big top, and there was horses, and there's something that would just be nice, you know, before your act, you're walking outside and beside a grassy field, or there's a starry night, and then you go in and you do your number. There's something a bit magical about the big top that I really enjoyed. Yeah, and I took on a lot of different roles. I would change the numbers I was in. By the end, I was doing a character roll as well. So that kept it interesting. And it's kind of addictive, kind of addictive. Because, you know, with the big top it was every two months, we would move and then with Toruk, which was an arena show, we would move every week. So it's just kind of like you're on this... There's this rhythm that's a bit addictive. And it's kind of keeps you going and it's engaging.

Am Johal  16:23  
Were you mostly in North America, or did you travel with the show elsewhere as well?

Gabrielle Martin  16:29  
Yeah, North America. Yeah, Canada, the States, Mexico, Asia. Quite a few different countries, China, Singapore, Korea, South Korea, Thailand, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and a lot of countries in Europe, United Arab Emirates, and even Saudi Arabia in 2018. For Christmas, yeah.

Am Johal  16:52  
You were also in Las Vegas for quite a while. And of course, the pandemic has affected performing arts internationally. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about your time in Las Vegas. And then secondly, how the pandemic has affected you as an artist, but also sort of the community of people you're working with, you know, massive effects in terms of tourism effects on the performing arts, broadly.

Gabrielle Martin  17:23 
Yeah, when Toruk closed in 2019, my partner and I moved to Las Vegas. He was also working in the show, and he'd had a lot of years performing in Vegas prior to that. It was new for me. And actually, we kind of landed only about five months before the pandemic hit. So my experience of Vegas is a little bit, maybe not what it could be, even though I've visited it many times. But I mean, it's a very unique city in that the majority of people work in the entertainment industry. So for me, the last city I really lived in was Montreal. So it's just so different in terms of what kind of art is being created. And I knew what an impact art councils have on the kind of art that's being produced in a given community. But it was really, really clear there, you know. The work there is not being subsidized by public sector funding for the arts. So, you know, it really changes what's being produced. And I think when I arrived there, I would have already dedicated, probably a solid 14 years of my life, 15 years of my life to circus, and I was kind of getting a bit tired of focusing so much on technique, you know, because it just like, at a certain point, you kind of seen it all. And it's like, what do you do with that? What do you say with it? And I think the thing about circus is, it's just so demanding, in terms of the day to day, the amount of time you have to put in every day to maintain and to see those like incremental gains, once you're at a certain level that it doesn't leave a lot of time for other exploration, or certainly not when you're not in a culture that was really pushing experimentation. And it's been, I'm really grateful that this pause has come when I've been so privileged to have performed so much already. I mean, I toured for eight years, and that show had been closed for almost just a bit less than a year when the pandemic hit. So it's not like I just got this contract and then the pandemic hit, which I think would have been a lot more dramatic. But definitely in terms of what's next, I think, you know, with everybody, it's but especially I suppose in the performing arts, it's hard to plan. And it's a bit difficult to vision. Yeah.

Am Johal  19:36  
Yeah, totally. And you've been working with the Vancouver International Dance Festival recently. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that you do. There and, and I know that you've also done lots of work as an artistic producer as well. And so beyond being a dancer, you've had to sort of wear a lot of hats to work in different parts of the arts and I'm wondering how you kind of view that relationship now too.

Gabrielle Martin  20:06  
Yeah, view the relationship between... 

Am Johal  20:09
Like to being a choreographer or a producer in relation to being a dancer.

Gabrielle Martin  20:16 
I think that I've really realized through producing my own choreography that I love all the elements that go into producing. And we'll see. I'm really attached to this idea of choreography and choreographing because I love dance work. And I'm, I feel compelled to a degree, but I really don't know if I'm any good at it. I think I'm actually good at producing. But you know, often it's not necessarily about being good at something. It can be about the process and the journey and what we learn about ourselves and all those things. So whether or not I'll keep choreographing, you know, we'll see. But I think that what I really love is like bringing people together towards realizing an artistic vision. And what I'm working on well, currently, I'm festival manager with the VIDF. And it's been an interesting time to come on board, because a lot has shifted, we've had to pivot as every performing arts organization. So you know, we're live streaming and producing, whereas before we were producing, or they were producing a festival, now it's producing the festival, as well as producing the digital adaptations of choreography with the different artists that are on board. So that's an interesting added element, for sure. And it's been really nice to just see how different artists are taking this in stride, and how they're using the camera to augment the work. It is its own medium, obviously. But you know, it can really do a lot for in some ways, it adds a lot more power into the choreographers hands, in terms of directing the eye, and how that can bring across the story that much more, or the emotions or the experience,

Am Johal  21:51 
Which choreographers and dancers are you really inspired by right now?

Gabrielle Martin  22:57  
Well, Akram Khan I feel a bit like everybody loves Akram Khan? I don't know. I'm a really big fan of Akram Khan. I feel like a pilgrim. I've gone to London a couple times, just specifically to see new work of his and actually, his was the first contemporary dance work that I saw at the Cultch. They had a youth program where I had a $2 ticket. And it's, I think, the first contemporary dance work I saw that really, really moved me. So that's a favourite. Damien Jalet, he's in France, and I'm really interested by the type of bodies morphing together and harnessing momentum that he's working with. I really enjoy the work of Crystal Pite. I really enjoyed the VIDF, just this last weekend, live streamed a solo by Josh Martin of Company 605, which was really masterfully done, the choreography of cameras and body and there's actually a lot of groups, but I'm a bit on the spot right now.

Am Johal  22:51  
Yeah. One of the questions I was going to ask you was, you know, when you've gone through the cycle of studying dance, and had a career of your own, done choreography, and producing festivals. For undergraduate students right now who are looking at Contemporary Arts performance, theater, dance, including at SFU where I'm based, this is a very odd time to be finishing school, about to start a career in a post-pandemic context, where it's probably going to take several years for arts and performing arts to recover in a way. And what kind of advice would you give to people who are students, you know, about to graduate or soon to graduate?

Gabrielle Martin  22:35  
Yeah, I mean, I guess it depends, whether you're pursuing, for example, producing and creating your own work or as a performer working in other people's work. These are hard and unique times. So I don't, you know, I haven't launched my career in this time. But I know that for myself in the past, it was really helpful as when I wanted to get work as a performer and other people's work, to really kind of look at where I could make myself more well rounded. And I think, maybe this is probably not original at all to hear, but I think I really looked at my weaknesses and really embraced working on them. And this is maybe really specific to the dance world. But for example, my flexibility, like I couldn't do a split before I was 27. And after I had had hamstring surgery, and it was after I had hamstring surgery, and after the age of 27, that I developed my over splits or things like that. That's very technical, but also to not be afraid to work on those technical aspects and things that maybe, I think whether an artist or not, we shy away from the things that we're not necessarily good at, and just lean into what we are good at. But I think that that's unfortunate. The thing for myself, I was really interested in working with a commercial company. And I don't know how relevant this is, you know, to people working in the contemporary world, but I felt really kind of ashamed to admit that I wanted to work with Cirque du Soleil. Because all my friends are, you know, it's like, oh, why would you want to tour with them? There was this sentiment of kind of, like, selling out or something and, or doing the same show day in day out or having to care about my flexibility or things like that. But I think, for me at that moment, that's actually what I really wanted to do. And I kind of had to just like, go for it and admit that and admitting my dreams to myself. I think that that's, you know, and you have to be careful with your dreams who you tell them to. And many people who knew, if not all, that maybe my parents who believed in me, but many people would never in a million years have thought that I would have started working with Cirque du Soleil, and teachers too and my professors in university. Like, trying to ask for some, I got a lot of critical feedback in technique class. And I remember going up to in my third year, because I was taking double the amount of technique classes, like, usually it was one technique, Class a day, and in my third year, I'd signed up for a second one a day 'cause I really wanted to get better. And I remember my teacher really had a lot of negative criticism for me. And I remember, you know, just going up and saying, I know there's all this negative, but I've been really working hard, you know, can you, is there anything you could tell me about one thing I had improved on? And she couldn't tell me anything. Like, none of my, none of my teachers thought I was any good. That's true. That's not just like a pity me story. It's actually true. So perseverance, I would say, is really important. And also like, I started with Cavalia, when I was 30, I believe, or 30. No, sorry, 27. I started with Cirque du Soleil when I was 31, I think or 30. And things always take a little bit longer than we think they'll take. But yeah, slow and steady wins the race.

Am Johal  26:55  
Wondering if there's any choreography work or performance that you're currently working on now?

Gabrielle Martin  27:03  
Yes, so my partner, Jeremiah Hughes, and I, we have just filmed a full length contemporary aerial dance work called Limb(e)s, which is also a play on limbes, the French for Limbo, and it's kind of about what it means to hold on to let go of one another in this darkest hour or, and also kind of it's a two-part work. It's also kind of that and then the limbo beyond loss after a moment of loss of another. And yeah, it's a work that we first created while on tour, actually. And then and then we had arranged to premiere it like the week after our tour with Cirque du Soleil ended, which was a really bad idea. But in the end, there's been many fruit that have been born from that. But I Yeah, actually, we had it. We talked to an agent or manager who saw our work, the premiere and his advice over coffee to us was that we probably shouldn't be showing work that fresh, you know. He was like, that's a bad idea. But we had already been scheduled to take it to Edinburgh for a month-long run four weeks later. So we kind of went through this like, Oh my god, how can we change the whole show in four weeks? We can't and now we have to do 25 performances back-to-back to peers and promoters from across the world. And we also got advice. They're like, yeah, don't do Edinburgh unless your show’s like really ready. But we did it. And it was great because it was actually the last Edinburgh of its kind until who knows when. And so and then we went through like a year of rethinking it and thinking about the dramaturgy and studying dramaturgy. And then now we've totally remounted it and restructured it and developed the choreography and are feeling really great about it. And the film will come out in June. So we're excited about that.

Am Johal  28:44  
Oh, that's fantastic. Gabrielle, thank you so much for sharing your story and the work that you're doing right now and joining us on Below the Radar. 

Gabrielle Martin  28:55  
Yeah, thanks so much. It was a pleasure.


Paige Smith  28:58
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with Gabrielle Martin. Head to the show notes to learn more about her work and how to see Limb(e)s at Dancing On The Edge in July, 2021. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 08, 2021

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