Carving Out a Place for Yourself

Brian Solomon graduated from the School in 2005. His path to dancing started in the tiny northern Ontario town where he grew up (Killarney, or Shebahononing, its Anishanaabe name, population 150), where his family was, as he says, “kinda poor”. They never thought of themselves that way though, since they ate so well, mostly local food from the land. His artistic outlet in his hometown was visual art, and he had inspiration from some of the many gifted artists who had worked there, including members of the Group of Seven. From there, he went to the most northerly performing arts high school in the province, Sudbury Secondary School, where he continued with his visual art, and added drama to his studies. Two influences combined to point him towards the School of TDT; one was studying Graham with our graduate Line Roberge, and the other was a trip to North Bay to see the Danny Grossman Dance Company, who performed Higher. Brian said to himself, “Oh my, dance can be that?!” He finished up his high school credits early, and moved to Toronto, entering the School at the age of 17.

As a student, he worked hard, not only in classes, but undertaking to be the student representative to the Board of Directors, so that he could “learn how it all worked”. At first, with his classmates, he says, he concealed his Indigenous roots, but gradually he began to “consolidate the various people inside”, and bring forward his true identity. Right after his graduation, he began a nine-month contract with Kaha:wi Dance Theatre, the company of Santee Smith, and was an outstanding performer in her program at the Betty Oliphant Theatre in 2005.

After working with Santee, he found himself craving “wilder, more contemporary work, closer to my own roots”, and he began to dance in Vancouver for Karen Jamieson, whose powerful duet The Man Within he had performed at the School in his third year. Since 2006, he has performed that work with Karen’s company, as he says, “at least 100 times”. As well, following his graduation, he did some work with D. A. Hoskins, Menaka Thakkar, and Bill James, and taught ‘express dance’ for Allen and Karen Kaeja. He also made an hour-long work himself for the Toronto Fringe Festival, when it opened up to presenting dance. The piece was “trashed by the powers that be”, but he felt very much encouraged by support from the dance community, including Michael Trent.

Feeling that it would be difficult for him to be accepted in Toronto as a choreographer, he moved to Vancouver, where he worked further with Jamieson, as well as with Jennifer Mascall and Battery Opera; he found himself gravitating towards artists who accepted more creative input from their dancers. In 2010, he returned to northern Ontario to marry; his husband was of German descent, and Brian began visiting Berlin, where he made many artistic connections. One of these was Tino Segal, a visual artist who presents movement installations in art galleries; this led to Brian performing at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2010. Another Berlin connection, with Brechtian progeny / theatre artist Johanna Schall, led Brian to experiments with teaching movement to non-dancers, a path which he has explored with passion since then.

Through these years, Brian kept returning to Vancouver, and in 2011, while on tour with Jennifer Mascall’s company, he had a severe bicycle accident which shattered his left shoulder. He eventually required three lengthy surgeries, and a year hiatus from performing. Subsequently, in Berlin once again, he worked with film-maker/visual artist Judy Ross, creating a work which resulted in a “Best Experimental Film Award”. But he found he was yearning to get back into dance, and decided he needed to re-train for a year. After his year of recuperation, the nerve damage was still so pervasive in his shoulder that although he could accomplish four pirouettes to his right, he could do none at all to his left. Brian has kept in close touch with many of his classmates from the School, and one of them, Anna Finkel, had gone on to the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, U.K., danced with their company Transitions, and done her M.A. there. Brian determined that that was the place for him to retrain, so he spent a year in London (the longest he had spent in any location since he was at the School in Toronto!). In the process of performing and touring with Transitions, he worked on his Master’s thesis, which involved research into teaching non-dancers to move. He theorized that the regularly accepted way (certainly at Laban) to start teaching adult beginners, with material and an approach one would use with young children, was not appropriate for people that might be masters of science, or accounting, or any other skill. He wanted to develop an approach that would key in directly to the experience of moving. His research culminated in an impressive outdoor performance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, commemorating the 100th anniversary of that work’s first performance in London. Twenty of Brian’s 25 performers had never danced before; for almost all of them English was their second language. Five professional dancers were included within the cast, but such was the commitment and aptitude of the non-dancers, even a trained observer could not distinguish between them in the performance.

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Brian’s Rite of Spring project

The Idle No More movement, a global grassroots Indigenous-led resistance, had begun while Brian was in Britain, and he felt strongly tempted to return to Toronto to participate in the manifestations that were in progress – but instead he found a way to start up Idle No More events in Britain, including giving a series of lectures at the University of London on the concept of colonization. He even assisted Myrdle Court Press of London to bring over to Britain one of the founders of the INM movement, Sylvia McAdam, to share her understanding of and insight into the thoughts and worldview of nêhiyawak (Cree) laws and world view.

To Brian, his approach to teaching movement was a method of “decolonizing” the body, and harmonized beautifully with the Indigenous ways he aspired to live by. In his teaching, he didn’t use any traditional dance terminology, but aimed for articulation, presence, range of motion, the ability to remember movements, and similar skills shared by trained dancers. His goal was to let people find their whole body, and learn to be expressive in movement.

Toward the end of the Rite of Spring project, one participant, who revealed that he was a surgeon, told Brian that the experience had radically changed his own body language, as well as the way he looks at the bodies of his patients – no longer as a machine, but as a whole body. This was an immensely gratifying and rewarding gift, for Brian.

Returning to Canada after his year in Britain, Brian continues to teach – in Vancouver, at the Vancouver Training Society; and at Trent University, for the Centre for Indigenous Theatre; among others. About a year ago, after a difficult personal struggle, he undertook a six-week bicycle trip from Vancouver to Mexico; he recommends the experience as one of the most healing things one can do for oneself.

His next venture into dance was the co-creation and performance, with Justin Many Fingers, of a powerful autobiographical work called What’s Left of Us, that opened in Toronto, and toured to Vancouver and Edmonton. And now he is rehearsing for a new work of his own, with CBC radio documentary-maker Cindy Bisaillon, using her 1974 piece The Indian Way. The new work, called The NDN Way, integrates elements of Cree philosophy into a collage of abstract imagery and movement. It premieres as part of the Weesageechak Begins to Dance Festival, at the Aki Studio Theatre, Daniel’s Spectrum, on November 18th. The piece will then likely tour to Vancouver, and possibly to Australia in December, where Brian is due to participate in an international conference for Indigenous creators.

article 4To a young dancer today, Brian says:

“You have to create your own existence as a dancer, and curate your own career. The dance landscape has changed; there are few companies, and no-one making a schedule for you. There is a lot of freedom within this framework, and if you have your wits about you, you can carve out a place for yourself.”

Brian has certainly done so for himself, with tremendous success.

Catch Brian in his upcoming performance as part of the Native Earth Performing Arts Festival, Weesageechak Begins to Dance, on Wednesday 18th November.