Interviews by Megan Andrews
Photos by Esther Vincent
Bob Romerein, Brian Ling, Paul Clifford, Rob Steinman, Peter Earle, Jim Angel, Colin MacAdam and/et Chris Lemieux rehearsing Allen Kaeja’s work Unhinged/en répétition pour Unhinged d’Allen Kaeja / Photos by/d’Esther Vincent
Old Men Dancing (OMD) was formed by musician and composer Michael Hermiston and emergency medical technician George Barron in 2002. The group consists of men aged fifty or so who have come together for the love of dance and performance. They have no formal dance training and come from all walks of life. Old Men Dancing is unique in the community and in Canada as a group that creates contemporary dance theatre in the context of what it means to be an older male in our society. The group challenges social norms, while they share and learn together.
In 2005 they began working with choreographer Bill James, artistic director of Atlas Moves Watching, who offered weekly classes. The group has since commissioned and performed choreographic works by several contemporary choreographers including James, Allen Kaeja, Marie-Josée Chartier, Tedd Robinson, DA Hoskins and, most recently, David Earle.
Here James, the choreographers and various group members comment on their experiences working with OMD.
From Bill James, artistic director of Atlas Moves Watching, on working with OMD as teacher, choreographer and director
“I have always been fascinated by how people move in natural, unstudied ways. When I was a dancer with Le Groupe de la Place Royale in the 1970s and 1980s I taught theatre students at the National Theatre School, people in workshops on tour, adult beginner classes at our school in Ottawa. I also enjoyed all the instances where we engaged with the community in workshops, classes and residencies. Later on I developed a series projects to bring dance and other art forms to street-involved youth. While, as a choreographer, I love to work with highly trained dancers, I have always included people who are not trained dancers in much of my work. OMD has provided a trove of life experience. I am just beginning to realize how much they have to say as dancers.
“The work with OMD strengthens my abilities as a teacher and as a choreographer. I have developed a more simple dance vocabulary, which is clearer. My teaching has responded to the needs of the men and of the choreographers, so that it is more alive and creative.”
From the commissioned choreographers, on creating work for OMD:
“I happened to have a work in mind for a really long time that I wanted to do with a group of mature men. When Bill asked me, I saw this as a great chance to experiment with the idea. For me the level of skill, the different body types, the different personalities was what made it exciting, and in fact fed me more ideas and possibilities than if I had worked with a more uniform group of professional dancers.
“The only thing that I had to really reconsider was what I could develop with them in the amount of time I had. I have ideas for a full-evening work from my initial concept and had to choose some of those ideas for a twenty-minute work. I went in the studio with the seed idea only and I let myself be inspired by the men, by what they had to offer, which was very rich.”
“I prepare for making work in the same way with each new creation, as I do most of the work in the studio with the performers. I generally see what there is to work with and try to find the most interesting way to get the potential to reality. In the case of OMD I knew that I would work with props but did not know until the last minute whether it would be grapefruits or canvas squares. Basically, this is the same process for everyone that I work with; I come with nothing and find something or I come with something that I have used to see how I can go further with that concept. Because of the time constraints, I knew that I had to be extra clear about the movement from the start. The worst thing I could do would be to change my mind and head off in a different direction. I have also found through the years that no matter the experience of the performer, the first time that a sequence of instructions is transferred from choreographer to performer is the one most deeply ingrained, and Old Men Dancing was no different.
“I discovered quite soon that the spirit in the studio was serious but jovial and I liked that. In fact, during this process we have had a lot of good genuine belly laughs. I think that this has something to do with their well-intended responses to instructions and the fact that they were not the typical responses I was used to. A truly enjoyable experience. Also there is a certain joy when working with people who are secure in the studio because they have nothing to prove, nothing at stake and want nothing but what you can give them today. They are there because of an organic process of coming together under the common bond of curiosity and an inexpressible underlying understanding that this congregation of men dancing is important for them and important for them to share.”
“It is integral to absorb the distinction that defines each of my engagements – whether it be commissioned, collaborative or my own independent work. My main objective with this work was to explore aspects of age and innocence. That said, I had no idea how this would play out until we actually got into a room together to play, observe and respond to each other.
“I really thought it was also integral to capture as much of the history of these guys as possible … so I approached my friend and filmmaker Nico Stagias to create a collage of interviews that offered personal insight. We did these interviews at the first rehearsal so it was an intimate and moving introduction to each other. I approached the initial in-studio period as a time to view personal character in action. The first rehearsals were instigated to create a physicality through partnering and solo phrase work. What became most prominent for me was the sense of humor that riddled our time together … not to say it wasn’t serious or discredit the hard work these guys put in … but there was such a celebratory aspect in having us all together.”
“I was first invited to teach a partnering/contact workshop with OMD a year [prior to creating a work]. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found the men to be incredibly curious and willing to try anything. Their sensitivity and sense of self was most surprising. My goal in creating “Unhinged” was to investigate the journey from our perception of stoic, mature and armoured men, to that of vulnerable, caring and powerful yet compassionate men.
“I began by examining sensorial physicalities, both as individuals and within the group. We then moved to their range of partnering techniques that were accessible and fluid. Approaching the qualities and sensibilities of their movement potential really shaped the work.”
From the Old Men, on why they joined, on learning technique and on how the experience of performing is different from their other personal and professional activities:
Jim Angel, chief information officer at Fleming College responsible for libraries and information technology
“I joined back in 2003 out of curiosity. I like the creative process in general and the idea of a group of men getting together, frolicking, playing, experimenting and creating a performance piece sounded like fun, and it was.
“I value the process of seeing something concrete created from nothing but intention and ideas. I value the respectful way that we as men support each other and that thus far “ego” for the most part has been absent from the process.
“I’ve seen a transition from the early days to the present. We have shifted from the wild, partially improv, play-based pieces that I believe were probably ragged to the eye and part of our charm, to much more intentional, deliberate skill-based presentations. Admittedly, at first I thought learning more technique would limit and constrain things. In the end I think our potential repertoire has actually increased and within a more creative, disciplined environment I think we are evolving.”
Ray Barker, writer, performer, gadabout
“I was hosting a dinner party at the Riverview Art Gallery when George Barron and Michael Hermiston asked if I would join with a group of old men to perform dance work. After the laughter subsided I said sure.
“[I value] the camaraderie and the physical intimacy of creating dance together and the integrity and commitment of the members to dance and to contributing to our community and the world.
“As a physically limited individual, I could not accomplish what the others did and missed the first year of training. However I watched with awe the development of the others’ skills and I gained knowledge that allowed me to perform despite my limitations.”
Jose Botero, information technologist
“I attended the latest fundraising event at the Market Hall. I had one more beer than I usually drink, two instead of one. I should have said no but I said yes; then it was too much fun to quit. I have not raked the leaves nor cleaned the house yet this month due to rehearsals.
“I work in IT; I thought IT users were the fastest to change their minds about what they want. Well, apparently I am still doing parts that were removed from the script the first day. Finally, I am getting what a “creative process” is all about.
“Only one reflection so far [on learning technique]: It is very hard to go from dancing to Shakira’s music to dancing to Franz Schubert, especially if you cannot move your hips.”
Paul Clifford, massage and structural integration therapist
“The whole enterprise (and especially the performing) is challenging, in at least the following realms: emotional, psychological, mental, cultural, spiritual and last and possibly least importantly – physical.”
Peter Earle, part-time human resources director, part-time handyman
“I had never danced; didn’t know anything about it. I knew some of the men, friends, and had seen them dance. One day, one of them suggested I join. I had just gone through a rough period, had time on my hands and felt a need to challenge myself, get out of my head and do something that was really, really scary. So I did.
“Old Men is a very welcoming, open, supportive and fun group. We don’t take ourselves very seriously, but we work hard and want to learn and enjoy. The performance is secondary. I suspect if we never performed nobody would mind. It’s about getting together, exploring a process physically and experiencing the surprising elements that go along with that: learning about ourselves, caring, intimacy, beauty, movement, joy.
“We have worked now with six choreographers. We learn a lot each time, and become physically a little more adept, but it’s not about being great dancers. What’s much more interesting is seeing how each choreographer works, how they engage with an amateur, untrained group and what their experience with us becomes.”
Peter Hewett, social worker
“George Baron called me in the fall of 2001 and asked if I’d be interested in trying to do some dancing with a bunch of other old men. I thought this sounded interesting and at the time was looking for some avenue to explore creativity. Our first meeting as a group was at St. John’s church hall where Michael Hermiston, one of the co-founders with George, arranged for us to wash each others feet, which in one fell swoop challenged our stereotypes and the boundaries of traditional male relationships. The intimacy, openness and quirkiness of the experience had me hooked and excited at what seemed like endless possibilities.
“[I value] the open, expressive, emotional and spiritual connection with a group of men who, without competition or ego, are trying to explore and express themselves through movement.”
Chris Lemieux, natural heritage communications and marketing specialist, Ministry of Natural Resources
“I’ve always wanted to dance and to move. I’ve finally given myself permission to do as I please, everyone else be damned! It’s freeing and fun, and bloody hard work sometimes, but there’s always a huge payback in personal satisfaction when you’ve created something beautiful.
“I spend a lot of my time in my personal and professional activities ‘thinking’. The OMD experience allows me to suspend the thinking and to spend more time ‘feeling and doing’. I value the release and the opportunity to free my mind, as well as my body.”
Brian Ling, retired educator, painter and nature photographer
“It seems that OMD has given me the opportunity to experience a beginning again, not knowing, having no skills in the area and allowing me the space to learn without being judged or compared. This was not true in my professional life. There was an expectation that I was perfect, had it together and so on, which was not true. In some ways I wore the veneer of a mask professionally whereas with OMD I am what I am, and playful at that, which was frowned upon in my professional world.
“Learning greater dance specific skills seemed to take me full circle. I have been very athletic all my life and competed at high levels in many activities. Nevertheless, I see that the journey has taught me to be more playful, be willing to risk more and not be so concerned about technique and outcome. Through all this I then began to ‘become more of a dancer’, whatever that is. Intellectually, it seems reversed to me. I suspect I needed to be freed up first.”
Colin MacAdam, adjudicator who loves to sing and dance
“I joined OMD because of the name. It’s a verb, not a noun. I knew it would be cool. And I joined just when the big project with Bill James began last year.
“I’ve always been willing to perform but OMD has taken me to the deep end of my pool. The choreographers have given us great opportunity to extend ourselves creatively and I think we’ve all wandered beyond safety zones to some great places. It then resonates in different ways in my other lives.”
David McConkey, social worker, ultra-distance trail runner
“I have been moving forward as a runner for years and now adding some new movements in the form of dance as part of the process. One of the positive attributes [of OMD] has been to work on pushing limits beyond how my body is accustomed to move in space and to dedicate time to increasing flexibility in body, mind and spirit. The opportunity to dance with others whom I respect and feel comfortable taking unfamiliar steps with, under the direction of such accomplished choreographers, is a privilege.”
Brian Nichols, retired professor with a private practice as a psychotherapist/play therapist
“My answer initially to the why (eight years ago) [I joined OMD] was that ‘old men dancing’ in a local one-off performance piece sounded like it wouldn’t be a big commitment and it sounded like it could be a blast. Now the why is much different. It is a huge commitment (ten to fifteen hours a week for months on end) but it provides me with such a physical and creative outlet for expression of who I am, and who I want to be, that I cannot give it up. There are options to be in fewer pieces (to not work with each choreographer) but each one (Bill, Marie-Josée, Allen, Tedd and Darryl) provides such an incredible experience that it is hard to choose not to participate. I find myself now building my work and personal life around being available to dance.
“For me the greatest discovery has been the joy of participating in a transparent creative process that involves others and one that leads to public performance. Our work has been really well received not only by our friends in the Peterborough area but also by others who do not personally know us. We have moved from a group of men who got together to eat breakfast and laugh and eventually create a ‘dance’ piece, to a group of committed dancers who are open to explore ourselves through movement that is personal and expressive. Some days I still miss the breakfast part. Our level of ability to move, to hear music and to be aware of each other on stage, because of Bill’s generosity as teacher, has increased dramatically over the past three years and we have not yet peaked! We are getting older and better at expressing ourselves through dance.”
Bob Romerein, engineering consultant and chief technical officer of a cable TV manufacturer
“I have tried not to deconstruct the essence of the group. Whatever it is, it is a rewarding experience to feel the energy.”
Rob Steinman, drama teacher and head of the arts department at a local high school
“Pete Hewett came to my house for dinner after the very first rehearsal of the Old Men Dancing with choreographer Michael Hermiston and described the foot washing ceremony they did. He said that they planned to do a piece for Emergency, Peterborough New Dance’s yearly local dance showcase. I was intrigued and said, ‘is it to late to get involved?’ I joined at the second rehearsal.
“Old Men Dancing has provided a creative outlet in an atmosphere of comradeship, unlike any other group I have performed or worked with. I think because we all began as novices, were involved in a lot of creative play in the early years, and felt that the process was as important as the product, that it evolved as a rather unique group.”
On the most surprising or meaningful discovery from working with OMD:
“The generosity, the setting aside of ego, the depth to which these men commit themselves and really honour and support one another. And the fact that they all really LOVE to dance. They are a funny and irreverent group on the whole, and they put their souls into dancing in a way that is incredibly refreshing. They are truly inspiring!”
– Bill James
“I was pretty amazed at their openness; they will try anything with full generosity and commitment. In my piece they sing, dance, speak, howl like wolves, yap like chihuahuas, perform circus tricks, roll like waves and fly like beautiful birds. What more can I ask for?”
– Marie-Josée Chartier
“A real perspective on the value in engagement.”
– DA Hoskins
“The strength, uncompromising integrity and connectivity of the group. Their honesty and ability to tap into and identify with their vulnerable selves as well as be completely immersed in their respective roles was the most transformative experience for me.”
– Allen Kaeja
“I can ‘do it’, and I love to do it. And – for some reason or other – the choreographers all seem to really, really like working with us!"
– Paul Clifford
“That I have ‘presence’ as a performer on stage and that I can create meaningful performance that communicates to the audience. I was also in awe of how Bill James’ training techniques could increase the strength and flexibility of one’s body. One member cured his flat feet.”
– Ray Barker
“I like doing it, even though I still find it intimidating. Even though many of us do not see each other outside of the group, there is a powerful bond that exists among us as a result of doing this work.”
– Peter Earle
“The importance of being sensual.”
– Jose Botero
“I feel we have just scratched the surface …”
– Jim Angel
Atlas Moves Watching presents Old Men Dancing in premieres by Tedd Robinson and David Earle, along with work by Bill James and Allen Kaeja from December 3rd through 5th at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre, Peterborough. OMD’s program Older and Still Gorgeous (Do Not Resuscitate), with choreography by Marie-Josée Chartier, DA Hoskins, Kaeja and James, runs March 26th and 27th, 2010 at the Enwave Theatre, Toronto.
Learn more >>