M-Body Dance presents: Dream Pavilion at DSW in Calgary, Alberta

It was a ten-year reunion for Davida and myself. In 2002, Davida invited me to be composer-in-residence at the superlative Banff Centre, nestled within the awe-inspiring granite domes of the Canadian Rockies. There, I developed a solo guitar score for her production, “Lyric”. Some of you may be familiar with my record “Lyric/Suite” – this was the music for that production. The album was released by Accretions and can still be purchased online via iTunes, CD baby and the like. Here’s a link to a promotional video made for that production:

Working with her, dancers Alanna Jones and Su-Lin Tseng, and a fantastic crew was enriching in so many ways. Davida exhibits vision, playfulness and extensive knowledge that is not encumbered by academic antecedents. She also wants music that is developed along with the work and not as a source or an afterthought. This makes for a high level of integration between sound and movement, and the diaphanous realm where the two are one. For these and many other reasons, I received Davida’s invitation from late 2012 to rekindle our collaboration with a new work – “Dream Pavilion.”

“Dream Pavilion” is inspired by the Japanese art of Netsuke (pronounced netskay). Netsuke are diminutive, elaborately carved statues of humans, animals, dieties, monsters and other errata of the Japanese phantom world. It was Davida’s vision to take these and transform their incredible detail and static expression into movement.

Dancers in variant of 'Netsuke' postures with choreographer Davida Monk

Dancers in variant of ‘Netsuke’ postures with choreographer Davida Monk

I flew to Calgary in late March for an intense two weeks of development, rehearsal and a short run of performances. In the spirit of the work, and without wanting to get too specifically Japanese, I expanded my palette of guitar, objects and pedals to include, shakers, bells and Đàn nguyệt. The latter is a Vietnamese instrument that looks like kind of like a banjo, has two to three nylon stings (fishing line) and raised frets that allow the player to squeeze the string to change pitch or for expressive adornment:


I purchased it in Hanoi from a second-generation luthier named Mr Dum (pronounced Zoom – how cool is that?). I was very excited to use it and this was going to be its debut.

The last project we did had a period of development that lasted a month and we were able to avail ourselves of the amazing artistic and technical resources that the Banff Centre offers. This time, we had two weeks and I stayed with Davida and her partner, the very accomplished and increasingly recognized composer Allan Gordon Bell. Spending time with him was amazing as he taught me much about music in general and was crucial in helping me develop and refine my score, as he had been when we did “Lyric”. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to stay with such a warm, open and dauntingly intelligent couple! The time was shorter, resources scarcer but I wouldn’t trade my time there for any fancy arts facility!

Even better was that they live an hour outside Calgary, in Botrell, among the prairies east of the Rockies. Beautiful rolling pasteurland, dappled by sporadic copses and rich with birdsong, the lowing and baying of cows and sheep and the eventide sonatas of the coyote packs, furtively howling in the recesses and coulies of the landscape. And in the west, the nexus of scrub and sky sheared by the ragged spine of the Rockies, spreading north and south beyond the eye’s domain. This place was magic.

For this project, I was working with two dancers who were new to me, and I to them. Helen Husak and Walter Kubanek each are amazing dancers; rippling with power, grace, control and fluidity. As people, they are an absolute delight, not only to work with, but to be with. My one regret is that we didn’t have enough time to just hang out and enjoy each other’s company. That will have to wait until next time.

Dancers Walter Kubanek and Helen Husak

Dancers Walter Kubanek and Helen Husak

It’s always different working with dancers. There is often much to discuss, analyze, and refine. The inclusion of input from people outside the production is immensely helpful and I always learn much about process. There is a lot that I take away from these experiences to include in my own process. Also, because of the physical demands placed on dancers, rehearsal is vastly different. Unlike musicians, especially like myself, who is literally just sitting there, dancers just can’t run something again and again. This means we have to be all the more focused with runs because we’re only going to be able to run it once, maybe twice a day.

It also takes time to, not only learn the language of dance, but to even see it at all. So aware of their bodies and movements, dancers can perceive incredible distinction in two movements that would look identical to me. This, and past work has drastically increased my sensitivity and the resolution with which I view dance, and much more. Again these things feed all aspects of my work and my life.

These types of performances make me nervous. So much to be aware of and to initiate accurately. I would get butterflies before each performance. Will I play my parts well? Will I miss cues? Will my pedals crap out on me mid show? What do I do then? The arc from reward of a good run to the fear of being able to, not only repeat, but improve upon it, is actually pretty unpleasant for me. But I feel so lucky to work in a manner where I can still feel that after twenty years of performing.

In the end, all four shows were good at the very least and truly great at best. We were all so on it somehow. OK so weird stuff like a fret on the dan nguyet flew off, a pedal misfired and I might have missed a cue here and there, but the recovery was fast and nothing truly missed a beat. As ever working in Calgary with Davida and the artists with whom she works is so enriching on professional and personal levels.

I must admit that I had a very prideful moment when I met one of Allan and Davida’s friend, John Roberts, and his wife Christine. John was director of the CBC during it’s heyday. There he championed new music by Canadian composers and brought these oft overlooked artists some deserved recognition. This fellow was friends with Stravinsky! I understand the he brought Stravinsky to North America (or Canada) for the first time. He was also very close to Glenn Gould during his CBC tenure. When he expressed enthusiasm for the music I was so moved I was almost speechless. It really meant a lot to me to get that kind of feedback so someone that ran with the man that changed the world of music and ushered in the 20th century. In most cases, people say these types of things are humbling but if I were to be honest, it might have had the opposite effect!

This trip also afforded me the opportunity to explore Calgary’s small but dedicated improv scene. I did a radio show on CJSW FM with Paula Feyerman and a couple gigs. The first was with percussionist Robin Tufts for his and Pat Tuft’s series, Music for Soup. The shows happen in the Tufts home and the audience is charged with bringing monetary donations as well as an ingredient to add to a roiling soup stock that is provided by Pat and Robin. What a great idea and experience it was! The second gig was at Weeds Café (hehe) for part of the Bug Incision series, curated by percussionist Chris Dadge. He seems to be the mover and shaker in the improv scene there and is doing great work bringing improvisers to Calgary and fostering an incipient but dedicated scene within. There I played solo and in trio with Chris and another percussionist, Eric Hamelin. More on the community’s work at:


My time spent with our neighbors to the north was truly enriching and I’m so grateful to my collaborators and the people who came out to support the work. In June I will be recording the score to “Dream Pavilion” at Gravelvoice in Seattle with the inimitable Scott Colburn. Hopefully this will see a release in the near future as “Lyric/Suite” did a decade ago. As I write, Davida is seeking the funding to tour this project next year. Keep an eye out for further developments…

Learn more about “Dream Pavilion” and Davida Monk’s other work at:


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