Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 62: Community-Engaged Dance — with Karen Jamieson

Speakers: Fiorella Pinillos, Am Johal, Karen Jamieson


Fiorella Pinillos  0:05  
Hola oyentes. Mi nombre es Fiorella Pinillos, y esa es Below the Radar Below the Radar a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and he is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam. Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar our host am Johal sits down with Karen Jamieson, Vancouver based dancer and choreographer. Karen moved back to Vancouver in 1974, co-founding the experimental movement collective Terminal City Dance. In 1980 she founded her own company, Karen Jamieson Dance and has created almost 100 dance works.


Am Johal  0:49  
Delighted that Karen Jamieson can join us on Below the Radar today. Welcome, Karen.

Karen Jamieson  0:54  
Thank you Am. Yes, I'm honored that you would like to hear me speak. 

Am Johal  0:59
I first met you in the late 90s, you've had a dance practice for a long time. And I wanted to begin with maybe you could introduce yourself a little bit in terms of how you started your dance career? What motivated you to become a dancer and a choreographer? 

Karen Jamieson  1:17
Uh huh. Well, first of all, I started very late. I had finished university, I had a degree from UBC in anthropology and philosophy, and had intended to go on to graduate school, I was going to go into graduate philosophy, or anthropology. Two of them fascinated me and seemed connected. And then somewhere towards the end of my fourth year, something in me became kind of disillusioned with the world of academia. And I had the sense that there were times I'd be sitting in seminars, that I wasn't even understanding what words meant that something was not connecting. So I didn't go on to graduate school. Instead, I sort of floated around for a bit, tried being a hippie, but that was just too boring. And then I used to, I used to belong to the varsity outdoor club that would hike up Whistler before there was any road or anything. And we would put our skis in our back end, hike up the cliff, basically to the lake. So that's a life I loved. So, I kept thinking, I wish there was some way that I could combine my love of learning, and this desire for physical motion to be moving. And I just thought, well, too bad, those two are just separate, aren't they? Yeah. And then after awhilel, out of sheer boredom, I went applied to SFU's postgraduate teaching program to become a teacher, a school teacher. But I found I couldn't stand schools. So that kind of didn't work. I remember being in the halls of the school and the smell and thinking, No, I don't want to be here. So I had it when I was taking this postgraduate teaching degree at SFU. You were obliged to take an extra curricular course.

Karen Jamieson  3:22  
And I decided I would take dance. So that was really my beginning. So I took my extra curricular course and it was amazing. I thought, this is what I'm supposed to do with my life. I'm not supposed to teach school, I'm supposed to do this. What a tragedy that it's too late. But then Iris Garland was running. There wasn't even a dance program at that time at SFU. I think she was part of the kinesiology department just stuffed in a corner somewhere. She really encouraged me very much. She was amazing. So I think possibly some part of me has always sought out mentors. And she supported me. And she supported me to go to New York, because the way Vancouver was set up then, there was nothing I could do there. And so I did, I went to New York. 

Am Johal  4:17
And roughly when was that? What time? 

Karen Jamieson  4:20
Let me see, hmmm, 60... in the late 60s. Yeah.

Am Johal  4:28  

Karen Jamieson  4:29  
So we did a group of us actually from SFU, in that first year danced with Iris who took a sabbatical. And we did a thing called Intermedia Nights. There was a group of artists, multimedia artists, in an organization called Intermedia. This is very much the 60s we're talking here. And yeah, so Savannah was part of that group, Savannah Walling.

Am Johal  4:56  
Yeah from Vancouver Moving Theater. 

Karen Jamieson  4:58  
Yeah, but it wasn't Vancouver Moving Theater then, it was just some Savannah Walling. So yeah, we started there and then went to New York and just struggled to stay alive and took classes and got a lot of support. Like I ended up getting a scholarship to Cunningham school and ballet, he waved my fees. So I managed to struggle along for quite a while and then was asked to join the Nickoli company. So it was pretty wild. I spent four years in New York, even though I thought first, I just want to go for one year, learn how to dance and come back, but it took me four. Then I came back to Vancouver. And so that was where I started dancing and touring, while studying in New York, and then touring with the Nickoli company.

Am Johal  5:51  
And what was the dance community in Vancouver that you came to at that time? After coming back from New York.

Karen Jamieson  5:59  
Let's see, I came back from New York, and Anna woman was working at that time. And Paula Ross, and they were it. And Ballet BC wasn't Ballet BC, it was Pacific Ballet Theatre, run by a woman whose name I forget. So it was just very much the beginning. And neither Anna nor Paula, that just didn't interest me. I didn't want to join their companies. I just wanted to start creating a new direction that came out of my years in New York. Cause when I was in New York, I would study, I would take three classes a day, I would go out at night and watch performances, I was just immersed. And New York, as you can imagine, was certainly at that time, the Center of Contemporary Dance. It was just booming. So what I learned was just everything that I could in four years. I came back. It seemed to me the work that I was seeing here just, it wasn't answering what I wanted to do or thought I wanted to do. 

Am Johal  6:07  
And when you first started your company in the early 80s, what were you kind of thinking about doing at the beginning when you first formed your company?

Karen Jamieson  7:14  
Getting out of collective situations. Every aspect of my life was a cooperative, or a collective. I was part of a collective dance group called Terminal City Dance that included Savannah Walling and Terry Hunter. So that was collective. I was in a collective housing situation. I own property. Collectively. I was in a cooperative childcare. I just couldn't stand it. I wanted my own voice. I wanted to go. I had ideas, but I can't even tell you what they were. 

Am Johal  7:54  
This is quite a counter narrative to the utopian 60s and 70s that have stories that I get told, but...

Karen Jamieson  8:01  
Yeah, yeah. Well, I was definitely going against the flow. But I think going against the flow is kind of what I've always done. Even I did try being a hippie. I did, it was just so boring, that I needed something to do and, and I wanted to dance, I just wanted to dance. Once I encountered it, it was like I felt really that was what I was meant to do with my life. Even though I was in my 20s.

Am Johal  8:28  
What kinds of projects were you working on in the 80s? After you started your company?

Karen Jamieson  8:34  
Yeah, so starting the company was itself, was a kind of madness. Everybody advised against it. They said no, don't try to start a company. It'll never work, you'll never get funding. So it seemed like this kind of monumental task that I was going to try to do. But I needed to do it, that I couldn't see any other way to go forward. I taught at Simon Fraser for a while when I came back from New York. And I knew I didn’t want to do that. It was like narrowing down of what I wanted to do was somehow my own work which I didn't even know what it was, my own work. So the sense of the monumental task. And I think I always was interested in the idea of dance being the embodiment of ideas, that it had the potential to create a layered reality for an audience where you could experience it on many levels. So starting a company, right away I was interested in the idea of dancers as workers. Sort of the working class of the arts, that you worked with your body. It was like physical labor. And it was also down at the bottom in terms of in a hierarchy of the arts. It wasn't even part of the Canada Council, dance, there was no dance section until long after I’d started dancing. So it was down at the bottom in terms of the hierarchy of the arts, and it had so much to do with mind body, instead of feeling integrated, it was like those art forms, and you see it all the time in what I call the intellectualizing of art. And because dance is the body, well, therefore it's lower. Right? So the language is a physical language. So it's lower than a verbal language, which is higher. So I thought this was a big  delusion, a big mistake. And I would do things like quote, that Einstein didn't talk till he was eight, that he felt physically, the law, the theory of relativity, he experienced physically, and later came the language and mathematics to articulate it. So I was quite convinced that some of our more profound ideas people have developed through an integrated mind body, and that this separation of mind and body was disease causing, that it was making us ill, it was making us sick.

Karen Jamieson  11:14  
And I could see lots of evidence of that and the world around me. So that first beginning of this company was, I wanted to create a piece that embodied this idea of pitting yourself against the direction of the flow. So out of this came that piece, Sisyphus, which was all about pitting yourself against huge forces. And that sense that Sisyphus would push the boulder up the hill, and then it would come rolling down, have to do it again. But it's not a tragedy, because in the dancer's world, if it doesn't roll down, there's no motion, and that you live to work, you live to dance, you... So that sense of kind of glorification of the working aspect of dance, the physical labor of it.

Am Johal  12:01
How did you reconcile the relationship between being a choreographer and being a dancer in terms of how you situated your work and the different types of work that you were doing?

Karen Jamieson  12:14  
I always see myself as a dancer. And, to me, a choreographer is creating dances. Though, do you know that the actual meaning of the word choreographer is a circle maker? So I've always felt the choreographer kind of draws a circle around the stuff, the content, and then from there shape and give form and meaning. So there was no, there was no conflict, there's no separation. I'm a dancer/choreographer. I think through my body, and my work is to integrate the mind and the body and to find form, to embody the ideas that are of concern to me. 

Am Johal  12:56
Now, Karen, we first met over 20 years ago through a mutual friend and mentor in many ways, Michael Ames who taught in anthropology at UBC for many years, was the director of the museum but wondering if you can share with us how you first encountered Michael?

Karen Jamieson  13:15  
Yeah, he was director of the Museum of Anthropology. And I had created a word called Rainforest. And Rainforest, I thought, in my naive mind, took inspiration from, well, mostly the work at the Museum of Anthropology. So I would bicycle out there to the Museum of Anthropology and absorb the masks. And so we made masks with our faces, like, it's quite grave, and bear and all of these. And, of course, my studies in anthropology fed in this well, so I created this piece. And Rainforest itself, was really initially inspired by wanting to find the spirit of the land. From there, and this has been a theme that still goes on today. From there, to me to connect to the spirit of the land meant connecting culturally to the land. Therefore, it meant connecting culturally with Indigenous people who had already done this for 1000s of years. So I created this piece. And I loved it. I thought it was fabulous. The audiences thought it was fabulous. It was a big hit. And we were invited, not by Michael, I'm not sure who invited us to recreate it at the Museum of Anthropology, where the inspiration for it seemed all very logical. Then I got a letter, a handwritten letter from Michael Ames, saying, "You are uninvited" and it was a shock to me. So I wrote a really cranky letter back because we wrote letters in those days. This is pre emails, handwritten letters back and forth by snail mail. Back to Michael saying that

Karen Jamieson  14:58
Artists have always been inspired by other cultures and, you know, look at yada yada yada, I won't say who I compared myself to. It's so uh yeah.


Karen Jamieson  15:10  
Embarrassing at this point. 

Am Johal  15:12  
And then what happened?

Karen Jamieson  15:14
And he came back, our letters went back and forth and back and forth. And then he suggested that I meet an amazing elder named Doreen Jensen, who was the one who said, don't let that piece in here. So he arranged a meeting with Doreen. And that first meeting with Doreen was very, very tense and difficult, because at that point, Jack Shadbolt was doing a show at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where he was taking inspiration from the cannibal society. So she was really furious at that, because that's what I'd done in Rainforest. And, first of all, she asked me what I thought of the show. And I said, I loved it. And then I got the work over. So that relationship just kept on going from there for three years. While we developed the three of us a concept of a piece that would not be appropriation, that would be a genuine dialogue. So the first thing Doreen said is you have to talk to living practitioners of the culture. You can't take inspiration from artifacts in NERT. In the art gallery, you have to understand where everything fits into everything, the total fabric of the culture, which of course I got, because I studied anthropology for years. And I began to realize what I had done and why it was so egregious, even though I still love the piece, even today, and don't regret for one second doing it, because it never would have started this whole journey. 

Am Johal  16:55  
And what was developed in those conversations? 

Karen Jamieson  16:57
Oh Galgani, the piece was called Galgani. And it was called KNOCK KNOCK in quicksand, which means that kind of spirit embodied spirits, also a ceremony, also a name, an esteemed name that's passed on in the clan owned by the clan. So Doreen suggested that we create Galgani. And she also introduced me to other Indigenous artists and elders, one of them being Ken Harris, who was an amazing, again, amazing collaborator for years and years. We spent seven years working on Galgani, producing it, performing it, touring it. And it was very successful. But it also was successful on both sides of the equation. And we collaborated with the Harris family, Ken Harris was a gitksan, chief of the fireweed, clan, hog Bhagwat, his name. And so he had a whole, what's called a doc, which means ice, a body of songs and dances and stories, that from the Ice Age a dog. And those are what he worked with. And we were working with his sense of dialogue. So I think that's what began to develop from Galgani is, for me a kind of model of collaboration that is dialogical. And that's been, I would say, developed as a very strong through line of all the work I've done in collaboration, both with community and cross culturally. 

Am Johal  18:40  
Now, shortly, sort of after this period, you began to, you know, very interesting project where we've collaborated on with SFU, as well, much later, but the Carnegie dance troupe, and where did the idea or what motivated you to begin that process that led to the group forming? 

Karen Jamieson  19:00  
Yeah, between. I had done a lot of work. I've done years of work in the purely studio stage based arena of doing peace purely with professionals for stages. And that was of great interest to me. I've done that for years. But at a certain point, I just asked, What else is there? What other powers does dance have? And that was when I began crossing over, crossing into Rainforest, and then from that a long period of collaborating with Indigenous artists. In a research process up north for a piece called Stone Soup, which was a piece I think we did in 1997. I went with a composer, and we were developing just relationships with different people in the North to develop this piece called Stone Soup, which Doreen said I should do. So it was a ceremony for asking permission to enter the territory. So we were talking to people, we were commissioning masks. Jeff, the composer, was collecting ideas for the music. And it was the dead of winter. We were in a horrible car accident, a head on collision, in the snow, in the ice. It left me pretty messed up. He was um brain damaged. It really left me messed up, it left me quite traumatized for quite a while. I had difficulty continuing. Yet I did, I still had a company, the funding. Yeah, Michael suggested that I might want to dance, introduce dance as part of the humanities 101. I became interested in the idea of dance as healing. And again, it's it's kind of like a continuous process of expansion from the studio stage based work, starting to say what else is there and beginning to cross into this dialogue with Indigenous artists and thinkers who presented a kind of dance that was so different to our conception of dance in the West, that I could hardly hold the two in my mind. So then it started to, something that came up over and over again, from this place of being traumatized was what does dance have to say about this. So when Michael suggested, and it might have been part of his, he might have seen the connection. I said, Yeah. Okay. And thought I would try it. So that's where I met you.

Am Johal  21:56  

Karen Jamieson  21:56  
Introducing. Yeah, yeah.

Am Johal  22:00
So that was around 2005 that it started? Or is a guess much earlier in many ways.

Karen Jamieson  22:05  
I did it much earlier for a year. Yeah. And I just went there. Interestingly enough, I had no funding, or no support from any of the funding bodies. I just went there. I actually don't think I even really, because I think actually, Michael Clegg might have been the director at the time. 

Am Johal  22:26  

Karen Jamieson  22:27  
I never met him. I just set up this workshop and went and taught it. And it was every evening, I think, if you recall, because you were there, six to eight or something. Yeah. And I remember at the time, just going and dancing with everybody, that it wasn't so much a class, it wasn't so much a workshop, we were just dancing. And it was just dance itself, I think that I was really looking into investigating at that time, what are powers of dance to heal, to bring, as I'd always thought the body and the mind together.

Am Johal  23:03
And I think in some ways in seeing a number of performances that happened. And as well, the public side of it, it's not only in the sense of participants that are taking part, but also as a viewer seeing a piece that really blurs the line between professional practice and what might be a more community oriented practice it, it can be a healing thing for an audience as well, because in some sense, we're all traumatized.

Karen Jamieson  23:31  
Do you know what? I believe so I believe so. And so that experiment didn't last very long. It didn't last much longer than a year. And I think the reason it didn't is I wasn't getting any support from anywhere. And just to keep going to keep my company going, I had to work on projects that could get support. And I hadn't thought it through at that point, I remember, people were interested in performance, and I didn't feel ready. I didn't know where I would take them or where we would go, even. And so I drew back from that for a few years. And then I guess it started growing somewhere in the back of my mind. And then I was ready to come back. And that was the early 2000. Somewhere when I returned. And this time, I talked to Donna Spencer at the fire hall. And I had some thought about how I could take it farther. And I don't think we were connected to Simon Fraser at that point. It was later. So it just started again. This time, I think I phoned up Ethel WiDi who was actually was a little more polite about it. I just didn't go in there and start teaching but actually had it booked and met Rica and Ethel and I had a kind of formal workshop. That was I can't remember how many couple of times a week or something or whatever it was. and just started building a kind of framework for myself for how this work would fit into this community. I did a lot of work kind of pounding the pavement, like finding people who were part of the community and just talking to people about what this community is about, and what kind of dance and actually I didn’t so much ask them what kind of dance because people if they don't know about dance, they haven't any words for it. Just most I want to find out about this community. And then that would shape and inform how the workshops developed. And it became pretty clear that we needed to move towards creation. But at first, I was very reluctant to, to do a lot of leading, I was more just sensing. And as I said earlier to you, it's so much about listening, listening, listening, listening with your whole body just alert and vibrating to what's going on with this group. These people what, what kind of dance.

Am Johal  26:01  
Now I remember attending the Heart of The City Festival, where one of the performances was starting outside at the Carnegie Center and going over towards SFU, down Hastings Street down Carol and also the kind of using public space as a stage as a part of it was really powerful.

Karen Jamieson  26:20  
Yeah, we did a lot of that, we did it from the beginning. So at the beginning, because I was starting out with Donna Spencer in the fire hall. We started out at the fire hall, in the garden, you remember the garden in the back of the fire hall and it had a little stage? So the first part started there with musicians on the stage. And I was struck by what one of my informants had talked about, about he didn't go to the fire hall, he didn't feel he had enough cultural capital to go there. So I was just really interested to see that for a fair number of people. The fire hall was kind of not theirs, it was not actually part of this community. And I believed I wanted it to be. So I started the cast everybody in the piece, outside the gate, kind of rattling the bars, well, they didn't rattle right away. They they watched while the, a soloist, Deborah Charlie, he had recognized her probably she's because she's been dancing with a group from the get go. And I think the musicians were there, and Deborah was there. And the main part of the group was outside the fence, and then started rattling the gate, and we opened the doors, and they came in and let the audience and we rehearsed this, how they would, they had masks on the back of their head. So that it was very interesting to see as they came forward, you would see these kind of ghost beings. And we rehearsed this at length and researched that they would talk about the Downtown Eastside about its history, its community, but they'd find somebody in the audience to kind of speak really, really softly to like right into their ear. So that as we moved down the street, or as we came out of the fire hall, people were being drawn out by having one of the performers kind of invite you to come and participate in this place. So it was that spirit of place coming back again. And then also, I talked to different kind of iconic places along the way, like the Ovaltine Cafe, and the first United Church and the Listening Post and there was one other, but I arranged so that we could pause there and interact in some way with each of those spaces. We had a tea dance, taught by one of the Chinese participants at the Ovaltine Cafe, and they served us water. So the audience was served water from there. And then the Listening Post, they came out to talk to the performance about gratitude. And we did at the first United Church, I think we did the Dying Swan. So it was nutty. And we sang all along the way. And then we went to Carnegie. And at Carnegie, we did the completed piece that we had created. So that was the start of that journey, which we did a number of times between the fire hall and Carnegie. Then when the partnership with SFU began, it became clear that that would be our journey. It was interesting that there weren't as many places on the way that we could engage. But if you think about it, just think about that length, as opposed to the length between the fire hall and Carnegie is much more populated with places that are connected to the community. Whereas in the other direction, there was less I think Pigeon Park was about it. But still that journey. We picked up a lot of people, there was a lot of street interest. Then we did another piece where the whole thing took place at Pigeon Park. That was pretty interesting. Yeah.

Am Johal  30:06  
And now the past few years, you've been engaging in a lot of mentoring of young dancers in terms of carrying on the work and, and in terms of the troop itself, wondering if you can talk a little bit about that part of the process?

Karen Jamieson  30:19  
Yeah. It's been amazing the process of mentoring these younger artists, they're really interesting. And they're, they've got so much going for them. And it's been an important part, because I think right from the beginning, once I really did become aware, that dance is empowering, that it does heal it more than heals it. It empowers, it connects people to themselves, to the ground they're standing on, to their strength, that it's empowering and healing, and wanting it to continue knowing that I wouldn't be able to continue indefinitely in this role. And looking to begin to see if they were younger artists, who would become sufficiently engaged and excited they'd take it over. 

Am Johal  31:16  
Now, I realize you're in this sort of part of the work, but you don't strike me as the retiring type. Karen, what are you up to these days now?

Karen Jamieson  31:27  
I'll always be committed to dance. But I think things, I mean, all the way along, I've continually shifted without completely leaving behind what I am shifting out of. And then that's what I said it began in the, I would say, conventional arena of studio stage based work, love that moved to cross cultural work, began to work in with communities. And now I'm moving somewhere else, but I don't know where it is yet. And yet, it's always dance. Like right now. I'm focusing on a project that I call Body to Land. And it's looking at pieces that I've done over the years, that are concerned with our connection to land, or our lack of connection to land, because I would say that is the immigrant kind of tragedy that we're here, but we're not here. And so that's exciting to me. That's another power like expanding or exploring what are the powers of dance? What else can it do? And so in some ways, I've always seen myself as serving dance, because this art form I think, is I think it's the art form for our time.

Am Johal  32:40  
Karen, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Karen Jamieson  32:44  
Thank you, Am.

Fiorella Pinillos  32:49  
Thanks again to Karen Jamieson for joining us a Below the Radar. Stay in the loop with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter and Facebook. Be sure to subscribe wherever you find your podcast. As always, thank you to the team that puts this podcast together including myself Filipina Pinillos, Paige Smith, Kathy Feng, and Jackie O Bonga. David Steele is the composer of our theme music, and thank you for listening. Tune in next time for a brand new episode of Below the Radar.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
June 30, 2020

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