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Bill Coleman & Gordon Monahan’s Dollhouse

Canadian choreographer Bill Coleman and sound artist/composer Gordon Monahan share the stage this March in Dollhouse, which encompasses tap dancing, performance art and sound installation to depict a descent into visual and sonic chaos. We sat down with Bill and Gordon to discuss how they met, the creation of Dollhouse, and the challenges they face with this complex piece.

The Dance Centre (TDC): What brought you to your respective art forms?

Bill Coleman (BC): I started tap dancing at 15 in Hastings, England. A Fred Astaire film series was on television and I asked my Mum if I could take tap classes. I liked it and they recommended I learn some other styles if I wanted to keep dancing… I learnt some ballet and this very odd version of modern dance which bears no relationship to anything we consider modern dance. I applied to Bird College in London and my Mum ordered a dance belt through the mail, as it was required. I don’t recommend that anyone get their first dance belt that way… it was an extraordinarily painful item to wear that made it difficult for me to stand straight without my eyes watering.

Gordon Monahan (GM): My parents forced me to begin piano lessons at the age of 8. I’ve played music since then.

TDC: When and how did you meet?

BC: Gordon was in my tap class. Kidding. I was living in a loft in New York and Gordon moved in when I moved out. Years later I invited him to create music for a project, Grasslands, in Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. We have since worked together several times.

GM: We met in 1987 in Brooklyn when I rented a sublet in a loft that Bill had been living in. I then saw some of Bill’s performances and he saw some of mine, but we didn’t start to work together until 2004.

TDC: What inspired Dollhouse?

GM: The idea was to create a multi-layered performance that would entail dance, body performance, sound installation, slapstick, and interactive media art.

BC: My original thought was to do something very funny…a man in a room with everything going wrong. It ended up being something quite disturbing with about 4 minutes of humour…. which I guess is pretty funny.

TDC: How did the dance and music elements evolve during the creation of the piece?

GM: As we worked through the development of the piece, we found ways to combine the various elements and media with each other. We worked for short periods of time over about a two-year period and allowed space between working sessions to think of new ideas to bring into the work.

BC: All the sounds in the show are made, there is nothing pre-recorded or instruments played. Gordon and I experimented with a multitude of objects and actions that made noise: bowling balls rolling down stairs, mousetraps, candles burning a string, a sack of flour dropping on plates, etc. We selected the ideas that worked, held some poignancy, and were tourable.

TDC: There’s a huge number of objects on the stage – how challenging technically is it to tour?

GM: From the beginning of development of the piece, we restricted our stage design to materials that would pack up easily for shipping, but when set up on the stage would look larger than the individual parts

BC: It’s not as bad as it looks. We have toured to many continents and even did Edinburgh Fringe Festival where we set up in 25 minutes every day.

TDC: How have audiences around the world responded?

BC: It seems to be an unusual and different show for many people…almost unclassifiable. There are parts where people laugh but in general people feel the sense of deep struggle in the show.

TDC: What do you hope Vancouver audiences will take away from Dollhouse?

BC: Nothing – I hope they don’t take anything; we need all our props for the next run of shows.

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The Dance Centre and Vancouver New Music present
Bill Coleman: Dollhouse
Thursday-Saturday March 12-14, 2020 | 8pm
Scotiabank Dance Centre, 677 Davie Street, Vancouver

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Presented as part of the Global Dance Connections series

Photos: Daniel Paquet and Paul Antoine Taillefer