PuSh Blog

Gotta Dance!—Peter Dickinson on Dancing in Le Grand Continental

December 17, 2014

On January 24 and 25, the PuSh Festival is presenting an outdoor dance performance by Montreal-choreographer Sylvain Émard. But unlike most dance performances we’ve come to imagine, Le Grand Continental involves 70-or-so everyday Vancouverites of varying dance ability and experience who have come together for an experience of a lifetime. Their individual commitments to the project—for the love of dance, the experience, the challenge, whatever their impulse may be—is undeniable: 10 weeks of rehearsal, twice a week, performing in rain or shine.

We asked Peter Dickinson, former PuSh Festival Board President, and current Le Grand Continental dancer, to share his thoughts from the inside.

Le Grand Continental rehearsals
Photo: Emily Neumann

By now many readers of this blog have likely heard that one of the featured shows at the 2015 PuSh Festival is Le Grand Continental, a free outdoor dance spectacle choreographed by Montreal’s Sylvain Émard that showcases the moves of approximately 75 non-professional dancers. I happen to be one of those dancers. Over the course of 10 weeks, starting in early November and culminating in our performances January 24 and 25, I will have given up successive Monday and Wednesday evenings, along with a good number of Saturday afternoons, to learn eight distinct yet linked sections of choreography that we will perform on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza rain or shine.

Whatever possessed me to sign up for this?

The answer to that question is at once practical and personal. I looked at my schedule and determined that I could commit to the intensive rehearsal schedule. And I also knew that Sylvain was looking for more male dancers. More importantly, however, I felt that the experience would serve as a satisfying capstone to my time as a Board member of the PuSh Festival. After six years of contributing to the operational wellbeing of the Festival, and after a decade of memorable PuSh moments as an audience member, I would actually get to perform in a PuSh show! That the show also took the form of a large-scale public line dance featuring a mash-up of contemporary styles was icing on the cake. I’m a sucker for unison movement of any kind, be it a corps de ballet or The Rockettes, and it has been truly energizing to feel us getting tighter and more precise as a group over the past six weeks, while at the same time acquiring the confidence to bring our own individual expressive style to some of the moves. Who knew I had such untapped reserves of rhythm in my hips?

2015 Le Grand Continental rehearsals
Photo: Emily Neumann

I’ll be honest, though: the first few rehearsals didn’t go so well. I had trouble remembering the steps and following the counts. I kept putting the wrong foot forward, or turning left when I should have been turning right. But I was not alone in my confusion and awkwardness, and Sylvain, rehearsal director Lara Barclay, and assistants Anna Kraulis and Caroline Liffmann have been unfailingly kind and patient. Stage manager Emily Neumann is our biggest cheerleader, while also keeping us all in line (quite literally). More and more of us are coming to rehearsals early to take advantage of the extra time for one-on-one instruction, or to work with each other in small groups. This is truly a case where the process is as important as the performance itself, and to this end I have been documenting our progress in my own personal blog, which I invite you to follow here.

In my academic research I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between dance aesthetics and the social choreography of bodies, about what it means to move differently alongside and in response to others in time, and how this affects our connection to a given space. It is fitting, then, that my experience of Le Grand Continental so far has been a lesson in narrowing the gap between the theory and practice of kinesthetic awareness. By that I mean that in addition to learning Sylvain’s steps all of us have had to pay attention to the execution of those steps in relation to the people standing next to us in our respective vertical and horizontal lines—lest we bump into each other or swipe one another in the eye with a rogue arm. Sheer bodily proximity compels conversation and collaboration, as we try to remember our marks or help each other out with a particularly complex move. Having more than once thrilled to that special feeling when previously anonymous individual spectators come together as an audience in response to a memorable performance event, it is fascinating to now be on the other side—the inside, I guess—as this group of mostly non-dancing strangers gels into a crackerjack ensemble.

Peter Dickinson
Le Grand Continental dancer

Join the cast of Le Grand Contintental for four performances: January 24 and 25, at 1PM and 4PM. The performance will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Plaza, rain or shine. Free!