© Tony Chong

Paige Culley is a 2010 graduate of the School, who has distinguished herself since graduation dancing with Compagnie Marie Chouinard, among others, and has recently been awarded the prestigious Prix de la danse de Montréal. The jury for the prize described her this way:

“Paige Culley brings an exceptional presence and deep-felt introspection to the stage. She pours her body and soul into research in order to inform the works she performs. The jury drew attention to her interest in creation, rigour, and commitment. This versatile dancer places herself at the service of the work. At once sensual and fiery, she brings a stunning maturity to the stage in spite of her youth, with a broad performance range, and is capable of exploring a variety of terrains.”

Always a notably gifted dancer, Paige’s talent has often been formally recognized. While she was at the School, she won the significant Hnatyshyn Award for Contemporary Dance, and after her graduation, she was awarded the 2012 danceWEB scholarship at the Festival ImPulsTanz in Vienna.

We asked Paige to tell us about her background, her life in dance, and her formative experiences. Here are some of her thoughts.

“Before I came to Toronto, I had studied jazz, tap, and ballet. I had a bit of a late start in formal training, but I did gymnastics as a kid. The floor routines with music were my absolute favourite part of that discipline. For a while, I wanted to be an actress and singer, but I was always falling totally in love with music and making up dances in my room. I spent a lot of time imagining different physical worlds. I liked to pretend I was a spy, or a magical wood spirit, or an “olden days” gal. I played outside a lot; I climbed a lot of trees and ran around in the woods behind my house. I was fortunate to grow up in a small town in BC, very close to nature, and my parents were both teachers, so we all had summers as a family together. We would spend time at a hand-built family cabin on Christina Lake that didn’t have electricity. I spent a lot of time in a very sensual world – in the water, in the sun, by the fire, playing with sticks and rocks, eating delicious food. This kind of embodiment had a lasting impact on me. In a way, that’s what I associate with “wellness”.

My older sister is a professional athlete, and she has always been a big force for me. I think we helped support each other a lot going through similar lifestyles for a while. I played sports too: basketball, volleyball, field-hockey, but by the time I was in grade 12, I was dancing and training really intensely (over 30 hours a week, or something crazy like that). I’m from the same small town, Rossland, BC, as Emily Tench (2004 grad), and she and I, while far apart in age, had had the same ballet teacher, Carole Bonin.

I started private training with Carole around age 14-15.  I had been part of a more recreational youth dance group, where I did tap, jazz, hip hop, and lyrical dance, but I knew I wanted to dance professionally, and Carole felt that the School of TDT was a top program. She helped me prepare my audition video. I remember it was my first time doing spine rolls and attempting double bounces! I had posted the audition notice up beside my bed, and looked at it each night. (Years later, I ended up doing something very similar for nearly a year before getting my job at Compagnie Marie Chouinard. I really believe in constant reminders of what I’m working on!)

It was a very, very exciting day when I found out I had been accepted to the School, and I had no problem passing up the university admissions. That year I had also just met Mairi Greig (2010 grad) for the first time at a competition in BC, and we made the pact to live with each other while we were students in Toronto. In fact, we lived together in various arrangements throughout our time in the PTP.

© Paige Culley

When I think back to my time at the School, I truly appreciate the intensity, and the attention. I felt that I mattered; improving mattered; connecting with others mattered; and dance mattered… a lot! It’s as if the training at the School instilled a rigorous acknowledgement of my performance in every moment: in class; in rehearsal; in the evening at home; alone; or out with friends. What I choose to think about in all those moments affects what I am, informs my movements…makes up what I am performing in all the many varying textures. I’ve always needed things to feel authentic.

I think Christine Wright said one day in class that you have to make the movements part of your DNA. Wow – so many inspiring teachers! I remember so many important moments: learning not to over-use my eyebrows; “my body was expressive enough”; just standing; just walking; not being coloured by the music; jumping; contracting; moving to live music; resting in the image.”

We asked Paige if she had any thoughts to share about her relationships with her classmates. She responded: “I maintain really precious relationships with several classmates. I remember when I first moved to Montreal, it was right after Ellen Furey had also made the move. We met almost every morning for coffee and ballet class. She has been a rock for me through all the unexpected journeys I’m finding in this profession. I was at Mairi Greig’s wedding last summer with Laura Corbeil; Stephanie Tremblay and I still keep in touch; Minae Omi and I have met up in Tokyo and Berlin…. My class feels like a part of my family. I’m actually at the moment working in a project with Riley Sims, and when we are together it feels like almost no time has passed. Even with classmates that I wasn’t as close with, or even with students from different years, I feel really happy to run into them, or hear about what they are up to. We all went through such intense things together…  I love people, and dance seems to attract really special ones.”

We asked Paige about her path immediately after graduating from the School.

“After graduating I remember attending ImPulsTanz in Vienna for the first time. It was my first experience of a European context. I took class with Benoît Lachambre for the first time. A lot of new ideas about the kind of dance I could be a part of started to take root. Once back in Toronto, I continued to train a lot. I remember doing a lot of weird experimental projects at that time, mostly unpaid or paid very little. I was going through a bit of a depression, and I focused on my technique and training to keep myself going. I wasn’t sleeping very well, and I started to lose a lot of weight. Michael Trent, then Artistic Director of Dancemakers, took me under his wing a bit, and I was involved with his company for the winter/spring season that year. Being a part of Dancemakers was a very special time.

It broke my heart when I had to make the decision to leave Dancemakers. I had been in a couple of Springboard summer intensives in Montreal in the two years after graduating. There, I was placed in the Chouinard group as well as Danièle Desnoyers’ group. In 2011, Danièle hired me for a new creation, and I got the pigiste/apprentice job with Chouinard, so I made the move to Montreal. It was a crazy transition…. I was overwhelmed with the Chouinard company’s work and wanted it all so badly. I also felt quite intense about forging a path for myself in Montreal. I was living with new people, and my French was very minimal. I was motivated to create and maintain a practice for myself, and I felt as if I had no money. But I was so very excited about my first European tours with Chouinard. We performed at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris. Around that time I also learned that I had been selected for an ImPulsTanz danceWEB Scholarship that summer, in Vienna.

Those six weeks totally changed everything! I met so many amazing people. I was training with Benoît Lachambre and Robin Poitras for something like six hours a day, living and breathing the whole ImPulsTanz danceWEB intensity. I felt as if I was letting everything evaporate away and off, as if a new centre core was pulsing. I was also developing a pretty intense eating disorder. I stopped having my period (it has taken me up until this year to get that back!).

© Pierre Langlois

The years following graduation and into my professional development were intense, and there is a bit of darkness around them. I was struggling with my mental and physical health, and completely wrapped up in holding myself to what now seem like totally insane standards. I danced for Marie Chouinard for five years, and that too completely changed my life. I have a lot of respect for her!

As well as Chouinard, over the years I have worked with many wonderful choreographers /musicians/teachers, among them: Daina Ashbee, Martin Bélanger, Mich Cota, John Jacob Courtney, Danièle Desnoyers, Ame Henderson, Susanna Hood, Judith Koltai, Antonija Livingstone, Robin Poitras, Linda Rabin, Tedd Robinson, Mårten Spångberg, Andrew Tay, and Doris Uhlich.

There has also been a considerable number of dancers and rehearsal directors whose work I cherish, and who have influenced me enormously: among those, I count Rob Abubo, Kim de Jong, Ben Kamino, Mariusz Ostrowski, Isabelle Poirier, and Carol Prieur, to name only a few.”

We asked Paige for her thoughts on performing; here is her response: “For me, performance is continually evolving. I think I’m most amazed when I feel I’ve lost track of where I am, and yet my senses are completely heightened. I feel super smart in a concentrated moment.  There’s also something very special about feeling connected – to the music, to the audience, to collaborators, to the universe. (Am I really saying that??) One thing I’m really trying to work on is letting go of fearfulness in my dancing and performing.”

As well as all her dance activity, Paige is currently involved in extra-curricular academic studies in anthropology, and we asked her for her thoughts on that part of her life: “Institutions can be very useful in formalizing commitments. Having some contrast in my energetic/intellectual activities has been really motivating.  Anthropology can venture into so many directions, and I feel so lucky to be the age I am with the experiences I have. I am constantly imagining new connections, which for me is the most vital thing.”

Finally, we asked Paige if she had any thoughts she might wish to offer to current students: “Be good to yourself; be good to each other. We are making our conditions; this is powerful.”

We wish Paige continued good fortune in all the aspects of her many-facetted life!