It took a chance meeting and a bizarre collaboration with the elusive Canadian musician Mary Margaret O’Hara to propel performance artist Sara Porter back to the stage after dealing with physical challenges, raising three young boys, and surviving a solid “six years of not dancing at all.”
Flash forward – “It seems other people have some ambitions for me now,” Porter adds, referring to her recent appointment as Associate Artist in Gerry Trentham’s company – pounds per square inch – who produced Sara does a Solo, the performance that marks her return to the stage, which premiered at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto in March. Porter moves forward still, from that gentle push to present an excerpt from her solo show at the Performance Mix Festival in Manhattan this coming June; adding, “So I guess I’m back”.
Trentham and Porter performed eight shows on a double bill in a renovated classroom studio. Trentham brought back a revised solo, Experiment b and Porter presented her 50-minute solo, created in situ. “It really was situated there – with the tall paned windows and the long chalkboard along one wall – and as I built the work there and incorporated some of the elements of the room, I decided to perform the work there. We could fit about 35 people in the audience. It was intimate and a great environment.”
At age 48, Porter seems more resilient than ever. She was very comfortable opening up about losing her sense of self and with putting her dance career on hold for the better part of a decade. When I asked her if the show was about her life, the answer was a resounding yes. “The show is rooted in my life.”
As Sara is a writer, I will let her tell her own story.
Sara: The show is roughly drawn from my life experiences – in that it’s about mothering and being an artist, and it depicts struggles around identity and femininity and creativity – but it also extrapolates heavily into fiction. There is a narrative, story-telling thread that interweaves throughout the piece – all spoken in the first-person narrative voice, so it seems like the piece is about me, but its’ bigger than that. It’s roughly about coming back to being an artist after taking time at home and raising kids. But it’s also about a person’s creative sources, and the pressures and struggles that attend it.
There are aspects that deal with family life, with identity as a woman, as a mother, yes, as an artist – about how we lose control somewhat of our identity, of our schedule. People have said I’m brave to “reveal myself” like this, but I think that’s mostly because they feel the emotional truth of the struggles of motherhood and searching for identity in that sea of mayhem. Some of it is a bit dark: there’s a rather desperate poem about a mother’s drinking. But there’s also lots of humour and some fun craziness.
The character – mostly me – loses herself in fantasy with these fancy dresses – but it becomes clear that, in fact, these dresses are connected to the songs she sang as a child with her father, with her playing at the piano. And the songs – in some way – are deeply connected to her own creativity, to her sense of play, to her fantasy world, but also her imagination that is at the core of who she is.
What is it like to try to balance your home life and your work life as an artist?
Sometimes it’s pretty tricky, schedule-wise. Family life can be very unpredictable. I have three kids, and the youngest is now six years old (the older boys are nine and 12). I was still choreographing when I had two kids – created a piece for Toronto Dance Theatre. And I was also working on writing a book – about Peter Boneham and the history of Le Groupe de la Place Royale. It was published by Dance Collection Danse in 2010, called Peter in Process: Peter Boneham’s sixty years in dance that I had to finish just after the youngest was born.
Sometimes it was awful, having to go work on a Saturday morning, when I just wanted to hang out with my boys (and my husband), but I had to go work in my office. I would hear them downstairs laughing and playing, and it was tough. But I’m a reasonably disciplined person, and I love my work, so I managed, knowing that it was only for a short time. But when the book was finished, I decided I needed to take some time off to spend it with my kids and really establish this family life we’d begun.
So I spent a couple of years just cooking and spending more time with the kids. I also got involved in their school. I spent time in their classes, and choreographed the school musicals, and organized a Flash Mob for the school. During that time, I did some more dance writing, and then began exploring writing short fiction. I’d go to the pub down the road and sit with my computer, churning out little 200-word stories. I would edit them really hard, to see how short I could make them. I was reading Lydia Davis at the time – American writer, famous for writing stories only one or two sentences long – but I felt quite disconnected from my life as an artist.
I hardly went out, and saw very little dance. It was both a release and a rough time, personally and identity-wise, but also physically, my body began to give me trouble. I was doing trampoline training with a friend, and once, I had quite a bad accident and dislocated my left elbow. It took about a year of rehab to get my arm’s full function back. That was a wake-up call. And I began to feel old. After the arm rehab, I decided I needed to get back in shape, which led to dancing again. It was about six years of not really dancing much at all. I taught an adult class, but that was all. But despite causing something of an identity crisis (not uncommon in having kids), domestic and family life also created a kind of ballast in my life, so there’s also a great, stabilizing side to it.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Kids to school, go for coffee, grocery shop, workout at the YMCA, rehearse or write, pick up kids at 4 p.m., take kids to lessons, cook, tidy the house, write, sleep. Pretty standard. But because there are projects – both mine, and the kids’ – there’s also lots of variation. And I love holidays and cooking, so there are lots of big meals and company and festivities. I love that aspect of family life. I feel very fortunate. I’m also fortunate to have a very supportive, dedicated partner, so when I’m deep in project, he takes on pretty much all of the domestic work. It swings back and forth between us. This year, my youngest child began Grade 1. So is now in full-time school. That has changed my schedule significantly, so I can commit to longer, bigger projects.
When was your last show before Sara does a solo? What was it?
I transformed an octet I made – called Neap Tide – for Toronto Dance Theatre in 2005 into a solo for myself in about 2007. I performed it in Halifax in early 2007 for the 25th anniversary of Kinetic Studio that had been helpful in starting my dance career there. I did a small excerpt after in Toronto, but that was still early 2007.
In 2013, I was invited to join the newly re-formed Intergalactic Arts Collective, a group of movers/ performance artists and dancers – as they acquired a space in the newly renovated Givins-Shaw school – the latest Artscape building. – Gorgeous studio space – renovated classroom. By that time, I had three children and I was eager for a quiet space to retreat to. I thought I’d go there to the studio and write. But naturally, I began to move again.
What was the reason for doing this show?
It was prompted by an event in the studio my colleague hosted – called The Art of Drinking – I tell that story in the piece. The renowned (but somewhat reclusive) singer Mary Margaret O’Hara was there. She sang for me as I danced, and I realized that maybe I still had some dancing to do. Making Sara does a Solo was a very organic process. I’ve never used that word before for making my own work. But it really was quite smooth and easy.
I had some memorized stories and songs, and I was improvising the dancing. I just began adding things: a fancy dress, a ukulele, and more poems, bit by bit. Then it seemed there was something holding it all together. I wrote up a grant to put together some improvised dances and these stories.
I managed to get the grant, and hired Katherine Duncanson and Gerry Trentham to help with vocal work and structuring the piece. Also, I was lucky enough to go to a writing retreat in the south of France – Mas Blanc – hosted by excellent Canadian writer Isabel Huggan – last October for a week. Had a great exchange with her. Katherine Duncanson was working with me and at one point, she said, Sara, you’re ready to show this. So, in June 2014, I showed an early version of the piece. It took a year of exploring the interconnectedness of all the bits – and developing the work – and they provided a rich world for interplay of ideas and feelings and imagery. I really wanted to memorize text, and I had been singing a fair bit at home. I have a music background, too. And I’ve been writing about dance as long as I’ve been dancing. This piece was about putting everything together. About including everything about myself, my life, not keeping things out – feelings or experiences, or aspects of myself. I’ve never been strictly a dancer, and sometimes felt strange calling myself a dancer (even that plays into the show) because I love costumes and text and ideas and playing with good ol’fashioned make believe. So this show was about inclusion. The pain and the celebration. The personal and the professional.
Did you reach your goals?
Yes, I believe I did. I’m happy with the work. It feels very true to myself as an artist and a person. I’ve received incredibly positive and enthusiastic feedback. I think the piece will have a life. I’m grateful to have joined up with Katherine Duncanson and Gerry Trentham – as well as Jessa Agilo who manages Gerry’s company. Katherine and Gerry were amazing support and creative guides.
When are you going to New York and where will you be presenting your work there?
I am performing at the Performance Mix Festival (June 4-9, 2015) at HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Ave. in South Village (Manhattan) on June 8th, 8pm. The festival is curated by Karen Bernard of New Dance Alliance. I’m performing a 20-minute excerpt from my most recent work – Sara does a Solo, which premiered in Toronto last month.
Questions by Cherryl Bird
Answers by Sara Porter