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Building a Dance, Movement by Movement: How Peggy Baker Choreographs

By Devon Murphy Posted on February 26, 2019

Peggy Baker

Peggy Baker is a legend in the dance community. The Edmonton-born dancer, choreographer, and movement creator is a recipient of the Order of Canada, a teacher, and “one of the most outstanding and influential contemporary dancers of her generation.” 

From the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, to Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Peggy has danced on many of the world’s great stages. Baryshnikov himself called her “a joy to watch.” Then she turned to choreography, founding Peggy Baker Dance Projects, where she and her company have created over 20 works. The latest, who we are in the dark, returns to Banff Centre in March for a performance during its tour. The work, a collaboration with Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufeld and Jeremy Gara, explores the theme of darkness.

We caught up with her last winter during the company’s production residency, when the work was first taking shape, to talk about translating text into movement, the importance of collaboration, and Peggy’s intriguing “movement scores.”


Explain to me how what starts in your imagination translates both to your body and the movement of others? 

I need to have a physical practice so that I’m connecting on a very deep and immediate level with and in my body every day, because if I’m doing that I think differently, and I react differently to all the influences around me. I’m making this work with and for other people to perform, so it’s a very different connection, creatively. If I was making something for myself it would be very different. I want to be creating really collaboratively through their own responses, so that’s their physicality and imagination and sensibility and instincts. I need to be able to connect very immediately, and with empathy and sensitivity, with other people so that we can make this together. 

How do achieve that connection? 

First of all, I need to set up a really good working environment for them and not be pushing them around and criticizing them. I need to give them space to take care of themselves and I need to respect how much I’m asking of them in terms of level of exertion and level of skill. It needs to be a good environment where they feel they can work really well, and where their contributions are respected.

Is there a lot of feedback going on in the studio? 

No, I’m not asking them for their opinions. I’m creating what I call “scores” for myself and I communicate the movement ideas that emerge out of those scores. I communicate literally one direction at a time to dancers and they fulfill what they believe I’m asking for and so we build literally movement by movement. It would be like note by note if we were making music. 

Is this environment you’re creating reflective of what you had when you were dancing full time? Or maybe something you desired? 

Well, I was lucky to work in really good environments and so I model the situation that I create on what I thought were the very strongest and most important elements of the good working environment. I think the dance world has gone through major, major shifts. One of the major shifts is that choreographers are no longer the people who make up the steps, teach them, and you do them the way that person would do them.

There’s some people who still choreograph like that. That’s absolutely not how I work, even though that’s how I spent my life as a dancer. If you were a dancer, you were the tool of the choreographer, I could probably say. And you were quite easily replaced by another dancer because what you were being asked to do had less to do with you and more to do with the choreographer. 

We build literally movement by movement. It would be like note by note if we were making music. 

Why do you think there was that shift from the tool of the choreographer to this more collaborative space we’re seeing now? 

Well, everything has changed in the dance world and it’s a reflection of the world at large. The immediacy of being able to post things on YouTube, for example, or just the level of participation and interaction that everybody craves and assumes they’re going to have in this day and age. It’s a very particular kind of collaboration and I think that every choreographer does it in a different way. Some choreographers come to their dancers with concepts or images and that’s not what I do.

I come to them with very explicit directions. For example, I’m going to say: “tip and curl, vibrate and expand, reach and pull in, palm to the side of the head, forearm across the eyes.” I’m going to give them extremely explicit directions and based on their response I might ask for a difference in amplitude, or if I said “vibrate” and they vibrate their arm, I might say “could you use your leg instead? Or your shoulders? Or your whole body?” We start with something, but it’s always a movement, it’s always about action. So they’re all working with their own physical responses. And I’m working with an idea, a compositional idea and then this set of movement directives that I’ve developed usually from basing it on a piece of text. 

Peggy Baker dancing at Banff Centre early in her career.

What text did you base this piece on? 

I want to be careful about using the word “inspiration” because honestly ... it’s generative. I’m not thinking about interpreting the images. The thing that I like about text and language is it has a compositional form, there’s syntax and there’s grammar, and there’s phrases within sentences, so it has almost musical structure. Then it has words that have images attached to them, words that have action attached to them, words that place things in space—“at,” ‘in,” “with,” “through.” It has the sound of a language: punctuation of the consonants or the shape of the vowels. It has the looks of the letters, the shapes of the letters themselves. There’s puns on the words. There’s just a lot of different ways you can use it.

But generally speaking, what I do is I start collecting a lot of quotes that relate to the subject matter that I’m taking on. So the subject matter for this work is darkness. As I’m getting ready to develop my movement scores, I collect many, many quotations from poetry, literature, autobiography, journal writing that have to do with darkness. And then I write those vertically down the side of my page, one word at a time. So, for example, if I’m using Sylvia Plath down the side of my page: 





















So then, with every single one of those words, I’m writing movement directives that I’m going to give people. So we start with a simple directive and then I start to shape that and the dancers have no idea why I’m asking them to do it differently. 

They don’t know the words?

No, they don’t. It’s not interpretive; It has to do with direction. This is how I avoid, for example, the pitfalls of my own habits about movement, what should come next. Because my score of directives tells me what’s going to happen next, even if ordinarily that’s when I would turn, or use my arm. I’m surprising myself. And I’m surprising them because I keep interrupting their flow.

Keeping everyone on their toes! I’ve been meeting a lot of artists lately who have a very research-based, text-heavy practices. I’m so interested in the pieces and the ways people gather little bits to create a story. 

Honestly, I deal with abstraction. There’s narrative threads that might emerge in a given episode, but they’ll dissolve again, so people are not playing characters. They don’t have to justify a motive for anything they’re doing. 

And what does that do for a dancer to not have to justify a motive, or be a character? I would imagine it creates a sense of freedom. 

For a lot of dancers, that’s very familiar. However, I do believe, because of the way that we’re working, I’m not insinuating that the particular movements mean certain things. The significance of the movement arises through the body of the dancer themself and through their own memory, imagination, knowledge, emotional life. So they end up giving performances that are very deeply human and fully meaningful or significant to them. But we don’t have to agree on that meaning and I’m not insisting that they think certain ways.

And mostly because, regardless of what I would think, every individual audience member is going to find a different kind of narrative thread or image or meaning, if you want to use that word. It’s a strange word to use with dance. It’s kind of like using it with music, and asking someone what the meaning of that bar of music is. Or the meaning of the composition is. Because the meaning, if we can even use that word, is only in terms of the art form. 

Can you talk me through what drew you through the topic of darkness this time around? 

I was invited to premiere a work in 2015 for a festival called Fall for Dance North. It needed to be a solo for me, and I have not been on stage for quite a while and I just thought, if I’m going back on stage, I’m not going to go back with people I’ve gone on stage with before. I need to choose a new collaborator. And I sought out Sarah Neufeld, the violinist for Arcade Fire, and we made a work together. And I had made this work, Fractured Black, because the feeling within the dance was that if either of us dropped the velocity of what we were doing the light on us would go out. We were both working really, really hard to hold our place. And so I had called it Fractured Black, so when she wrote the prologue, she wrote these beautiful lyrics and the opening line was “who we are in the dark.”

And the lyrics are “who we are in the dark, attached to the weight of it, afraid to let go of it. Who we are in the dark, attached to believing it, firmly becoming it, past the periphery, the cracks, the line, the light.” So we did two performances and I loved working with her and I loved her music and the morning of the second show I said to her, I’d love to do a full work with you where you’re composing for my full company and I’m choreographing. And because those lyrics had been the first thing to emerge out of our collaboration, and I love the poetry of that first line so much, I said, may we use this first line as our title and take as our theme, darkness? Because it’s such a rich and beautiful area of exploration.

This process, you mentioned, was kind of a body first creation which seemed different. How has the collaboration been with Sarah on this process?

I know it’s been challenging for her because ordinarily if you’re writing music, you’re writing the music you want to write, the way you want to write it. And there it is. For decades, you could say centuries in the dance world, choreography was based on the composition and dynamic and content of music. But it was based on a piece of art that already existed, a musical composition, and then dance used that as its form. So I prefer to use my movement scores and to start without any consideration to musical form at all. We came to Banff and I had about 35 or 40 minutes of choreography completed, so Sarah’s looking at all that and saying “where do I start?” And we did find a way in. 

And then are you bringing your movement scores pre-written or are you on the fly adding? I’m picturing you as a composer at a piano, adding a note here or there. 

We did very little new creation, choreographically. We did some, for sure, but it was all based on material. One other thing that I do is I create something very rich at the outset, very rich and complicated, and usually call that the Rosetta Stone. And then we draw ideas from that. So it establishes a huge amount of vocabulary and aesthetic world, so I can keep going back to that and re-working particular ideas. For example, the Rosetta Stone for this is a trio and out of that we’ve created a solo, and duet, and two different sections for seven dancers. And the material is related in all of those sections, but it’s not reiterated. 

But there’s a thesis in the trio.

Exactly that. 

It’s all very literary! It’s like you’re building an essay. 

I think if I wasn’t a dancer, I would be a writer. That’s the thing I feel closest to as another medium. 

You mentioned Sylvia Plath. Maybe some more of the text you’ve been working from? 

The Rosetta Stone was built on: “Time takes it all whether you want it to or not, time takes it all. Time bares it away, and in the end there is only darkness. Sometimes we find others in that darkness, and sometimes we lose them there again.”

I don't think that’s particularly great writing, it’s Stephen King, but what I do like is it’s very active. “It takes.” There’s repetition, so already it’s got a kind of cadence that we recognize from music or dance and then he says it a little bit differently. “Time bears it away.” This kind of compositional form is extremely rich, choreographically. “Sometimes we find each other in that darkness. And sometimes we lose them…” It’s visual, it’s spatial, it takes it, it bears it away. “In the end,” the termination of something, “we lose…”

It’s interesting to think about your choreography this way, all the possible ways that audiences can enter into dance, which seems to intimidate some people. 

I would say about dance that people are worried they won’t understand it, or that it’s a very special interest thing, or they just kind of have a feeling beforehand that they won’t like it. There’s nothing secret, but if you’re trying to figure it out or make it something that it’s not—a story, a system—there are all these ways of making dance, but that’s not what dance is. Knowing how a tree grows is a different thing than seeing the tree itself. You don’t need to understand biology to find a tree magnificent. 

How has the experience at Banff Centre contributed to the development of the project? 

This has been magnificent in so many ways. This is the first residency that we’ve ever done as a group. And so everybody here is focused on this one thing, we’re not just saying goodbye as soon as rehearsal ends. All kinds of conversations can happen, way more hours a day than we usually use. Here I’m not doing anything else really but working on this piece. We’ve done six hours of rehearsal a day for six days—that’s what we would usually get in almost two weeks. And we can leave everything in the studio, we’re all set up—it’s our world. And so the continuity is absolutely tremendous. I know when we go back we’re going to be so much more cohesive as a group. It’s really bonding to be here. 


Buy tickets to see Peggy Baker Dance Project's who we are in the dark here