Sue Smith

Wedding Threads Interview

From the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival Newsletter.
Site-Specific Series

Wedding Threads

Kaeja d'Dance's Wedding Threads. Photo: Colleen Yates.

Kaeja d'Dance will perform Wedding Threads, a lush piece about mother-daughter relationships, on the grass of Exhibition Park for our Site-Specific Series. Guelph's own Sue Smith wrote the music for the piece, which she will perform live under the sun-green trees.

Karen Kaeja of Kaeja d'Dance is a fearless choreographer, unafraid of tackling topics (such as abattoirs and cruel matriarchs) that have earned her and her husband, Allen Kaeja, epithets that range from the mild — "punchy, athletic" (CBC Radio Here and Now), "edgy" (MONDOmagazine) to the straight-shooting — "raw" and "terribly human" (Eye Weekly),"brilliantly creepy" (Ottawa Citizen),"formidable... dark and weighty", "fierce and disturbing" (Globe and Mail). As Michael Crabb has said, Kaeja d'Dance's work is "not your standard contemporary dance." So, it comes as some surprise that Kaeja d'Dance is performing a piece at our festival that looks, on the surface at least, to be — dare I say it? — pretty. It reminds me that Karen Kaeja is as layered and as interesting as her work.

What occasioned Wedding Threads?

Wedding Threads was inspired by my deep love for my children and my own challenges that I face as a mom in what I wish and hope for my two daughters' futures, as well as coming to terms with accepting what their lives and their choices will bring to them. I want to be open so that I can support their desires. I grew up with parents who had a carved-out ideal of what would become of me in love and life. I think I offered a difficult task to my father in particular who probably never came to terms with me becoming a dancer and even more so — marrying a dancer. I unfortunately will never know how he felt on the inside about it, but he never alluded to acceptance through support, and so, I hope that my wishes for my children don't hinder, but rather foster, a fluid relationship of trust and support.

In conversation with other moms, I have for years taken mental notes regarding their relationships with their young girls. Often, we as mothers confuse our children with ourselves and don't make enough room for them to be individuals. We tend to project onto them that they are miniatures of ourselves! Sometimes, the letting-go process is very revealing and this can happen on a daily basis! It is not an easy thing to separate yourself from an individual who comes out of your very womb! I wanted all the women to be in white in the symbolic societal and cultural dress of expectation — the wedding dress. Wedding Threads is an exploration of our ties to, desires for and relationships with our daughters.

Given that mother-daughter relationships are often given sentimental treatment, did you consciously steer clear of certain images and movements in order to keep your piece moving and dignified?

I went with my intuition and the imagery that tantalized me. There was a lot less improvising with the cast than I might otherwise do in other works. I had ideas and I went with them and set them. Many of the children were new to partnering and there was some training involved in that arena. I think the most traditional imagery is the costuming itself.

What were some of the challenges of this piece? It looks to me like there were many for the dancers (heavy children, dancing in long dresses on uneven grass....). What were the challenges for you as choreographer?

My first challenge of the piece was to find the perfect children. I toured many downtown children's dance classes with Gdalit Neuman, who assisted me in the rehearsal process, going to institutions like CCDT, STDT, randolph, NBS, Martha Hicks, Pia Bouman, etcetera in an effort to hand pick children and invite them to a workshop that I was holding to augment my search and ultimately make my hiring decision. Once we started the rehearsal process, other challenges were to make sure the children were comfortable with the partnering — getting up into the lifts and coming down, figuring out how the children could navigate around the adult dresses, which have trains. And for the adults, the challenge was how to work with the trains. They are hot to dance in and cumbersome to wear for a 2-hour rehearsal, but they were necessary to work in to discover the potential of the dresses as an extension of the dancers' physicality and part of the piece. Working with the dresses was very exciting for me, especially when I discovered one dress could hide all 5 children. The kids loved that! My cast is incredible — so "there" with me for every moment. I feel fortunate to have the same cast of independent dancers and children to remount it one year later. There will be the addition of one Guelph guest — Lynda Walters, who was in my Bird's Eye View piece at the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival last year. One of the dancers, Shelly Hering, has had a baby in the year between so she will be returning with new challenges and insight.

Another challenge was to have my own child there in the studio for the first time, who also had mommy needs during rehearsals. So, I was switching back and forth and integrating at lightning speed who we are together with the professionalism I strive for in the studio. (Since then, we have created a duet together.) Mika [one of Kaeja's daughters] was, however, fantastic in the piece and helped me to teach the partnering that she has grown up with. She has a great understanding of the principles of being elevated. Other challenges were figuring out when to take adequate breaks so that I could maximize the children's focus. And yet another challenge was transporting the dresses to and from the park for dusk dances — that's a lot of fabric to take home every night!

How did you work with Sue Smith? Did she watch and then compose, or the other way around?
Sue Smith
Singer-songwriter Sue Smith.

Sue and I have a beautiful relationship that goes beyond 20years. Referring back to your first question about the inception of the piece, I have to say that I asked Sue to create the music because as I was imagining this piece, it went hand in hand with music that Sue and Jeff Bird wrote and played for my wedding with Allen 20 years ago. I could not imagine the piece without this one particular tune. So, I gave her a copy of our old wedding video and asked her to use that wedding music as the baseline of the score and to go from there. Sue came up north overnight at one point where we could retreat and work on the words and music together. She said "Karen, I have the tune for this section but I need some words. Give me your prose and describe XXXX." We played with that for a while and then she folded some of it into the lyrics. At first, she watched some of the rehearsals and then attended them. So, I would say she intuited the music from the choreography, what she knows of me as a mother, and our inspiring discussions.

Kaeja D'Dance's Wedding Threads will be performed in Exhibition Park at 7pm Thursday, June 4th, and at noon on both Saturday and Sunday, June 6th and 7th.