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Mile Zero Dance celebrates 30 years of contemporary movement with Dances / Devices

Mile Zero Dance: where art meets audience in unpredictable ways // Ernest @ studio-e.ca
Mile Zero Dance: where art meets audience in unpredictable ways // Ernest @ studio-e.ca

Inside Mile Zero Dance’s new headquarters—a former yoga studio on the corner of Little Italy, sharing a wall with a Venetian barber shop—an unconventional spread of objects has accumulated. Brass-coloured sections of tubing, set vertically, stand together in a pleasant clump; one has a flower poking out the top. Around the room’s edges sit lamps covered in white sheets, while in a corner an old film projector periodically hums to life.

Among this oddball assortment moves its human elements. Dancers Amber Borotsik and Richard Lee weave their bodies among the ruckus, sometimes together, sometimes alone, while scenographer Patrick Arès-Pilon wanders along, adjusting the objects or activating new ones, as Mile Zero Dance’s artistic director, Gerry Morita, surveys the room.

It’s here, in what is now dubbed the Spazio Performativo, that Mile Zero Dance is grounding itself. The company had to scramble after a forced relocation: its previous home was in the upstairs of the Artery building, now shuttered by the city to make room for an eventual LRT line. And while it’s a new room for the company to rehearse and run its administration out of, Morita notes the space holds a certain connection to the company’s past, too.

“This floor is actually the same floor we used to dance on at 101 Street, when we were across from Victoria school,” she notes. “Because it was put in by the same yoga people.”

That mix of old and new seems fitting for a company looking to vault past a serious milestone: Mile Zero Dance is celebrating its 30th year of existence in Edmonton.

“Yeah, you know—birthday parties,” Morita says with a certain nonchalance. “Thirty years is getting to be a significant amount of time, and we wanted to just acknowledge that. So we’re going to have a little fête.”

This particular fête includes both a première—Dances / Devices, a piece featuring Morita, Borotsik and Lee that evolved out of a duet Morita and Lee did a few years back at Expanse Festival—and a red carpet gala on the show’s Thursday opening, highlighting the history of the company. It’ll all be held at L’Uni Theatre (where MZD has frequented the past few years); not at Spazio, though Morita notes the new space is big enough to bring an audience into; in MZD’s brief time at Spazio, it has already launched a monthly performance show, the Dirt Buffet Cabaret, as a multidisciplinary anything-goes showcase.

“Just to have this space dedicated to dance is important,” she says. “Because we’re always going to do other art forms too, and it’s large enough that we can do events here. So we don’t have to piggyback on really expensive theatre companies with their leftover times.”

Morita is the fifth artistic director of Mile Zero Dance. Founded back in 1985 by Andrea Rabinovitch and Debra Shantz, the company emerged with an established connection to Grant MacEwan, where both of them taught.

“Brian Webb was an early dancer,” Morita grins.

After Rabinovitch and Shantz, the company was co-helmed by Bobbie Todd and Kathy Metzger, until the latter departed and Todd ran Mile Zero alone. Morita took over in the 2004-2005 season: having grown up just north of Lloydminster, she’d spent a few years as a wandering dancer, honing her craft across the globe—first in Vancouver, then over to Montréal for four years, then to Tokyo to study under Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara—before coming back to Edmonton in 2002, looking to put down some roots and raise her kids close to home.

“I started just as a dancer, doing school shows,” she recalls, of her first work with Mile Zero. “And then I was an artist in residence.”

It wasn’t exactly an idealized time for contemporary dance in Edmonton; Grant MacEwan’s dance program was about to shut down, which happened shortly after Morita took a job teaching there.

“I think the first staff meeting I went to, as an improv teacher, I got told that the program was going to fold,” she says with a laugh.

When Morita took the artistic director job at Mile Zero, the company didn’t have a space—”It was like a one person in a closet, when I started,” she notes—which became a focus. Mile Zero also started generating work: at outdoor festivals and, once the company found a room across from Victoria school, at its own space. All the while, Morita started to interweaving other disciplines in among the company’s contemporary dance work: the popular Salon series, in particular, let oddball art forms brush up against one another.

That interest in cross-disciplinary mixing—between artists in varied mediums, as well as experiments in how performer and audience mix—still guides Morita’s interests. Last year’s Sho-tel brought dance into a roadside motel on 111th Avenue. Motel residents would poke their heads into the open doors and witness dancers and audience, squeezed together, filling unremarkable rooms with remarkable unusual sights, movement-based or otherwise, like someone making toast and serving it to the audience.

In that same adventurous spirit, the 30th-anniversary gala will feature music and poetry, in addition to the dance. A sense of true unpredictability—the result of making curious, potentially volatile mixes of art forms and audiences—seems to be what Morita’s after.

“I get bored really quickly; if there’s not diversity, I get really bored,” Morita says. “And if there’s not ideas going into things, I get bored. I think our jobs as artists is to circulate, and exchange ideas, and to not get trapped in disciplinary boundaries, which are really colonial and old fashioned: what’s the difference between folk art and pop art and high art? The more you combine things, and collaborate with people on an individual level with their skill set, the more fun it is, to me. And dance has always been a highly collaborative form.”

For Dances / Devices, that collaboration includes the audience: the spread of objects that comprise the show’s loose set hasn’t been fully settled on—certain objects that proved popular in rehearsal have already been removed, in order to keep them from settling into patterns—nor will it be. And there won’t be a set vantage point for audiences to watch from: they’ll be in among the action, as the performers navigate the space with and around them.

“It’s like a very contemporary negotiation of boundaries: how do we, in the modern age, renegotiate boundaries?” Morita says. “And that’s not just in art. It’s in politics and education. The hierarchies are dissolving. So there still needs to be structure, but everyone’s making it up as they go along.

“Even though we’re spending more time in this, we’re trying to confuse ourselves, and we’re allowing the audience to affect us and confuse us as well,” she continues. “So it’s not just the audience that’s going, ‘What are we supposed to do?’ That’s what we’re thinking, too.”

If that sounds weird, well, that’s the idea—more than anything, as she looks past the company’s 30-year mark, Morita seems most jazzed on continuing to get weird in Edmonton—Spazio or elsewhere—and in doing so, cast off some of the shackles of Alberta’s stereotypes.

“We get this reputation of being a backwater tar-pit where nothing artistic happens. And that’s why I’m here,” she laughs. “That’s where I belong … I would rather live in a place like Berlin, but if I can make a little tiny bit of Berlin in Edmonton, I think that’s even more fun, in a way. It’s making something where there wasn’t something before, instead of just joining a party which is already really awesome.”

Thu, Apr 23 (6:30 pm)
Mile Zero Dance 30th Anniversary Affair and Dances / Devices
L’Uni Theatre, $85 (includes performance)

Fri, Apr 24 & Sat, Apr 25 (8 pm)
Dances / Devices
L’Uni Theatre, $25 – $35

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