Cover story: Kate Alton

Determined dancer/choreographer lets loose about injuries, finding her voice and connecting with two up-and-coming great Kates (Holden and Franklin) in Namesake


NAMESAKE choreography by Kate Alton, D. A. Hoskins, Laurence Lemieux, Claudia Moore and Matjash Mrozewski, danced by Alton, Kate Franklin and Kate Holden. Presented by first things first productions in association with Crooked Figure Dances at the Winchester Street Theatre (80 Winchester). Runs until Sunday (January 14), Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 4 pm. $16-$18. 416-204-1082.


Kate Alton is talking, dammit. That may not sound like such a big deal. But Alton wants to quash the myth that dancers don’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t speak.

“It’s debilitating,” she says. “I think dancers are taught not to have a voice. That’s ridiculous. We all speak. Many dancers I know are articulate and thoughtful.”

Alton is sitting in that long-limbs-splayed fashion that many trained dancers manage. Her bare feet – which have trod on pretty much every stage in Toronto and Montreal – look tough yet strangely vulnerable.

She’s just finished a day of rehearsals for Namesake, a mixed program showcasing her work as well as that of two up-and-coming female dancers, Kate Holden and Kate Franklin. She’s tired but reflective. She wants to yap.

The title comes from the name all three women share. Alton kick-started the idea while in dance classes with the other two.

“I was watching both of them and noticing that I was hearing ‘Good, Kate!’ a lot. I suddenly thought, ‘We’re all Kates, we should do a show together. ‘”

Of course, it’s more than that. Alton believes in them, and knows first-hand how difficult it is to establish yourself as an independent dance artist.

“It’s hard for young people to get opportunities to keep growing,” she says. “I looked at the two of them and thought, ‘They’re extraordinary they deserve a showcase.'”

As she says those words, you can feel the subtext. A decade ago, Alton was in a similar spot herself: young, fiercely talented, but wondering how to move up that dance-scene ladder.

A few years out of Toronto Dance Theatre, she gradually fashioned one of the more impressive independent careers, dancing for others, and then gathering her nerve – and resources – to commission artists to create programs of work specifically for her and her favourite colleagues.

Those latter programs, each with cheekily self-referential names like Necessary Risks and Acceleration, showed off Alton’s unique talents – graceful, concentrated movement, always dramatic – for audiences to finally see.

Watching the long-necked, long-limbed dancer execute a move isn’t something you easily forget. It’s always charged with energy and purpose.

Whether the other two Kates will become as great remains to be seen. Holden, currently in the cast of Sylvain Emard’s Le Temps De Chien, made a strong impression as the sacrificial schoolyard victim in Yvonne Ng’s Signs last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was one of the exciting young dancers in Matjash Mrozewski’s funky 2004 work Break Open Play.

Namesake, Alton believes, should show audiences what they can do. Holden’s solo, by Laurence Lemieux, is “a character study that takes her into a whole other world. It’s something I’ve never seen her do before.

“Kate Franklin’s solo (by Mrozewski) might not show off her range, but it’s spectacular and displays all her strengths.”

It’s difficult to forge an identity when you’re bouncing around from show to show, or even worse, connected to a large company like TDT.

“You can get pigeonholed,” explains Alton. “You start to be seen in a particular way – by a choreographer or by yourself – and it can be stifling. In some ways, I admire artists who never got into a company situation. They had to try to find their own feet. It took me a while to come out of that shell and explore other aspects of myself as a performer.”

Ironically, one of Alton’s smartest creative moves has been collaborating with people outside the dance world, especially theatre director Ross Manson.

“It’s like a symbiotic relationship,” she explains. “Ross has played some part in every piece I’ve ever done. I trust him. He helps me see something about a work that I’m unaware of. And he’s got a dramaturgical eye that’s often missing from dance. I know him so well that even if he says something I disagree with, it helps me know what I want.”

Last year, the pair extended their collaboration – as co-producers – in Despair… And Other Conundrums, where Alton got a chance to perform Jonathan Garfinkel’s lovely spoken monologue, Kissing Giancarlo, directed by Ker Wells.

“Speaking onstage made my whole person feel stronger, more competent,” she says. “I think it has something to do with that dancer-intimidation thing.”

The pair’s biggest collaboration comes next month, when they debut The Four Horsemen Project, the years-in-the-making homage to the Canadian sound poetry troupe.

“It’s been a fascinating process,” says Alton, “and very expensive. It’s been tricky to find the right structure. We’ve worked on individual sections, and every time we rearrange the material, a workshop’s over.”

Three of the surviving Horsemen have seen sections and added input. At one point, Manson wanted to hire writers to come in and script monologues for the four characters to perform.

“I didn’t like that idea,” says Alton. “I wanted to make it more of a tribute to the poets themselves. I’m the one who creates the pieces, and then Ross shapes them. The inspiration for what we might do with each poem is pretty much mine. I get the final say about the material that gets used – or not.”

She smiles nervously, as if she’s not quite used to wielding such artistic power but finally has enough confidence in her judgment.

Still, doubt and uncertainty are on her mind constantly.

“I’m always asking questions,” she says, visibly moved. “Why are we here in this room watching this particular dance piece? Why should I create this dance piece? Why should I perform it? Does the world need another dance?”

She could be a nun wrestling with her faith. She’s almost lost it several times.

As a young student at the National Ballet School, she was told – after four years – that she didn’t have the ballet body they were looking for.

“I was really punished for my body in ballet. I was told that I was wrong, and fat, and that if I really cared I wouldn’t be. Ultimately, I’ve got big hips for a dancer. That’s me.”

Her hips look fine.

Later, she moved to a semi-professional school in Ottawa, then studied at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, where she came under the spell of contemporary dance.

“I finally remembered what it was about dancing that compelled me in the first place,” she says. “It wasn’t about trying to make a perfect shape that I could never make. It was about the way I executed the movement I was given.”

More doubts came after her acclaimed show Acceleration, which premiered in the fall of 2001 and introduced one of the first sections from the Horsemen project.

“Right after that show my momentum crashed,” she says, admitting that grants dried up.

“Once you reach a certain point, the agencies start to filter downward and want to fund younger people. That mid-career point’s difficult. You need to persevere, be tireless and not be discouraged. I tried to grow by pushing myself in different ways, exploring other media.”

The most recent doubts came when she suffered a series of injuries that kept her off dance stages for several years.

Download associated audio clip.

“I feel better now than I ever thought I would again,” she says. “It’s thrilling to be able to dance without fear. I have some discomfort, but it’s nothing compared to what I had for two and a half years.

“And those injuries made me think a lot about recovery, both physical and emotional. I considered quitting, because I felt I couldn’t express myself and felt like I was cheating the audience and myself.”

If anything, all this questioning has made her believe more firmly in the power of her art.

“Art’s one of the strongest forces that keeps us going, it makes us want to live and pursue greatness and goodness,” she says. “And it helps us recover.”

Extra Audio Clips

Alton on Claudia Moore, Peggy Baker, Louise Bedard

Download associated audio clip.

glenns@nowtoronto.com

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