With the exception of the vehicles we use to get from place to place, the roadside motel is probably the most common transient space that we regularly find ourselves within. Those tiny, pre-wrapped soap bars, a television with Super Channel, the warm, sterile lighting; the generic-pleasant vibes of those spaces are as ubiquitous as they are empty, designed to give you a pleasant night’s rest but usually utterly devoid of their own personalities.
Then again, that’s not quite true: while scouting locations for Mile Zero Dance’s Sho-tel, Gerry Morita found most of them to have their own distinct essence—if not in structure, then in the people who populate them and areas they’re found in, some of those contexts being seedier than others.
‘There were places that were too sketchy, where I thought, hmmm … our clientele might get killed here,” Morita laughs. “There were a few like that. It was really interesting to see that whole side of the rental economy.”
Setting a dance show in that sort of familiar-yet-nondescript rented space is something Morita’s been mulling over for a few years now. Putting it into practice with Sho-tel, however, required a certain resolve on her part: the occasional instance of “just too sketchy” aside, most motels she scouted seemed less than thrilled at the prospect of artists taking up a temporary residency.
“There was a generalized fear, and lack of understanding of art,” Morita says. “People thought I was going to be hammering things in the walls. And then they thought I was going to be really noisy. And then I thought, ‘Well, why am I even telling them this? I should just have a big crazy party, and say, ‘Oops, I did art.’”
Still, one finally said yes: Aurora Motel, out on 111 Avenue, agreed to let Morita and her collaborators take over a couple of rooms. But only a couple: Morita found booking time was as much of a challenge as finding a place. Motel rooms, it turns out, are becoming less transient; more than ever, they’re places of extended stays.
“[Motels are] actually turning into permanent space in Edmonton,” she says. “Because Edmonton’s booming so hard, motels are full of people who are there permanently. So I was trying to find five to eight rooms, and I was only able to get two. And I was really lucky.
“It’s families, it’s people at NAIT taking a three-month course and working up north,” she says. “It’s oil companies that block book because they’re getting people from the Maritimes and need somewhere to put them. AISH people, welfare moms, people who can’t get apartments. It’s quite a culture. It’s really vibrant. There’s a lot of issues there.”
All of which to say: over its two-night run, Sho-tel will see 10 artists of various disciplines taking up residence in that familiar motel-room setting, filling both with movement, music and other artistic interpretations that can emerge within those confines. For two hours, it’ll basically be an open house: as audience, you can come and go as you please.
(As for the Aurora’s existing residents, Morita says they might try to have a bit of an open house—”a pre-open house,” as she puts it—before the audience arrives, to let the neighbours satisfy their own curiosities.)
One of the artists involved is dancer Jen Mesch, who, paired with saxophonist Allison Balcetis, will be performing excerpts of conversations she’s picked up while recovering from a work injury at the WCB wellness centre.
“When Gerry put out the call, I thought, this is perfect,” Mesch says. “Because I have all these new friends, or at least gym buddies, and I’ve gotten some kind of glimpse into their life. And this is what their life is.”
One particular strand of that involves two fellows discussing the finer points of lobster (Mesch will have some live crustaceans as part of her interpretation), as well as a deeper look at the sorts of people who end up living that hard-work, big-money, blue-collar lifestyle.
“We’re also looking at people who don’t have a lot of education, but have taught themselves several languages, because they’ve lived in several countries,” she says. “So there’s an effort to learn things like poetry, or [take part in] online learning. I’m really interested in that sense of being able to rise above whatever your past is that didn’t give you opportunities.”
While it’s never checked into a motel before, Mile Zero Dance is no stranger to non-traditional spaces: last year alone found the company performing in the outdoors (Dances in Unused Spaces), as well as immersing themselves in the history of the Ortona Arts Armoury.
The appeal of site-specific work, Morita notes, is partly connected to cost—”It’s cheaper,” she admits, “but if I combine my pain-in-the-ass factor, it goes way up”—but also an interest how the traditional audience-artist relationship alters when both sides can see each other clearly.
“The versatility—the ability to get right into places, and closer to people and not [the fourth wall],” she says. “And to actually include the people in the work—whether they know it or not, they’re half the work—just by being there, they’re implicated, whereas in a theatre, the audience is dark. They’re hidden. They have no effect on the performers unless they make noise. That just gets boring; it’s limited. ”
And negotiating that sort of relationship in this sort of space should prove a compelling exercise for both sides; after all, even on its own, the basic neutrality of a motel can start to feel like more of a canvas than a lack of amenity. Find yourself in one for long enough, and a certain amount of self-reflection is almost unavoidable.
“When you’re in that motel, there’s something so depressing about it,” Morita says. “That synthetic cover on the bed, an actual yellow pages—when’s the last time you’ve even seen one? There’s something that’s just like, this is the basic existence: this is all you need, now shut up. And so there’s something about affirming identity in that space.”
Fri, May 30 – Sat, Jun 1 (8 pm)
Presented by Mile Zero Dance
Aurora Motel (15145 – 111 Ave), $15 – $20