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INTERVIEW | Choreographers Sophie Dow And Malgorzata Nowacka-May Talk About Chimera Project Dance Theatre’s Unclearing Double Bill

By Anya Wassenberg on March 28, 2024

L-R: Soft, choreographed by Malgorzata Nowacka-May (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli); Agrimony, choreographed by Sophie Dow (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)
L-R: Soft, choreographed by Malgorzata Nowacka-May (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli); Agrimony, choreographed by Sophie Dow (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)

In Unclearing, a double bill, the Chimera Project Dance Theatre offers audience two world premieres that revolve around overlapping themes. They take place at Harbourfront Centre on April 5 and 6.

Both consider questions and themes that confront the individual in society — how do we search for authenticity? What fears hold us back? But, choreographers Sophie Dow and Chimera founding Artistic Director Malgorzata Nowacka-May bring distinctly different approaches to those ideas.

We spoke to Sophie and Malgorzata about their works, Agrimony and Soft, respectively, and their collaboration on the show.

Agrimony, choreographed by Sophie Dow (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)
Agrimony, choreographed by Sophie Dow (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)

The Interview

Sophie Dow’s Agrimony was co-created with composer and musician Laura Reznek. Reznek performs her indie pop album Agrimony live during the performance, incorporating four dancers in masks. The title is based on the flower of the same name, a small yellow bloom that is used in plant-based medicines. As a healing plant, its behind the central idea of the piece as healing by removing our masks. Reznek sings, and plays piano, violin and guitar, with Jonah Ocean on cello, guitar, and background vocals.

In Nowacka-May’s Soft eight dancers depict the monotony and futility built into modern lifestyles, shrinking our consciousness from the physical world to the small virtual screen. Reconnecting with our natural intuitions, the kind our bodies already understand, is key.

“The Chimera Project Dance theatre has been running a dance mentorship program for many, many years,” explains Malgorzata Nowacka-May, describing how she met Sophie Dow years ago. “I was immediately compelled by the energy and commitment that Sophie brought to every rehearsal.” It was clear she was on her way to a professional career.

Sophie went on to become a dancer, and then associate artist with Chimera Project. “I asked her, what would be your dream project in this context?”

Over time, the idea developed around ideas both were invested in, but where they had completely different entry points. It resulted in a thematic overlap, but with exciting differences in conception to juxtapose in a program.

“Also, I am a dinosaur, and Sophie is much younger,” she jokes.

For Sophie, the specifics of Agrimony began with meeting Laura in 2019. She recalled hosting her in Toronto while she worked. The two artists connected, and Laura played a demo of one of her songs from a cell phone.

“Just a beautiful song,” Sophie recalls.

During the pandemic, Laura got the good news that she’d received a significant grant to record an album. It allowed her to record at Monarch Studios with a string quartet and 40-person choir.

“Unbiased it’s a masterpiece of an album.”

When COVID hit, Sophie was in Toronto with some studio space she was using to rehearse. “I was losing dancers every day,” she recalls. “Eventually it was just Laura and I.” And so, the dance came into being. “We both had this collective vision.”

As Laura plays the album from start to finish from the stage, as a character in the piece rather than an accompanist, Sophie’s dance is woven into the music. In Agrimony, the immediate effect is to ask the audience, what masks do you wear? “It illustrates things quite effectively.”

She developed the concept out of a sense of curiosity, and discussions with a friend who pointed out the subtle ways that, in our society, we can wear a multitude of masks. How does a mask develop, and when does it come off?

On an individual level, it asks, what are you afraid of, and how do you embrace those fears?

Soft, choreographed by Malgorzata Nowacka-May (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)
Soft, choreographed by Malgorzata Nowacka-May (Photo: Vitantonio Spinelli)

Malgorzata’s work is often influenced by her fascination with the horror genre. “It comes in a fair bit. People find resonance with the horror genre because it offers us a buffer for processing our fears, but also our desires,” she says. “It is a very interesting vessel of connecting us with something that is oddly spiritual.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that the dance resembles a horror movie in any way. The dancers suggest the unknown, the idea of things that could be true, but with a level of doubt. “That whole area that we culturally don’t venture into very much.”

What should audiences take from the experience? “The core message within the work […] it’s actually very difficult to describe in words,” Malgorzata says.

Through the physicality of the dancers, she’s aiming for the audience to experience “a kind of charge when people overcome something visceral, and become for a split second a super hero.” Transformation is the key in her work, finding the extraordinary in humanity through its effort.

“They’re incredible dancers,” she says, “they have barriers and experiences and evocations that create a transformative environment for them, that they, as a consequence, explode out of. You feel the effort and lightness and impossibility of what’s happening before your eyes,” she adds.

“[It’s] a glimpse of how extraordinary our capacity is.”

  • Get tickets for the April 5 and 6 [HERE].

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