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Ruth (Babs) Asper

Rachel Browne


Jane Enkin


Review of Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers December 2011 Program -New Choreography from Roger Sinha, Rachel Browne C.M. and Brent Lott

by Jane Enkin with files form the Winnipeg Jewish Review, Dec 9, 2011

Rachel Browne's new dance Radiance, dedicated to the memory of Babs Asper and composer Ann Southam,  premiered on December 1 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Browne, a  ballet dancer, modern dancer, teacher and award winning choreographer (born Ray Minkoff at Philadelphia, Pa,  Nov 6, 1934), was awarded the Order of Canada for her many artistic achievements.

I had the lovely opportunity to speak with the choreographer and with Babs Asper's daughter, Gail Asper, who saw the performance for the first time on Sunday.

Rachel Browne spoke of her long relationship with Babs Asper, first as social acquaintances and then as macheteynim ( Rachel’s daughter Ruth married David Asper) and, especially after a family Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel, as good friends.
Browne’s  first intentions were to create a solo piece for company member Kristin Haight, and to explore the music she had in mind. As the dance developed, she wove into it her thoughts about dying and loss, but also powerful and joyful thoughts of life. It was only after she gave the dance its name that she realized it would be a fitting memorial to two friends she had lost recently.

She wrote, “In memory of the late Babs Asper, who loved dance, and composer Ann Southam, who turned to the music of Bach for solace.”

As Browne told the Winnipeg Jewish Review in a telephone conversation after the event, “I got to know Babs because Ruth married her son David. I started to meet her at family gatherings… I was on a bus with her [and the family] for ten days in 2007. I was foolish enough to go with my grandchildren through caves and when I steppe d off an uneven rock and fell, Babs called me to the hotel to see if I was O.K. and needed medicine...What I admired about her was her kindness and generosity as a person..her caring for people and her love of her family.”

“Babs had no airs about her. She was warm hearted and down to earth..She had been a supporter of the Contemporary Dancers for a long-time….We used to talk about books we had each read. She said she gave herself permission to read when she was out at the lake.”
Gail Asper, Babs’s daughter, said that the dance was perfect for her mother. The brightly coloured costume was just right, she said – the kind of colour her mother always enjoyed.
As Ruth Asper, Rachel Browne’s daughter said of the dance Radiance, “It was very moving…I know Babs had lots of discussions with my mother about dance..Babs would often comment on the beautiful movement of dance… The costume [for Radiance] was orange, and the floor was lit in blue tones.”
Radiance, the solo dance by Kristin Haight, set to the music of J.S. Bach., was nine minutes long, with each section created in response to a Bach arrangement recorded by Sephardi Jewish pianist Murray Perahia, President of the Jerusalem Music Centre. The dancer and the choreographer listened over and over to the music as they developed the piece, working to time delicate quick running movements to the fastest musical sequence, and to bring power to the lyrical, gentle sequences. Every movement was filled with emotion, drawing on Ms. Haight's acting skills as well as her strength and grace. There were some introspective, withdrawn gestures in the piece, and many exuberant moments. The dancer often moved with an upward gaze and upraised, open arms, giving a sense sometimes of petition, but most often of joyful praise
The second premiere in the program, Untold, was more challenging to watch and understand. The choreographer, Brent Lott, artistic director of the Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers, pointed out to me that the uneasy mood was created in part by the many movements that were off-centre.
The dance opened with a dark stage, a small light showing us one dancer singing.The rest of the dancers then took the stage. One mysterious figure, costumed differently from the others, stayed at the back wall, observing, sometimes gesturing as if she wished to join in but then restraining herself. The other dancers sometimes ignored her, at other times seemed to be dancing for her. In the last sequence, the observer burst forth in energetic, curving movement, singing a Lou Reed song:
Just a perfect day
you made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
someone good

Oh, such a perfect day
You just keep me hanging on
you just keep me hanging on

Of the three dance pieces, this seemed the most focused on form – the dancers moved through sharp sequences of movement into angled, sustained poses. In the ensemble sections and many of the solos, their faces were neutral, their communication entirely through movement. Even though there were some tender duet sequences, this dance was filled with tension.

 Left Hook, Right Jab and other musical notes is a new dance by guest choreographer Roger Sinha. The narrative was clearly described in the choreographer's notes and in videos on the company's website. He told the story of his own journey to dance. Sinha moved to Canada as a young boy, and was the only person of colour in his class – he is of Armenian and East Indian background. “I was not welcomed with open arms but with closed fists usually aimed in my direction.”

Martial arts helped him face intolerance, but also introduced him to the pleasure of movement. He went on to study ballet, and then, when he was passed over as not “the perfect ballet body”, he continued in modern dance. Well into his dance career, he was introduced to classical Indian dance. The music as well as the choreography of Left Hook blended all these influences.

While I knew the story of the dance ahead of time, the humour was unexpected, – wonderful moments in the spoken rants of authority figures and in the playground games interspersed with the playground battles.
There was a strong contrast between the gorgeous movements of martial arts and the ugliness of schoolyard fights. It was clear that in the fights everyone got hurt, and the children appeared to direct violence at themselves as well as each other.
Out of a nasty scuffle, one dancer pulled herself away, and rapturously entered the world of ballet. The others all joined her, but this pleasure was short lived, as a ranting ballet teacher rejected each of them for physical flaws -- “too short, too tall, too fat, your feet are like dead fish.” Without a pause the dancers moved into modern dance and classical Indian dance moves.
The narrative ended there, but the piece continued in the kind of joyful choreography that makes one want to leap up and dance. It was easy to see how the vocabularies of martial arts, ballet, modern dance and Indian dance intertwined. Sinha, who spent seven weeks in Winnipeg preparing the piece, trained the dancers to hold their hands in precise, traditional positions and to strike the floor to make noise. The motions of conflict in the first part of the story were transformed into duets and trios of communication.
In the duets, the dancers showed their delight in the movement and in one another. It was striking in this piece that during unison group sections each dancer expressed their own personality, in facial expression, line and energy. They were like jazz musicians interpreting a song – one melody, but many voices.
In his notes, Brent Lott said “... all the dances in today's program affirm the need for us all to be seen and heard.”
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