A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
She used to say
All those good people
Down on Jubilee Street
They ought to practice what they preach
Those good people
On Jubilee Street
It’s one of those dark, blisteringly cold January mornings when Wynn Holmes invites me into the bright dance studio she’s rented out for the day at Ballet Divertimento in the McGill Ghetto. Briefly back in Montreal for a series of meetings after taking off for Paris last fall, the dancer-choreographer has put herself through what only the most fearless and forward-looking of artists readily embrace: a comprehensive reboot of her craft. A reevaluation of her movement fundamentals as she steps into uncharted territory. This is the same self-described outsider who’s choreographed singular performances and music videos for musicians as wide-ranging as singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate, indie-rock duo The Kills, rapper Koriass and synth-pop beatmaker Foxtrott. So I was eager to find out what prompted the transformation.
While Holmes may have left Montreal for now, she describes her ties to the city as “enormous and intrinsic.” Having grown up between Vancouver and New York, she met two significant life pillars on her very first trip here: Kevin Calero, one of her closest creative collaborators, and Nico Archambault, “a guy who’s now my husband.” Over the years, she’s taught scores of dancers for the stage, film and the bright lights of television, and enjoyed her own moments in the spotlight. As Nick Cave’s gravelly voice and brooding poetry soundtracked our chat (unbeknownst to us, as Jubilee Street playing on loop a dozen times), Wynn’s generous tales of crisscrossing continents in pursuit of artistic emancipation were enough to make one temporarily forget about the weather woes and geopolitical turmoil unfolding beyond the confines of the studio.
You took a whole gamut of dance classes growing up, but it wasn’t until your late teens that you even considered pursuing it professionally. Why is that?
Well, when I turned 16, I took a hip-hop class at Vancouver’s Harbour Dance Centre. I had never taken any street dance classes before, and I reaaaally enjoyed it. It was the first time I was in a dance class really enjoying the music, as opposed to ballet or tap. It was the first visceral connection I felt to dance. It resonated with what I did all the time at home. That’s when I realized I could be a dancer and not be a ballerina. I have horrible, flat little feet, so there are things about certain forms of dance I have no control over, no matter how hard I work. This, however, was a purely emotional, visceral response to the music, my surroundings and the people in the class. I remember thinking: how can I do this… every day?
It’s interesting because musicality has always been a huge component to your work, going back to your Celtic dance roots(!) as a kid. But you seem to have taken a sharp turn away from musicality of late.
Absolutely. Like you said, I was a competitive Irish dancer growing up, so the musicality that comes up in some of my work goes back to Celtic rhythm and drumming. But creating to no music is something I’ve been doing over the past two years, working strictly from a different place. One of the main reasons I moved to Paris was to train with Jessica Fecarotta, who’s the secret weapon behind the dancers at the Paris Opera. We don’t use any music. Right now, I’m moving away from musicality and musculature to focus instead on moving solely with the electricity in the body. It’s what already exists in you, rather than hearing something and moving in reaction to it. It’s tuning into something that’s already there without having any other influencing factors, whether they be music or mood.
Is there a name for the kind of work you do with Ms. Fecarotta?
Technically, it would be rooted in the Lilian Arlen method. Jessica's been a monumental influence on me. I really needed someone to teach me to start moving and seeing things differently, and she appeared at the perfect moment. A former Paris Opera dancer herself, she’s this unbelievably inspiring woman in her sixties who works in a dilapidated Parisian studio, uses a little drum to keep time, doesn’t speak a word of English and doesn’t let me get away with anything. She’s changed my body completely. It doesn’t look any different, but what I can do with it has radically changed. Now I’m going back to various projects with a new set of tools.
Other than meeting her, what prompted this desire to reboot the system?
Well (laughs)… There are many layers to that answer, but in a nutshell, I took a temporary leave from dance a few years ago, after being thrown into the TV dance world of So You Think You Can Dance Canada. I had never watched it before and was actually living in L.A. when Nico [Archambault] was on the Canadian one. I’m not bashing it at all, as it’s launched so many careers and it’s an unbelievably inspiring show for so many dancers, but it confirmed that I really wanted to be working solo and in a different capacity. At the time, I felt it was my responsibility to say yes to the TV work, thinking it would lead to other things and just get my foot in the door. But there was a general malaise. I wasn’t having fun anymore. I knew I needed to step back and reassess my relationship with my work.
You choreographed on three seasons of the show (2009, 2010, 2011). Were there any happy outcomes that came from existing in the TV ecosystem?
One incredible thing that happened was a show I was also involved with called Ils Dansent [Ed’s Note: a Radio-Canada reality show hosted by Archambault]. Working on that was the only thing during that time that tipped the scale. It felt like we were bringing together a community of dancers and actually providing an educational dimension. Anything that happened on the show actually happened. There was no “this person’s going to be set up to win” or “we’re going to pin these two against each other.” At least where I got to stand in the production, it was purely dance. And I loved that.
This commitment to dance education almost took you to London around that time to pursue a career in arts administration?
Yes. After the TV stuff, I was in Montreal doing all kinds of work, from teaching to being a production assistant. I started renting out studios in Montreal by myself, like this one, just to see what would happen. I also applied and got into Goldsmiths in London for an MA in Creative & Cultural Entrepreneurship, which focuses on the infrastructure of the performing arts. But I got my acceptance letter the same week I was shooting the short film Stagnant Pool [directed by Kevin Calero and starring Archambault]. In the rush of prepping the shoot and my choreography for it, I realized, “no, Wynn, you want to be a choreographer.” I had been sitting in the studio all year, waiting for something to materialize that would let me experience my passion away from television. I really was about to board a plane, head to London, forget being a choreographer and learn about arts administration. But after Stagnant Pool, I felt reinvigorated, like the first time I set foot in that hip-hop class at 16. It was a real Sliding Doors moment.
Not getting on that plane also laid the groundwork for a fruitful creative partnership with Kevin Calero, as your trifecta of Foxtrott music videos can attest.
And looking back, we were actually insane to make Stagnant Pool, which was our very first collaboration. We shot just off Îles de la Madeleine for 4 days with no running water or electricity, in the pouring rain and the freezing cold. With that experience, [Kevin and I] both realized we don’t like the easy stuff. You can see that in the Foxtrott music videos, too. We never take the easy road and really like to challenge ourselves.
If the Phi Centre roundtable is anything to go by, you guys also seem to share lots in the way of influences and inspirations.
Definitely. I really enjoy watching him work and I think he has the same respect for me. I’ll always do my best to bring him onboard projects I’m involved with and vice versa. We just got back from L.A., where we were working on a commercial for the Gap produced by Dazed, to celebrate the reissue of their 1990s archive. We worked with celebrity offspring of 1990s Gap icons, so the daughters of Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger, the son of Diana Ross, and so on. It was interesting for me, because they wanted 1990s dance moves.
Working with sons-and-daughters-of is a nice segue into talking about your work with non-trained dancers—artists like Coeur de Pirate, for whom you’ve choreographed both videos and stage performances. What do you enjoy most about that?
There’s a unique essence to each body, especially when it doesn’t have the years of training all dancers have, where you’re conditioned to do things a certain way. Recently, I’ve loved working with bodies that don’t have that training. I get as much out of the experience as they do. Coeur de Pirate, for instance, had no previous training whatsoever. And there’s this childlike quality to her movement, which isn’t a bad thing at all. It was the purest form of movement I’d ever seen. I wanted to give her tools and patterns to do her own thing, because I’m not interested in pasting a style on someone. For a group of professional dancers, I can get into doing that and cleaning up movement. But honestly, in this case, half the work was Beatrice learning and studying. We did an outline but also left room for her to do her own thing, so she wouldn’t feel boxed in.
Can there be challenges to working with total dance rookies though, if they aren’t tapped into their bodies in the slightest?
Well, that’s a completely different thing, but yes. I’ve worked with other artists where you just can’t break that. You’re not going to be able to achieve that within the amount of time given, so you opt for a series of movements instead. It then becomes like learning an equation or language, studying and then executing it. With Beatrice, I had the luxury of time. She contacted me very early on.
While in New York and Montreal, you also built up passionate followings of dance dilettantes at your Lo Fi Dance Theory classes. How did those get off the ground?
Non-dancer friends in New York asked if I could do classes that wouldn’t be too hard. I was like, why not! It turned into the nicest thing that would happen once or twice a week at IATI Theater in East Village. I never advertised it, it was purely word of mouth, and we sold out every class, with people ranging from nurses, army guys, dancers and retirees wanting to stay in shape… It was not meant to be intimidating at all. I kept the lights really low, the music really loud, it was very sweaty and more of a party. Friendships have sprouted from those classes and romances have blossomed! That was the perfect reminder that bringing dance to everyone was really important to me.
Notions of democratizing dance and exploring the politics of the body seem to have consistently informed your approach to movement.
Absolutely. Right now, I’m working with Parisian performance artist Sarah Trouche on a show at the Fondation Ricard. Sarah’s never danced in her life, and that’s where ideas of identity, class and gender really strike a chord with me. It’s really important to make sure those notions are included in dance. It’s not always tall, thin, white. That will always exist and it’s fine, but for me, the goal would be to create kinesthetic empathy with any performer—so for an audience member to watch something that might not be what they expect from dance, but to nevertheless feel something. To connect with it on some level. That’s really important, as well as making sure dance is available to everyone. It has saved my life many times, it has changed my life over and over, and I see that all the time when I work with people who maybe wouldn’t have access to it.
Follow Wynn Holmes on Instagram for information about upcoming Lo Fi Dance Theory events in Paris, New York and Montreal.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding