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UNTITLED I. Photo: Andrea Peña & Artists.

Dance Preview: Andrea Peña and Artists’ UNTITLED I at the NAC

By Madeline Paiva on November 5, 2020

Andrea Peña & Artists’s UNTITLED I comes to the National Arts Centre on Thursday, November 5 at, 7pm. As part of NAC Dance’s #DanceForth programming, the performance will be live-streamed from the National Arts Centre. I was lucky enough to speak with Andrea Peña ahead of this performance.

Peña hails from Bogota, Columbia, but has been in Canada for quite a while, and in Montreal for seven years. She started as a professional dancer, dancing with BalletBC and Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal before choreographing. She discussed how important interdisciplinary approaches are to dance. She told me she started choreographing after a serious dance injury. “I’m also an industrial designer. I went back to university and studied industrial design. So, I started my undergrad and I’m at the moment doing my Masters in design. My design and choreographic practice are quite mixed.” She stressed the importance of these intersections in her work: “For me, it’s how do we cross-collide disciplines? How do we bring elements or reflections from one to the other? So many things that are so much at the forefront of what I do—it’s very cross-disciplinary.”

I thought it would important to talk about how she, as an artist, is coping in the midst of a global shutdown. “It’s been huge. Monumental, actually. In a good way, but at first in a bad way. We were in grief; 2020 was AP&A’s (Andrea Peña & Artists) biggest year. We had a piece we were working on for three years that was supposed to premiere.” But, she said, it was incredibly important to start thinking about alternatives. “I took the time and started thinking, okay: why do we do what we do? Not only what, but why. Returning to that question was monumental. If we can’t focus so much in the dance media, how do we do it in the design media.”

I took the time and started thinking, okay: why do we do what we do? Not only what, but why.

Peña is also a curator at Tangente Danse in Montreal and she said, “I’ve really realized with AP&A and with a curatorial hat on, the value of what we do is so focused on production and presentation. The value of what we do is in research, not only performance. I think this is the first year we’ve really given ourselves the opportunity to dig so deep in research. So far since August, we’ve had three residencies and I’ve gone to the team and said ‘okay guys, I have no answers, no directions, let’s purely give us this time to research.’” She says it was an “amazing dive back into research without an outcome-driven approach.”

Peña noted there is still a notable hesitation to moving digital for some, but not for her: “I feel privileged to be a designer, I feel comfortable in new mediums. Even during these times, what we do may change but the essence can exist through another medium. I think since creation is what is in our hands, we have to ask: How do we still empower our practice by bringing the audience to these moments of our creation?”

UNTITLED I “was built in Hong Kong—we were there for five weeks in residency. We went there without any expectations, but ended up creating this.” She says the title, UNTITLED I, is “I as in i, not one. Kind of myself without a title.”

“The whole premise of this work came from my practice as a designer. I was really interested in repetition and how our bodies are resilient. You’ll see the work uses a lot of repetition and we often deconstruct normal movement like walking and running, using repetition to showcase human resilience,” she said. Peña also spoke at length about the importance of vulnerability: “As I mentioned, I’m Columbian, and vulnerability is a very important value to our culture. For a few years, I didn’t really understand how that affected the way I am in Canada. I think we live in a society—very western—where vulnerability is seen as a weakness, and not a strength.”

UNTITLED I. Photo: Andrea Peña & Artists.

UNTITLED I is a performance by one dancer, François Richard. The dance itself is physical and demanding. Peña laughed as she told me, “François has to train Rocky-style.” She added that “François really allows himself to go to a place that allows him to be vulnerable. I’ve been working with him for five years and I’m so grateful for the trust he has given me.” UNTITLED I, for Peña, is not as much a choreographed piece as it is a situation: “With my work, also because I am a designer, I am interested in creating situations, not choreography. [The piece] is a situation he steps into—it’s him in humanity.”

Peña offered up some advice for first-time dance-goers: “Honestly, I would say that what we do is not as crazy as it seems. Like a lot of people think they don’t have the codes to understand what we do. At the end of the day, codes or no codes, no matter what you feel when you are watching, all those feelings are valid.” We spoke about the existing hesitance to see dance, perhaps because of the notion that there’s a particular message or story to be derived from the piece, but Peña says, “There’s no particular way you should be reading the work. These works are there to make you question, and your feelings and emotions are the answers to the work.”

“I would just add what we’re doing through this work is talking about the human condition in our own ways. We’re so grateful to the NAC for the opportunity to perform this piece. Whatever is perceived from the work is part of the human condition,” Peña explained.

UNTITLED I will be live-streamed from the National Arts Centre on Thursday, November 5, at 7pm. The performance is free and can be watched here. The livestream will be available for 24 hours after it airs.