Jordan Tannahill was an acclaimed playwright — but not a dancer. Then he met Christopher House
'He is at once my best friend, my brother, my queer father, my mentor and my collaborator'
Stream Christopher House's episode of In the Making now on CBC Gem.
At the age of 31, Jordan Tannahill is fast becoming a celebrated Canadian talent. He is already a two-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award and has been described "one of Canada's most accomplished young playwrights, filmmakers and all-around multidisciplinary artists."
In the new season of In the Making, Tannahill collaborates with Christopher House — a legend in the contemporary dance world who is about to retire from the Toronto Dance Theatre after being there for 40 years. House is a unique voice in dance who defies categorization. His work explores presentness and often involves improvisational elements.
In House's In the Making episode, we find him working with Tannahill on Marienbad, the duet they created together that interrogates ideas of past, present and the relationship of bodies in time and space. Tannahill is a non-dancer and House is an Order of Canada-anointed lion of the dance world. CBC Arts spoke to Tannahill about the experience of taking such an unorthodox risk with a master.
How did you meet Christopher House?
I met Christopher after a performance of Einstein on the Beach in Toronto back in 2012. He was standing outside the theatre with some friends of mine; we began chatting and the connection was immediate.
Describe your relationship with him. How important is it to you that he's a queer elder?
My relationship with Christopher is sui generis. He is at once my best friend, my brother, my queer father, my mentor and my collaborator. He's played a fundamental role in my understanding of myself as a queer man in the world, and helps me navigate all the juicy stuff of life — art, relationships, heartbreak — on a daily basis.
How does a non-dancer get asked to dance in a grueling duet like Marienbad with a master like Christopher? Were you intimidated?
Marienbad grew out of a previous collaboration with Christopher. In 2014, I took part in the Toronto Dance Theatre's On Display project, in which artists working outside of dance were invited to choreograph solos for members of the TDT ensemble. I was paired with Christopher, and our collaborative synergy was so strong, we decided to continue working together on a full-length piece. I can't even recall when we decided to make it a duet, but the idea emerged very organically, and we allowed our shared curiosities and aesthetic vocabularies to shape what it became. Christopher was such a generous and patient mentor to me, which helped to neutralize any intimidation I may have been feeling. But I knew that I had to work my ass off to earn my place on that stage with him.
Christopher is more that 30 years your senior — how does that affect your experience of performing with him?
He holds within his body decades of experience, both as a dancer and a queer man, and it was so inspiring to watch how that bodily knowledge acted as a generative force within the room. We were both attuned to what each of our bodies could and could not do, and sometimes that was related to age, and other times to training, or innate physical capacity.
What have you learned about movement and presentness through the rehearsal process?
With Marienbad, Christopher and I were exploring how to be radically present in the world — with ourselves, with each other and with our environment. I've come to appreciate that there is an almost infinite amount of information you can perceive in any given moment, received through touch, through sound, though sight, through spatial awareness, etc. And by being attuned to this information, this stimulation, there is an almost infinite number of ways in which you can respond. What at first feels like creating something out of nothing — out of an empty room and a couple of bodies — suddenly opens up into a space of near-limitless potentiality for discovery. The choreographer Deborah Hay, whose methodologies we drew on within our process, has a beautiful axiom: "What if where I am is what I need?" It's something that I will carry forward into the rest of my life.
What did you have to do psychologically and physically to prepare for the role?
At the start of the rehearsal process for this 2019 remount, Christopher and I watched an archival video of our 2016 performance, and I couldn't quite believe that was me in the video, performing. It felt like a mountain I had to scale again, and I was starting at the very bottom. By the second week of rehearsal, however, the bodily memory of the performance began to return, and I found my way back into that heightened state of awareness. In fact, I found myself able to push deeper into the practice — to find more detail and precision. It's an absolutely exhausting piece to perform, physically and mentally, and required getting my body back into peak condition through careful nutrition, daily visits to the gym and the mental conditioning provided by the numerous warmup exercises Christopher has acquired over his career.
What state of mind do you need to be in to do a semi-improvisational show like this each night? What's the pre-show prep?
The show requires Christopher and I to be in a state of continual discovery, where the distinction between my body, his body and the space around us dissolves and there is a sort of open flow of sensation and stimulation. It is a state of mind in which we are continually noticing and reacting without ever trying to plan, or recreate choreography that has previously worked. Before every show, Christopher and I would do a warmup on the tiered risers of our set. We would spend an hour or so awakening our awareness of the space, reacquainting ourselves with each other's bodies and grounding ourselves within our own bodies. The piece is very physical, so I also had to make sure my body was warm and limber to avoid injury.
What makes the experience of creating a dance different than theatre?
I've been involved in making dance pieces that are very theatrical, in their dramaturgy and structure, such as my collaborations with Akram Khan. And I have made theatrical works that are halfway to being dance, such as Declarations, which premiered at Canadian Stage in 2017. It is difficult for me to say anything categorical about the difference between creating dance and theatre. Marienbad is not concerned with many of the things I would associate with dramatic theatre, such as narrative, character or conflict. In that sense, it differs greatly from, say, my experience writing and directing a play like my upcoming Draw Me Close, coming to Soulpepper Theatre in June 2020. There is no text in Marienbad, no story. There is just my body, Christopher's body and this unique space to react to.
As he retires from the Toronto Dance Theatre after 40 years, can you articulate why Christopher is such an important artist to know? What is his "superpower"?
Christopher has been at the forefront of Canadian contemporary dance for four decades, marrying conceptual and physical rigour with formal innovation. If I had to identity his superpower, I would say its his sense of curiosity. He has never lost it, and it compels him to continually seek new and daring challenges.
Will you and Christopher dance together again?
I certainly hope so.
In the Making takes you on an immersive journey inside the lives and work of Canada's leading artists. Stream the whole season now on CBC Gem, or watch Christopher House's episode tonight, Friday November 1st, on CBC-TV at 8:30 p.m. (9 p.m. NT).