NO GUILT: Interview with Peggy Baker personæ home

Montreal-based dance critic Aline Gélinas spoke to Peggy Baker during production of No Guilt on April 4, 1994, in Toronto.

Aline Gélinas: I would like you to talk about the first time you saw the work - you saw Susan dancing the work?

Peggy Baker: I didn't see it live, no. It was legend (laughs)... I was living in New York City and I only heard about this work. The first time I ever saw it was on videotape... I didn't even see a live performance.

Aline Gélinas: And that was convincing enough for you to want to learn it?

Peggy Baker: Yes.

Aline Gélinas: Talk to me about your reaction.

Peggy Baker: Well, one of the first things that struck me about the piece, thinking about doing it myself, was that it was going to be a very big stretch for me. I was just moving out of being a company dancer to doing solo work, and I was looking for ways of changing my own perception of myself as a dancer. (laughs.) I really felt I was going to have to move very far to bring myself to that work, because the imagery was very strong, very harsh.... So I found it a little bit frightening, and at the same time it attracted me.

Aline Gélinas: How did you work on it? Did you start by learning the steps through the video, and then meeting with Susan? Tell me about the process.

Peggy Baker: I started by getting in touch with Paul-André.... When I went into the studio with Susan, it was, I think, even harder than I anticipated (laughs) in terms of bringing myself to the work. The movement style was different from anything I had done before, and also it's a very, very personal work, and I wasn't learning it from the choreographer, I was learning it from an interpreter, the person who the work was made on. So it was very difficult to tell the difference between the dancing and the choreography, and Paul-André needed to unravel that a little bit later when we got together. I feel in a way I'm still unravelling that, because it's such a personal work.

Aline Gélinas: Could you describe what you felt when you first saw it on video, how you received it?

Peggy Baker: (deep breath) I'm trying to think back. (laughs.) It's very strange when you're looking at something wondering if it's something for you. It's very different from going into a theatre and watching a performance. A couple of people said to me, "this is a really great work, and it's not being done... maybe this is something that you could do."

I think what I really felt when I was looking at it was... (laughs) a sense of awe, about the shape and the implications of the work, and also the performance of it. I felt that was going to be a big stretch for me. It was a little overwhelming, both seeing the work, and imagining that it might be something that I would take on.

Aline Gélinas: Was there another level of meaning or feeling in it that you started to get only in the studio with Susan?

Peggy Baker: Yes. Very often things feel in dance quite different than they look, and moments that you think are going to be very difficult for you aren't, and other things that you had thought, "oh, that's very straightforward", turn out to be very complicated.

I can think of two things in particular that I was very worried about. (laughs). There's a moment when the woman is holding the rock, comforting it, and then she wants to nurture the rock and she takes her breast out of her dress and she nurses the rock. I thought, "that's going to be really hard for me", because I hadn't ever exposed myself on stage before. The other place that was really worrying me was putting the rocks between my legs and slamming one against the other.

These were places where really intimate, sexual, and very dark, complicated feelings were going to be coming out in this dance. It really surprised me that when the moment came for these things in the choreography - they had to be done.... There was no moment of embarrassment or hesitation or confusion about those things, and that was exciting. (laughs).

When I was learning it, the excitement of the power of the choreography itself made those things necessary to express the whole dance.

In fact, the difficulty lay in a very different area for me, in my inner monologue, in how I was going to unwind the thread of some of the less eventful passages. That's still very challenging to me.

Aline Gélinas: Could you explain a little more what is going on when you're doing the piece, from the beginning to the end; what's the inside story?

Peggy Baker: (deep breath). The inside story has to do with the identification and the attachment to this burden - the rocks, that somehow represent different (inhales, laughs) things at different moments. The weight of them - it's almost like this person's identity has been reduced to these really heavy stones.

A lot of it has to do with some kind of self-image, the way that you think people see you, or how you see yourself; the rocks are both of those things. They're also the weight of the obstacles that that self-perception holds; the feeling "I can't do that", or, "that's going to be too hard", or "too heavy", or, "I'd have to put this down to do that".

They're a defence mechanism, in other words: "my hands are already full; I can't take on anything else", and they also have a sense of purpose attached to them. Their sense of self has to do with a sexual identity, also, and the weight of potential for femalehood. They represent both maybe the unborn child and also the un-lived moment.

Will those things happen?... And this is all happening in the dark; the dancer doesn't really know where they are, at least as far as the audience knows....

In your own feeling of the dance, a lot happens in a state of confusion and disorientation. Whenever anything happens to the rock - if a rock gets dropped, or if you're pulling it, there's a sense of confusion, of not even knowing they've been tied to you. I realized at one point, at the beginning when I lose the rock, I think it's completely gone, and I'm surprised, later, to feel this thing pulling my arm. I don't even know it's the rock and I'm pulling it in back to me, but I don't even know that that's the same rock that I was holding to my breast.

They get rediscovered at different times during the dance, and they mean different things. Then, for me, at the very end, there's a moment where I recognize the shape of the rock as reflecting the shape of my body, and I realize all over again, "they're mine, these are my rocks". I stumbled back into wherever I am lost, but I rediscovered them and I rediscovered myself through the rocks.

Aline Gélinas: Is this woman a character similar to one you would find in theatre, or in what way would it be different?

Peggy Baker: For me, it's more like a figure you see in a painting. It's more abstract; it's visual metaphor, visual theatre. In the end I have a lot of abstract thought; I ended up not being able to develop a text about the thing in my head, because a lot of it was really more textural, and had more to do with temperature and light and those kinds of things. I think of this woman as being in a landscape, or part of a picture.

Aline Gélinas: So you learned it through Susan, and then you met Paul-André. We were talking about this feeling of being a woman. Did it surprise you that Paul-André, a man, could make this dance?

Peggy Baker: Oh yes. (laughs).

Aline Gélinas: Did it surprise you that people react very intensely to Paul-André's work? Is there any reaction that you got from the audience that was particularly meaningful for you?

Peggy Baker: I've always had a really appreciative response to this work, and the reviews that have been written about it I feel have really understood what was going on inside the work; also I've felt from the audience a sense of not wanting to let go of it too soon... On many occasions the audience would take a very long time before they started to applaud; the piece would finish, and there would be a black-out, and clearly the dance was over, and the amount of time would go by that we often experience in the theatre, and then another beat would go, and another beat.... and then something would happen. I've often had this experience with this dance, of people wanting to cling to their thoughts in response to it.

Really the only negative thing I've heard about the dance is from my own sister. I think that was because she saw me, whom she knows so well - I wasn't an abstraction at all - and she saw me: the costume is all wrapped around, and the ropes are wrapped around, and I'm blindfolded, and I'm carrying these heavy rocks. She was very upset by this, and she said to me backstage, "I'm really upset with the choreographer for putting you in that position." I said to her, "Well, in fact, there's nothing here that's painful to me physically, and I think that it's a very important dance. The message or the meaning inside the dance, for me, is very important, and I want to speak it myself, with my own body."

Aline Gélinas: Could you elaborate on that meaning - what's in the dance? You said, "it doesn't hurt, in fact, it fulfils something." Could you talk about that?

Peggy Baker: Well- I think it fulfils something because it's true. Inside the dance is something that's true about myself, and I think true about women, generally; that we have things holding us back in some way, and part of it is our sexual destiny - part of it is the fact that our bodies are meant to give birth to something, and to care for that thing. That's a kind of a weight that we carry, and that it can come between ourselves and the world that we live in. It can become confused, but, in the end, there's no guilt attached to that, there's nothing wrong, nothing bad about having to struggle with that.

That is one of the real struggles for women, to come to terms with that in themselves, and it's not an easy choice. It's heavy, and it pulls you back and forth through many different kinds of circumstances; in the end you have to look at it yourself, and let other people look at you, and know that what you chose for yourself - how to live that out - was right for you, in the circumstance of your own life.

Aline Gélinas: If we go back to the title, "Non Coupable" - to what does it apply? How do you see it?

Peggy Baker: For me, I interpret that as being about how I choose to live out my destiny, and how I deal with the burden or the weight of my own self-image and my own sexual identity and experience - there's nothing moral, there's no blame to be laid; I can't be guilty. Being a woman doesn't make me guilty. And how I choose to be a woman, and how I'm going to take care of that (laughs) burden, or how far away from it I can really move, and still feel secure, is not going to incriminate me in the end.

Aline Gélinas: So the challenge as a dancer was much more on the dramatic side.

Peggy Baker: Through the dramatic side, and also, for me, a willingness to take my sexual identity onto the stage, because most of my work is extremely abstract dance work. A lot of it is about music, for example; it has very different kinds of concerns, and it's not very often anything to do with more intimate aspects of myself. Any kind of portrayal of those things on the stage was really unnerving to me, and I wanted to push myself to confront that because I think it's part of the whole picture.

In some ways I was going around it a little bit, and I think, for me, it was time to look at that, to allow myself to be looked at onstage as a woman, and as somebody (laughs) confronting difficulty. I think I was uncomfortable with both of those things: being looked at as a sexual being, and also being looked at as somebody who wasn't in control.

About Aline Gélinas, interviewer:

Aline Gélinas (1956-2001) wrote extensively about theatre and dance in Montreal. She contributed to the daily La Presse and the weekly Voir, as well as to a number of specialized publications. She taught dance history and in her later years devoted her time to editing books on dance, to writing fiction, and to performance.

Interview edited by Susan Macpherson