LEARIE McNICOLLS in an excerpt from BIG MAN JEREMIAH as part of DANCE IMMERSION tonight (Thursday, February 22) and Saturday (February 24) at 8 pm. $21, stu/srs $15, child $13. Du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queen's Quay West). 416-973-4000. dance artists saying they're re- tiring is like the rest of us saying we'll stop breathing. It can't be done.
Their bodies are their instruments. Movement is their language.
No wonder people were skeptical when the awesomely talented Learie McNicolls announced he was retiring a few years ago.
He had just finished his autobiographical piece, Armour, about his violent and abusive childhood. It was a huge success, earning him a Dora Award and an international tour. He was a few years shy of 40. He had become the first-time father of a son.
Retire? Why not. Seems like a good idea. Well, not so fast.
"When I set out retiring, the misconception was that I'd stop performing altogether," says McNicolls now, on the eve of premiering an excerpt from his new work, Big Man Jeremiah, for the dance Immersion festival showcasing African-Canadian dance.
"The truth is, I can't stop performing. I'd die. What I have done is put closure on a part of my career. I can't do a certain kind of movement any more -- that ballistic, physical movement I was known for. My body says no, but my spirit still wants to go out there."
We're sitting in a way too crowded cafe on Queen East a few blocks from McNicolls' home, where his three-year-old boy is probably in non-stop motion as we speak. Ironically, it was watching his son begin to move freely that made McNicolls examine his own life in movement.
"I was a big yes-man," he says, curling his lean body over a steaming Americano. "That's why choreographers loved me. They said, "Jump!' and I said, "How high?' and "How long?'
"But as I discovered more about myself, when they asked me to jump, I started saying, "I'm not sure I feel like jumping today -- my foot's sore.' And they'd threaten me and say I wasn't irreplaceable."
A sore foot, a ravaged back -- these were part of the physical breakdown that led to his so-called retirement.
"I'm more of a gentle mover now," he says. "I did a lot of work on myself, with meditation and therapy. It helped release the emotional blockages in my body. Our bodies know what to do to survive."
He's still in therapy, concentrating on breathing and voice work and questioning how he feels about dance.
"It kind of makes sense that I became a dancer," he says thoughtfully. "I needed to move. I was so stuck as a kid, I didn't have the freedom to go anywhere, and dance gave me the freedom.
"But the profession I chose also came from a place of low self-esteem. I wanted attention, bravos. I thought, "The audience loves me, therefore I'm wonderful.'
"Artists are afraid to talk about things like that. They hide behind talking about the art."
Another thing artists don't often do in interviews is complain about money. It debases the art, they believe. That's crap, says McNicolls.
"Big Man Jeremiah is about getting paid, it's about self-worth. I'm not going to teach my son to work for minimum wage, which is what most dancers get."
McNicolls envisions Jeremiah -- which will premiere in the fall -- as an hour-long piece involving over 40 artists, including dancers, a DJ or two and people in the fashion world. Forty people onstage? "Hey, if Bill T. Jones can do it, why can't I?"
He'll be performing in the dance Immersion excerpt, reading aloud an autobiographical text, like a classical rapper, as two women -- Jennifer Dahl and Stephanie Thompson -- dance his moves.
"The term choreographer doesn't work for me any more," he says. "There's a bit of fashion show in here, a bit of music video, a bit of bitching. There's a jazz feel, a hiphop feel, a ballet feel. There's a bit of Bruce Lee's kung fu moves and some Peter Pan in there, too. Essentially, it's my career." *