Life stories told in dance
Allen and Karen Kaeja perform their latest lifeDUETS series March 9-11, as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival. (photo by Zhenya Cerneacov)
As a dancer, how do you tell the story of a couple’s life together that has deep roots but is continually evolving? The Kaejas decided to commission two different pieces from two different choreographers. The result is the latest in their lifeDUETS series, which comprises a structured piece that is more or less consistent in every performance, and another that constantly changes.
Allen and Karen Kaeja established Kaeja d’Dance in 1991. The Toronto-based couple commissioned three duets about 20 years ago, and the newest two were commissioned in 2015 for their 25th anniversary. It is this anniversary pair – one by Tedd Robinson, the other by Benjamin Kamino – that the Kaejas will share at Roundhouse Performance Centre March 9-11, as part of the Vancouver International Dance Festival, which runs March 1-25 at various local venues.
“We’ve always performed together, but improvised, and I suggested this idea of commissioning choreographers,” said Karen in an interview with the Independent over speakerphone.
“We commissioned Claudia Moore … Peter Bingham from out west, and then we did our own lifeDUET, and commissioned Marie-Josée Chartier. Those years of commissioning ended in 2001,” said Allen.
Variations of that program toured throughout Canada, the United States and many other parts of the world. “And then,” said Karen, “for our 25th anniversary, that’s where I thought we should really reinstitute the lifeDUETS and commission more people. At that time, Allen was performing less, so it took a little bit of nudging and, together, we decided on bringing someone into the fold who was highly experienced and created pieces on so many Canadians, which is Tedd, and then someone who was up-and-coming who was in the realm of experimentation.”
“And that was Benjamin Kamino,” said Allen. “And so, two opposites of the spectrum.”
The two pieces were collaborative works. “We created together with both of them, so both choreographers say in their program notes, created with and performed by us,” explained Allen. “They were both created for our 25th anniversary, as Karen was saying, and Tedd’s is called 25 to 1. He talked to a very dear friend of his, Peter Boneham, about, what am I going to do with these two guys?” The semi-joking response, said Allen, was to put the couple in a tent having sex (though less delicately phrased).
“But then, of course, the whole thing began to evolve, and became this really gorgeous duet. And what was beautiful about that was that neither of them knew that Karen and I, in our dating years, would do wilderness camping up in Algonquin, in Temagami; we’d go out for 10 days to two weeks at a time. We loved wilderness camping, so it really resonated at home with us, but they didn’t have any idea.”
As for the idea that sparked Kamino’s piece, Karen said, “I think his vision came from the concept of ‘becoming’ each other, and that was the initial seed. Because we have this history of all these years, instead of having us do what people know us to do, which is a lot of partnering and so on, he would create a work where we almost never touched each other, where we would become each other to different degrees to a scored creation, because we knew each other so well.”
Karen said that every work created for her takes her off guard – “because it takes me on a tangent that I would not go myself” – and these two were no different. “Ben’s is really quite raw and exposed,” she said, “and that was a very beautiful inter-relational process, of becoming each other – and having him witness, as a choreographer. That process, for me, was like a mindful trio, very different than me and Allen being in the studio creating a work.”
Robinson and Kamino were creating works on a significant and special relationship, she said, and she and Allen “in a way, had to open our door and let them in.”
“Karen and I met in 1981 and started dueting 36 years ago, but started dating 32 years ago … so, our physical connection has a longevity that most people don’t know together,” said Allen, referring to its dance aspect. “As Karen was saying, a lot of our dueting is improvised, so we’re continuously surprising each other, we’re continuously living in this state of unpredictability, and yet a depth of knowledge about [each other].”
“Or catching each other’s predictabilities and challenging those,” interjected Karen.
“That, as well,” admitted Allen. “That being said, Tedd’s piece is tightly, tightly, tightly choreographed, to almost every beat in the music. There is very little room for variation. Whereas, in Ben’s piece, there’s only one moment that’s set and even that is an improvisation, so it really captures our life and our existence together.”
After a brief discussion about how many moments are indeed set – which wasn’t definitely resolved – Allen said, “The emotionality of the work, especially with becoming each other, with Ben’s piece, it’s a very different type of piece because we are continuously asking ourselves questions. For example, I was there when Karen’s father passed away, and so I would ask a question, what would my last dance be for my father’s final minutes, things like that. It’s got an emotional resonance that nobody would know but her. For me, it’s not only a vulnerable place and a personal place, but it puts me into her being, her essence. I’ll never know how Karen is truly feeling … but it allows me a window into her soul, to be my perception of where she is at.”
The Kamino piece is different every night, said Karen, “because we work with imagery that comes to us; it’s not set imagery.”
While not religious, Allen described he and Karen as “Jewish to the core.”
“Some of our works have touched upon that aspect of our lives,” he said. “But, as creative artists, I would say the connection to being Jewish, in a sense, is that connection of always questioning, of not being satisfied with an answer.”
“But I would say that that is universal,” said Karen. “I don’t think that’s particularly Jewish, but that’s what’s led us, our heritage.”
Allen’s father was a survivor, and Allen has done series of works on his father’s life during the Holocaust, including two trilogies of films, he said, some of which are housed at Yad Vashem, in its permanent collection, as well as in the permanent collections of New York’s Jewish Museum, and Museum of Modern Art.
Karen said her parents never approved of her becoming a dancer, and certainly not her marrying one. “Acceptance came later,” she said, “after the commitment to our career went forward and they saw what fruits were coming. It’s a long road, establishing oneself as a dance artist…. But, here we are, 27 years into the company.”
For tickets to lifeDUETS and the full festival lineup, visit vidf.ca/tickets or call 604-662-4966.