For nearly 20 years, Jolene Bailie has been a fixture of Winnipeg’s contemporary dance scene as a performer, teacher and incredibly prolific choreographer.
Through her own company, Gearshifting Performance Works, she has created 39 boundary-pushing pieces, including 10 full-length works.
Now, Bailie, 42, is embarking on a new challenge as the newly appointed artistic director of Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers.
"This is actually the first full-time job I’ve had in my entire life," she says with a laugh. "I worked the gig economy before the gig economy was a thing."
It’s also not lost on Bailie, a born-and-raised Winnipegger and a graduate of the School of Contemporary Dancers, that she’s the first female artistic director of the company since late founder Rachel Browne stepped down in 1983.
"I am super honoured. I’m excited. I am surprised but also thrilled. Throughout my career, I never thought I’d be a choreographer, I never thought I’d be an artistic director. I just always thought I would dance in a company and live that life."
WCD’s 2019/20 season starts tonight with Calibrations of Flux at 8 p.m. at the Rachel Browne Theatre. It’s an Emerging Artists Initiatives show in collaboration with the School of Contemporary Dancers featuring four works by Bailie that will be performed by Julious Gambalan, Shayla Rudd, Emily Solstice-Tait, Sharazade Vahid, Asistasiya Yevsigneeva and Fiona Witherell. Tickets are $15.
From Nov. 29 to Dec. 1, WCD will present Actualize, which features two new works by Winnipeg-based choreographers Ming Hon and Zorya Arrow.
"We are thrilled to offer increased opportunities to Winnipeg dancers through this show," Bailie says. "We have 10 dancers dancing, which is wonderful for contemporary dance where typically shows have smaller casts."
Guest company Mayday, from Montreal, will bring Animal Triste to Winnipeg from Feb. 13 to 15. The show explores how instinct intersects with relationships, and has been toured all over the world. "I’m so excited for this work," Bailie says. "I can’t wait for it to come here. I’ve been a fan of Melanie Demers, the choreographer, since I met her in 1996."
The final show of the season, New Creation, is a new piece by Bailie that will run April. 24 to 26. It’s an ensemble piece developed with her longtime collaborator, Hugh Conacher, with whom she has previously collaborated on more than 450 performances.
"I think it presents a really clear esthetic of contemporary dance," Bailie says of the season. "Although the works are quite different, there is a theme of commentary on humanness and society at the moment, right now."
All shows are at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Season tickets can be purchased here.
On the eve of her inaugural season at the helm of WCD, the Free Press chatted with Bailie about everything from her winding road to dance, her love of the news, and how she’s never binge-watched TV.
How did you get into dance? Did you start when you were a kid?
Like many people, the evolution into what they become is always slightly unexpected. I took recreational dance classes as a youth. I did some competitive Irish dancing. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. I didn’t get serious about dance until I was in high school, and then my entire life became about dance. For years of my life, I’d only read a book if it was about dance. There was this period of obsession, I would say.
Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to be a dancer?
I didn’t have a lot of traditional, formal training, so the summer I decided I was going to be a dancer, I couldn’t get into any summer program that appealed to me because I didn’t have the right training. So, I would go repeatedly to the library and take out all the dance books. I would try to catch myself up a bit. I got really interested in reading autobiographies and reading about dancers as people outside of the studio. I spent, seriously, a whole summer reading and trying to learn on my own. I’d rent the VHS from the library. It was completely ridiculous, but that’s what I did.
By the time I began classes in the fall, I still didn’t have any formal training but I had the look down (laughs). I danced every day. I went to multiple studios so I could take the most amount of classes anybody would let me. I took a lot of ballet — many days two ballet classes a day. I took jazz and tap, but my prime focus was ballet. That passion and drive and interest carried me for a really long time. Now, I like to think I live a more balanced life.
When did you fall in love with modern dance?
I actually didn’t start modern dance until I went to the School of Contemporary Dancers and their university program. I had come to a spot where I didn’t know if it would work out. I was already teaching. I came into the WCD program teaching quite a lot, and I just wanted to be in the studio all the time. And then it was evident that actually, it might work out. That was 23 years ago. I dedicated my entire adult life to contemporary dance. That being said, I love to watch everything.
What are some of your favourite activities outside of the studio?
I love to go to shows. I love to go to the theatre. I go to the ballet, of course.
Are you a binge-watcher? Are there any shows you’re into?
I’ve never binged on TV in my life. We still get cable at my house, so we don’t have Netflix or streaming of anything. Basically on TV, I only watch the news. I love the news. I think journalists are amazing. I think they live a life somewhat similar to performers and people who work in the arts in that they have these bizarre schedules, they have constant deadlines, they’re constantly researching. They have to balance all kinds of complexities of life.
I have a huge amount of admiration — and I also like to know what’s going on in the world.
What's the last book you read and loved?
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. It's so good.
What are some places you’ve been that have left an impression on you?
Most of my travel has been dance-related. I brought work to China in 2014 and 2015, which was wonderful — we even got to walk the wall. A few times I’ve toured my work to New York City, which is always the absolute best and is the biggest dream for most dancers. I spent some summers in San Jose, California, training; Port Townsend, Washington, is the most beautiful place in the Olympic Peninsula — I taught and performed with Bill Evans there. For six years in a row I toured to Victoria, and I absolutely loved it. I felt so at home there. It’s a really magical place.
And you know what? I absolutely love going to Gimli. There’s just something about the beauty and simplicity, and I don’t know if it’s an inherent prairie need to connect with open space.
What’s something from your day-to-day life you take pleasure in?
I love walking my kids to school (Bailie has three children, ages eight, six and 2 1/2). That little bit of time in the morning, that bit of chit-chat — I love that. It’s such a privilege to not be like, "Gah! Get in the car, go!" That is something I love.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.