Le Grand Continental at Luminato (Toronto) – The Preparation

photo by Shannon Ridler

1 audition while sick. 3 months of rehearsal in 3 different locations. 4 performances – including 1 in the rain.  All of these facts are true and none of them sum up the experience of performing in Le Grand Continental with 219 other dancers in Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s City Hall for the Luminato Arts Festival.

When the call to audition arrived in my inbox this winter, it stirred something in me. Dance is my first love and though I haven’t pursued it in years, I trusted my instincts, hit reply on the email and said, “Count me in.” And though I was sick on the day of auditions, I went and did the best I could.  (Read my audition story here.) I couldn’t quite believe it when I received an email that said, “You’re in!”

First rehearsals were in an empty warehouse down on Lakeshore Blvd. It wasn’t hard to get to but the way was dark, isolated and our first night had severe storm warnings. I know we talk about the ease that’s so often present when the Universe is saying “Yes” to us but sometimes I think she also says, “How badly do you want this?” Implicit in that question is another: “How uncomfortable are you willing to get?”

Stepping into amazing experiences often involves getting uncomfortable.

When we encounter challenges, maybe the Universe is also encouraging us to ask for help. In this instance, my sister-in-law worked on getting us better lighting, cast members walked together to public transit and Justin picked me up after several rehearsals.

Dreams are a team effort.

Over several months, rehearsals became my favourite place to be, which isn’t to say that they weren’t challenging.  They were physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Learning the moves, especially when brand new to choreographer Sylvain Emard’s style, was challenging. Remembering 30 minutes of choreography was intimidating. Even if I remembered, I wondered how my energy would be. By the summer, would I be able to sustain a 30-minute performance? There was rarely an opportunity for feedback in such a big group so I regularly wondered, “Am I doing all right?” Often my inner critic answered. All of this plus the emotional intensity of coming back to a love that had been dormant for too long.

One of the ways I deepened my learning, caught my memories and processed my feelings was by treating myself to post-rehearsal coffee dates.  I ended up with three new lovely coffee shops on my radar: Arvo in the Distillery District and Jimmy’s Coffee and Balzac’s (pictured) near Ryerson.  Whenever possible I took advantage of some quiet time with my journal, pouring out the choreography, my day’s experiences, my hopes and my fears.

A journal is there for you no matter what – able to hold the full spectrum of your life experience.

We had optional Saturday dance clinics where we could work out the finer details and get greater clarity on the choreography with the help of a team of professional dancers. Many people chose to forego these rehearsals but I didn’t miss one.  How often in your lifetime are you going to get the chance to spend the morning with a team of dancers who are focused on helping you learn, grow and perform?

Take advantage of the opportunities at hand.

We went through three phases of rehearsals, starting with a small group and combining with another in each new phase. It was fascinating to watch the people dynamics created by those changes. With each addition of new people, I found dancers became friendlier with the group they had been with before.  Eventually our group was so big we needed to rehearse in an arena!

Throughout the rehearsal process I was reminded of so many things I love about performance – the intense focus of the process, the sense of community, the creation of something out of nothing and the way “honouring the work” is built into every step of the process.

Week after week I was inspired by Sylvain Emard, the choreographer, Bonnie Kim, the rehearsal director and each of the professional dancers. I found myself quoting them again and again in the ‘words of the day’ section of my Studio Yearbook.

“Dance with your heart and you will be seen.” Sylvain

“Take care of one another out there.” Bonnie

“Don’t hesitate! Throw yourself in with confidence.” Jane-Alison

Every wisdom reinforced what I have known for a long time, what I base all of my professional work on, what we learn in the arts also applies to our lives.

After months of rehearsals, we were asked to chose our ‘spot’ in the line. I chose the second row, a bit to the right. It felt good and comfortable. A few weeks later,  our positions were officially assigned, taking into consideration our preferences, the needs of the show and remaining subject to change. I walked up to the board to see where I had been placed. I was shocked to see myself in the last row. Not shocked because this position is bad but because for almost half of the show, the back is the front! This is a visible spot, a spot where you can’t hide, a spot where you can’t rely on anyone else to know what comes next. In this position, you’ve got to know every bit of the choreography – in your bones.

My heart was a jumble. I was honoured. I was distraught. I had picked the second row so that I could feel a bit more relaxed and focus on the fun of the experience, not the pressure of the performance.

Now, there I was, on the edge, exposed.

With barely a moment to process or prepare, we dove into dancing a number we hadn’t touched for a while. My heart was racing. Would I remember what came next? Would my feet obey? Would my body find its way?

Sometimes yes.

Sometimes no.

What surprised me was that either way, I felt okay. I remembered something our rehearsal director had told us, that we all have a responsibility to learn our parts and that each of us will do so in our own way, at our own pace. Though I knew the choreography, this experience was new and intimidating. It was perfectly reasonable that it would take a while to orient myself, to settle in, to find my way.

I would not have chosen this position myself. In fact, I didn’t! I chose my comfort zone and felt good about it. If I wanted to, I could still request that I be moved to a ‘safer’ spot. I’m not going to. Not because I’m afraid to rock the boat or because I feel obliged to do as I’m told (there was a day when that might have been the reason) but because yesterday’s rehearsal showed me something:

I was more comfortable on the edge than I thought I would be.

Yes, this was a greater challenge than I anticipated but I felt like I just might be up to it. I had been working hard. I had been preparing. I could see the work that remained, the bridge that needed to be built between my comfort zone and my creative edge, the one that had to be built between that rehearsal and the first night of performance.

It was work I could do. It was work I would do.

It was work I did do.

Getting our position signaled that it was time to start shifting into performance mode. We had been doing all this rehearsing for a reason! The show was getting closer.  I started looking for my costume, shopping everywhere for the cool (in both temperature and hipness) pants and vibrant top that I knew would be just right for the show. In the meantime, the music for the show was always, always, always playing – on my phone, on my computer, on my mind. It was the score to my life! I went over the moves on the subway, at the grocery store and walking through my neighbourhood. My commitment to the show was all encompassing.

It was during this stage that I had the biggest shift, a growth spurt in my creative life.

One day during rehearsal both Sylvain and Bonnie walked around the outer perimeter (you’ll remember that my spot was on the outer perimeter) to distract us as we were dancing. Three times Sylvain walked in front of me. Three times I made mistakes. Ugh!!

I love performing but I am also an HSC – a highly sensitive creative. I’m one of those performers whose nerves are so bad on the day of the show that she always thinks, “Why am I doing this? I want to be anywhere but here!”

But during rehearsals Sylvain shared some wisdom that changed things for me. He talked to us about the audience. He told us that we could either receive and give back the mass of energy we would feel from them or we could get knocked over by it. Plus, as an invocation to learn the choreography, he had also told us that we would all make mistakes, that we are human – but that making a mistake is different than not knowing the choreography, than not having done the work.

I had done the work. I knew these moves. If I showed up on stage obsessed with “getting it right” instead of sharing the joy of the dance, I knew that I would shut down, get it wrong and be knocked over by the audience’s energy. Instead, I would choose to dance. I would trust the work that I had done. I would lean into my body’s learning. Yes, I would continue to honour the work. I would bring focus and care to my performance but I would also choose not to bring tension, obsession or ego. I would simply dance.