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Dance retrospective a voyage of rediscovery

It may be tough as you age to consider that you've been doing any one thing for 25 years, but in Joe Laughlin's case, he recognized, perhaps after some initial reluctance, that it was something to be celebrated. The beloved and respected Vancouver choreographer – who made his professional debut as a choreographer 25 years ago – marks the anniversary next week with Retrospective: 25 Years , a program of three works at the Vancouver International Dance Festival.

Based on the history of these works – and an afternoon in the rehearsal hall – I would suggest it is not to be missed.

Mr. Laughlin, who owes his career in dance to an accident (more on that in a moment), can attribute this program to, if not quite an accident, some well-timed inspiration.

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About a year ago, Mr. Laughlin, now 51, was embarking on a new full-length work at around the same time he was reading Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. He came across a passage about institutional memory. "She was talking about ... the inherent power in looking back," Mr. Laughlin said at the Dance Centre this week. "We always think to be cutting-edge. We have to be going forward, but there's something valuable about looking back into the past."

It occurred to him that he has made 11 full-length works and some 50 others, but had never brought anything back. "Maybe I need to rediscover myself," he thought. "Maybe I don't know myself. And maybe if I do that, it'll help me go forward if I reconnect with myself, personally and artistically."

Mr. Laughlin was trained as a gymnast in Calgary. When he was 20, a tumbling pass gone wrong meant ligament surgery on his ankle and weeks in a cast. On the advice of a choreographer at his gym, he limped into a dance class, and – after pliés and other dance moves – he was able to do a cartwheel, and walk out. Beyond the healing ankle, something stirred in him.

He became a professional dancer and later a choreographer, forming his company, Joe Ink, in 1995. Along the way, he has learned from some of the greats – Judith Marcuse, Lola McLaughlin – and has also helped develop some of the greats in a new generation of Vancouver choreographers: Amber Funk Barton, Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.

"He creates this atmosphere of creativity for his dancers that is really potent and gives a lot of permission to be creative," said Ms. Friedenberg, who worked with Mr. Laughlin in The Body Remembers in 2002. "He's so supportive and so open to the messy stuff of art-making. It's hard and vulnerable and he's so generous with it and so open himself that, as a dancer, you just fall in love with him and with the process. And also, as an artist, I felt like it gave me permission to find my own voice in a way that I hadn't before."

For Retrospective, Mr. Laughlin has selected three works, dating back to 1997's Harold, Billy, Stan and Jack – which Mr. Laughlin refers to as "The Four Guys." The lighthearted work was inspired in part by a vintage photograph of his father and three uncles sitting on a couch wearing zoot suits, their legs crossed. The athletic work – there's a fair bit of couch jumping – features four female dancers dressed as men, set to film noir music.

It's followed by Left, a 2003 solo work originally danced by Mr. Laughlin, which he calls a pas de deux for a man and his teacup. Mr. Laughlin created the work after spending time in South Africa. The tea cup became a symbol for ritual, and the rituals of a foreign culture imposed on an unwilling host – England in Africa. "That cup, it represented value and power to me," he said.

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The most recent work on the program is 2011's dusk, an emotional piece created after Mr. Laughlin had a heart attack – he was just 47 – and when his friend Lola McLaughlin was dying. "In that six-month period, I survived and I got better and she battled cancer ... and she didn't. And I had a hard time reconciling that," he said. "I was hoping that I could translate that emotional experience that I had had into physicality that then would touch people in some way, that they would carry a response to that."

As he prepares for this retrospective, Mr. Laughlin – who is warm, funny and genuine, but also rigorous in the studio – has become somewhat introspective. Life has changed since the heart attack. "I don't do things I don't want to do. I don't go around toxic people. If I don't want to do it, I say no. ... I don't get stressed. I pick my battles."

He's certainly not done with dance. In fact, he's excited about his next endeavour: creating work for older bodies.

"In dance, it's all about these young bodies in space. And there's an irony in that because, when you've fully matured, and you're kind of at the height of your powers, your body starts to disintegrate. But your emotional and experience and all that life is really kind of vivid and potent. I'm interested in seeing what that's all about."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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