The worth of, 2014 © Carl Hansen

Sarah Stoker, a 1996 graduate of the PTP, is now back in her native Newfoundland, fully immersed in the dance community there. We asked her to tell us about her path. Here is her story:

I had been dancing since I was a child. I do not remember starting or asking to start but my parents, both involved with the arts, put me in dance at a young age. I danced my entire childhood relatively intensely, until I was teenager, being part of Kittiwake Dance Theatre, a pre-professional company, with classes and rehearsals after school most days and on the weekends, syllabus exams, four shows/recitals a year, etc.

It never occurred to me to actually be a dancer, to have that be a career, or a life path. I drifted away from dance as I got close to finishing high school and started university… having not a clue on earth what I wanted, or should do in my life. I went to one term of university and realized that was certainly not for me at that time. My dear friend Gillian Smith (School of TDT alumna), with whom I had danced all my life, was going to the School’s summer program. It was 1993. She suggested I join her. Having no sense of what I wanted to be doing at 17 years old, I decided to go.

We had a great time that summer, loving the intensity of the full days of classes. We thrived in the environment. We were asked to stay on for the three-year program and we did. It was an excellent period of time for me. I loved all the instructors and the intense physicality that was required. It brought my understanding and confidence to an entirely new place. I started growing in a new and very important way, and I became a much stronger dancer and person.

I still never considered continuing on and dancing for a living once I finished the program. Having no plan, but being a technically strong dancer, I was asked by a number of choreographers – Jennifer Lynn Dick, Michael Menegon, and David Pressault – to work on projects with them after finishing the program. I was working with these three wonderful choreographers in Toronto, still with no real plan, when I was hit on my bike by an SUV on Parliament Street, after leaving one rehearsal and on my way to another.

Full stop. Broken radial head (elbow), smashed up knees, major soft tissue mechanical damage to my neck and shoulder. I was not able to continue with any of the projects I was involved with, I lost my bartending job at the Rivoli, and I could not get Employment Insurance or welfare at that time because I would be getting insurance money at some point. That money came two years later and was laughable, given the disruption to my life at the time of the accident. Insurance payments do not take into consideration the conditions of dance work, or tips. I had no money and could not work, so this was my cue to leave Toronto. I retreated back to Newfoundland for the summer to heal. Once again, still, with no plan.

Knights Impro 3, Gutsink, 2003 © Colin Stoker

A guardian angel of mine had called me to her office upstairs in the TDT building many months before, as the end of the PTP was approaching. The amazing and invaluable Judy Harquail was a friend and colleague of my father’s, and so I had ended up babysitting her child through my time at the School. She became my friend. She wanted to know what my plan was. Upon my revealing to her that I did not have one, she printed a Canada Council grant application for me and said to go home and write a grant. Unbeknownst to me, this would be a dramatically important new part of my life. It was the first grant I would write, the first of MANY.

What would I write? What do I ask for? I didn’t make work at the time…. Judy said to ask for money to go to Montreal to see the Festival International de Nouvelle Danse for two weeks. Go to every single show and any and all classes and workshops possible. I wrote the grant. She approved.

Fast forward, St. John’s, NL summer, 1996, elbow and knees healed; Sarah with no plan. A letter arrives in the mail… I got my grant. In September, off I went to Montreal, and that is where I stayed for some very important years.

I learned and experienced so much during that one festival, being exposed to such a range of important international dance, artists, ideas, and aesthetics. That continued all through my time in Montreal. While there, I worked for Lynda Gaudreau’s Compagnie de Brune, Pigeons International, David Pressault, George Stamos, and others. I was fortunate to have opportunities to travel and perform in Brazil, and numerous times in Europe.

The longer I was in Montreal, and the more I was exposed to, I began to be drawn to experimenting and creating my own work. Not long after this transition in my path, I made the decision to move back to St. John’s. I was missing my home, but also felt that if I was to start creating work, I wanted to do that in Newfoundland, and try to be involved with building up our community there.

In my skin, 2017 (collaboration with Omar Badrin, Bonavista Bienalle, NL) © Richard Stoker

Upon my arrival back in St. John’s, I started a collective and production company, Gutsink Prods, for the purposes of generating increased opportunities for creation, exploration, and experimentation within the dance and interdisciplinary communities. Also, with my dear friend and mentor Robbie Thomas, we picked up and restarted Neighbourhood Dance Works and the Festival of New Dance, after they had been dormant for a period of time. NDW and the FND have been around for 37 and 27 years respectively, and are two of the most beloved and recognized organizations/events in the country. That is no small feat, given the geographic and population context of St. John’s, NL. Our local and provincial communities are rich and flourishing; albeit small, they are mighty!

I have now been back in NL and creating work for over 15 years. I worked intensely for NDW and the FND for about seven years. Robbie and I and our board searched diligently to find someone to take the reins for us, as we needed to move on. Calla Lachance was that person, and she is running NDW and the FND to this day, ten years later, absolutely thriving and achieving incredible gains for the organization, festival, and local and national communities.

My own work lives mainly within the forms of dance and inter/multi-disciplinary based performance, incorporating film, video, and photography, as well as installation and visual artifacts. I keep issues of ecology and humanity as the focus of my work. I believe that art is an active force in life and should therefore be a vehicle for action in our communities. I am passionate about our relationship to the Earth and each other, and try to speak to the fractured nature of our physical world.

I am very interested in the correlation between the health and function of Earth’s ecology and that of our psychology and physiologies. How does one grieve for loss of habitat, species, and ways of life? How can artists reach beyond lamentation for personal and collective losses relating to the Earth?

Through solitary improvisational movement research as well as collaborative relationships, I am always interested in somatically charged possibilities of movement production, sentiment, and meaning. Through a deep internal dialogue developed over time, and through honest process and questioning, I believe we can experience profound connections to each other and our environments, and produce meaningful, articulate, and thoughtful work. I hope that my work acts as a metaphor for connection, for physiological and embodied commonality of performers, audience, ideas, community, insight, and experience.

Our heart breaks, 2016 © Richard Stoker

I have mainly worked as a solo artist for most of my career. This past couple of years, however, I have started working with a group. The new piece, Our heart breaks, was booked to premiere at the Canada Dance Festival in May, 2018, but alas, that will not happen as the festival has been suspended due to inadequate funding. I am working hard to find other opportunities to show this piece, with dancers Jacinte Armstrong, Mark Bath, Karen Fennell, Tammy MacLeod, Susie Paulson, Peter Trosztmer (1998 School graduate), Andrea Tucker (2002 graduate), and myself.

I run a Pilates, kinesiology, and massage therapy studio in St. John’s (ponylocale.ca) that is six years old, and before that I taught Pilates independently. Choosing to leave the larger centres while an active and employed independent dance artist was a very big, tough, and risky decision. I do not regret it for a second. I would not live anywhere else but where I am. But it is of course a very challenging place to be as far as making work and getting it seen, access to resources and funding, and having to balance making money in other ways than through dance. Notwithstanding the fact that it is always a struggle to be seen off the island, my work has been shown in the Atlantic region, Vancouver, Italy, and New York.

For any young dancers and students, or those considering dance… I say go for it. Know it will be incredibly difficult, but so much in life is. If it is something you love and it provides you an important vehicle for self-discovery and expression, then I believe its challenges are worth it. The world is changing rapidly. The dance world is very different now than it was 15-20 years ago when I was part of it in Montreal. We all have to be exceptionally resourceful, resilient, versatile, adaptable, and able to react and modify for change. We need a thick skin, and we need to be able to stay kind to ourselves.

I never did decide to be a dancer, but I ended up as one. It has been my greatest gift and source of learning and growth, and I forever cherish it.