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'To read a body'

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    'To read a body'

    'To read a body'

    Canada's modern-dance doyenne reveals
    to SARAH HAMPSON the delicate balance of
    her private life with her disabled husband

      Saturday, January 18, 2003 - Page R3

    She lives in the Little Italy area of Toronto's College Street with her husband, who, at 47, is almost completely disabled with multiple sclerosis. She is Peggy Baker, the modern dancer who is routinely described as the most compelling, the most magnificent, Canada has ever produced.

    Her life is all about movement. Her husband, Ahmed Hassan, a percussionist, lives a life centred around his loss of it.

    The unfortunate irony is too glaring not to comment on, and near the end of our conversation, when we slide off the subject of her current performance of three dance works (at Toronto's Betty Oliphant Theatre through tomorrow), and Baker reveals this aspect of her domestic life, I ask her, gently, what that strange juxtaposition of fates is like.

    "In a way," she begins slowly, "it is about balance." Sitting in a booth of a local café, Baker is controlled in the way someone who is aware of her body often is. Her shoulders squared, her back straightened, she has presented herself as strong and serene, composed. There have been moments in the interview, when, like a bird suddenly freed from a cage, she makes a sudden flighty movement as she explains how she feels about something, her career, dance, her collaborations with other artists.

    Every emotion, it seems, is expressed through her body. And now, as she thinks through the question about her husband, she flops forward on the table, elbows resting on its surface, one hand under her chin. "I said to him last night," she continues after that first bravely philosophical response, "that I feel lucky that [by helping him] I can actually act in my life to do good. When I see someone begging on the street or disabled, my heart is broken," she says, clutching her chest. "How can that be? How can life be such a struggle? I am so glad to have the chance to make a difference in one person's life. I wouldn't be able to cope otherwise. I think I would just be overwhelmed with grief for what the world is."

    Writing this, one day later, it's hard to convey the moment of this close-to-tears revelation accurately or completely. She is without boundaries -- in terms of what she allows herself to feel, with me as a journalist, with details of her private life.

    When describing Baker, critics often trot out the observation that she is one with her art. "A dancer with the gift of moulding or melting her angles into moments of riveting intensity," is how Jennifer Fisher of The Los Angeles Times described Baker in 1996. And that's true. But it is not until you have the chance to talk with Baker that you understand the deeply felt emotions that make the expression of them so riveting. And that, in turn, makes you understand why, as an artist, dance is her medium.

    "Words can't express everything," she explains, when asked about the oft-used phrase "the vocabulary of dance" and why it seems so much more precise in its ability to capture feelings. "It's an expression of a whole person, not just from the head."

    People are naturally drawn to that full communication of the human experience, she suggests, because they are deprived of it in everyday life. "Our culture, as it has developed," she continues, "has cut us off from our bodies. There are lots of strict rules about how we can behave with one another. If I were looking at your body," she observes, "it would be so rude, but we crave to look at a body, to read a body. In a dance performance, we allow ourselves the intimacy of inviting people to watch and to know that we're being witnessed."

    In her childhood, spent entirely in Edmonton, as the second-born in a family of six children, Baker loved to dance around the house. Her mother taught her children tap dancing. "I went to a lot of ballet [performances] as a child, but I didn't like the way girls are portrayed in classical ballet," she recalls. It wasn't a feminist stance, Baker says. "I was simply interested in exploring the world in different ways; behaving differently from that physically.

    At 19, as a student at the University of Alberta, enrolled in dramatic arts, she happened upon modern dance when she met Patricia Beatty, co-founder of the Toronto Dance Theatre. "I looked at her, her whole way of presenting herself, " Baker explains, drawing herself up, like some kind of warrior goddess, from her seated position, "and I thought, 'This is how I want to be. This is the kind of world I wanted to imagine I could inhabit.'"

    Her career quickly took off. In 1971, she moved to Toronto, four years later becoming a founding member of Toronto's Dancemakers. Seven years after that, she left for New York to tour with the celebrated Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. In 1990, she joined Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project as soloist. But within a year of that move, she realized that dance, for her, needed to be an expression of her own emotions, not someone else's idea of what she should perform.

    By 1991, she had returned to Toronto to start an independent solo-dance career. She commissioned choreography for herself from people she admired, including Molissa Fenley of New York, James Kudelka, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, and Christopher House, artistic director of Toronto Dance Theatre, among others. She also began creating her own work.

    "I'm really interested in people who are very independent as artists," she says of her collaborators. She sits still for a moment, silent, and then suddenly blurts, "I remember so clearly what it was like to learn things for the first time. It's your whole life when you're a child. And so many of us put that away. But I feel as though I'm surrounded by people who didn't have to put that away, because they've chosen it as their life's work to be a dancer or a painter or a musician or a writer."

    Her current performance of three dance pieces -- together entitled Home -- is built around the world premiere of Transparent Recital, a new commission (specifically for Baker) from award-winning Ottawa choreographer, Tedd Robinson, that includes cellist Shauna Rolston. "It's about the fact of performing for both Shauna and myself," Baker says with enthusiasm, her thin, interesting face animated.

    Baker had met and performed with Rolston, also an Albertan, a few years ago in Edmonton for a gala event produced by former ballerina Veronica Tennant. Baker wanted to do something longer with Rolston, so she approached Robinson, with whom she had never worked, to ask him to create "something between 25 and 40 minutes long" that involved her and the young cellist. She had long had her eye on Robinson as well. "He uses a lot of wit and humour in his work; and I tend to be more serious on stage. I was really eager to explore a lighter side of myself. He is coming from a lot of different angles than I am, and I like the stimulation of that," Baker says.

    Contemporary dance has to take her somewhere new, Baker explains, and it has to be about something real and recognizable.

    The other reality Baker is determined to showcase in her work is age. "I want to allow for different images of women," she explains. Baker is 50. In the last year and a half she has had knee surgery on both knees, routine work for a dancer, but which impedes her somewhat. "I'm not jumping as much," she says with a small moue. But if age has diminished some movements, it has increased others.

    "I feel I can carry the weight of a simple gesture in a way I couldn't have 10 years ago," she says.

    Part of Baker's sanguinity about age and her ability to perform comes from her understanding that what matters is how the individual dancer interprets the work. "The more dancers dance, the more different they become from one another, and those are the ones who rise to the top.

    "When you give your life over to dance, it changes you and you change it, and it becomes very individuated," she says.

    Baker could be talking about herself here, and in a way, she is. She is 50 years of dance and passion and life, all of it carefully observed and generously expressed.

    The operative word in that last sentence is generous, because Baker is always thinking about what she wants the audience to feel, what she wants to give.

    So it is no surprise then that she shifts the conversation away from herself in the final moments and around again to her husband and the lessons inherent in his fate. "He also teaches me to let go of things," she says softly. "He has had to give up everything -- his work, his self-reliance. But even though he can barely act in the world, I still feel him so strongly, who he is and his ideas.

    He refers to himself as a witness, as a conscientious observer of what goes on."
    We're both silent for a moment, taking the enormity of that in. "You know," she adds, looking up from the table at me, "he comes in [from his outings in his wheelchair] and he reports to me about the way the leaves are or what the birds are doing at 2:30 in the afternoon."

    She shakes her head a little; smiles. "It's really quite fantastic," she concludes exuberantly with a spontaneous grin.

    ...Peggy Baker review. R17