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Whistler’s ‘signature piece’ takes shape

Commissioned interdisciplinary performance work, Inspired By Place, takes to the village for rehearsals next week

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If all goes according to plan, next week, dancers will take to Whistler Village, dancing both on the ground and in mid-air.

Julia Taffe and her troupe of four dancers from Aeriosa Dance Society will be infiltrating the village from Feb. 16 to 27 as part of the rehearsals for Inspired By Place, an interdisciplinary performance that has been commissioned by the Whistler Arts Council (WAC) for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Taffe, the artistic director and choreographer for the production, has some strong Whistler roots that have helped guide her vision for the project. Her first career as a professional contemporary dancer eventually led into a career as a certified climbing guide. Living in Whistler from 1994 to 1999, Taffe was truly able to immerse herself in the community's outdoor culture - she ran the Whistler Guides' Bureau, received her climbing certification, and worked with the boarder cross crews during their first tours.

While on the surface her career choices seem to be worlds apart from one another, Taffe explains they actually share a few common traits.

"Being a dancer and having spent so many years studying... the physics of movement, climbing is very similar to dance," she said.

Taffe spent years doing her vertical dance, actually performing on the Chief in Squamish, with her work captured by local filmmakers.

"I kind of danced across the mountain over a series of years, exploring that relationship to dancing in the landscape and dancing on a rope, all of that stuff," she explained.

But as the only one in her field, she soon began to feel isolated, and decided to move on to a new career. She eventually moved to Vancouver to pursue other avenues, and years later, founded Aeriosa, a non-profit society.

Taffe was first contacted about WAC's commissioned performance piece in the fall of 2007.

"I was really honoured to be approached and I just felt that it was really coming full circle for me, because Whistler is a place where my life transformed," Taffe said. "I came from the prairies - I was a flatlander doing grounded dance - so everything was flat, my whole life was flat, and then I moved to the mountains and the way that my consciousness opened up as a result of that required me to grow as a dancer."

Now, she has put together an artistic team to develop a performance that will reflect Whistler's unique landscape, inhabitants and spirit. Aside from the aerial and grounded dance aspects of the production, which have been developed by Taffe and Aboriginal choreographer, Michelle Olson, well-known Canadian composer Francois Houle is composing an original score to accompany the performance. And projection designer Tim Matheson is collecting stories and images to project as a backdrop for the performers.

"One of the things that we want to do with our dance is bring some of that joy and power of the landscape that you feel in the valleys in Whistler, with the big trees and the glaciers, and find a way to evoke... the effect that it has on people," she said.

The dancers actually began rehearsals in Vancouver, where they are based, at the beginning of January, heading into an indoor climbing centre and dance studio twice a week to work on both the aerial and grounded dance aspects of the performance.

"We want to make sure that we've done a lot of research and development," Taffe said.

So, this year, as part of the Whistler Winter Arts Festival, the group is conducting a workshop to test their ideas and concepts out on the audience before their big performances in 2010.

"I think what's important for the community to know is that we're going to be working in their midst, so what they're going to see is us basically inhabiting Mountain Square over two weeks, and doing something different all the time," she said.

"... Think of us as another test event."

Taffe points out that it's also an opportunity for the public to see the artistic process in action, rather than just the finished product. At the end of the two weeks, the public is invited to come to two public shows, where they can see polished performances.

Live rehearsals can be observed daily from Feb. 16 to 20, with two full shows on Thursday, Feb. 26 and Friday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m.

The idea for the commissioned performance piece came about several years ago, when WAC sat down to look at how other Olympic towns had incorporated the arts into the Games.

"We looked at Lillehammer and Salt Lake and Australia, and tried to figure out what the impact of an Olympic Games was going to be on the culture of the host community and what the lasting cultural legacies were," explained Anne Popma, a community cultural consultant who has been working with WAC.

They noticed that commissioned works appeared to be one of the few lasting legacies.

So, with the help of $100,000 grant from the newly created Arts Partners in Creative Development program, which was intended to support commissioned works for the 2010 Games, the support of the municipality, 2009 Cultural Olympiad, and a wide range of local groups, WAC was able to create Whistler's "signature piece" of the Olympics.

"This is the first major commissioning of new works that the Arts Council has ever done, so its bold and adventurous, and that's what the Olympics are all about," Popma said.

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