Lady dances the blues

Lawrence O’Toole January 14 1980

Lady dances the blues

Lawrence O’Toole January 14 1980

Lady dances the blues


Lawrence O’Toole

She stands there in an old dress, hair falling rapturously below her waist. She’s listening to the sorrow-soaked voice of bluesman Tom Waits singing his down-and-out version of Waltzing Matilda. Suddenly, her feet gnarl, her calf muscles turn rigid as rock, her arms and hands shake, then shoot out with revivalist fervor. As quickly as it was ignited, the fire in her melts, the muscles relax; lyrically shifting her weight, she deploys her flesh as though it were glass being blown. But again the image erupts and she whirls in spasms around the stage, hair slicing through space.

Dancer Margie Gillis tells a short and sad story out of Waits’s wasted-daysand-lonely-nights song. She waltzes, happy, with an imaginary partner but

soon she’s alone again in a crowd on a Saturday night.With her body as a brush she paints a picture of the moment when there’s fascination to be found in the lighted tip of a cigarette, in the lantern-lit ice cubes shimmering inside a whisky glass. At the end, alone, crying, she wipes away the wet strands of hair clinging to the side of her face. Margie Gillis does what few dancers have done and what no other dancer does more expressively: she dances the blues.

Arriving out of the nowhere of anonymity last year, she has, to honor a cliché, taken the country by storm. Recently dance critic William Littler of the Toronto Star, never one to throw his hat too high into the air, praised her “succession of images the like of which I’ve never encountered on a Canadian stage.” Other critics nearly contracted hernias straining for superlatives; some

have even whispered the hallowed name of the great modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan after seeing Gillis perform. Her one-woman show, which toured Canada early in 1979, sold outunheard of for a solo dancer. People as well-versed in modern dance as they are in quantum physics are turning out in droves to see her. Even more successful than the first, her current tour, which

began in November in Toronto and is now passing through British Columbia, will not take her back home to her sparsely furnished loft above a men’s clothing store in Montreal until the end of February. Last summer Gillis and her lover-manager Jack Udashkin tagged along with a tour group to China. The Chinese, seeing her dance in a large, open field—and never having seen anything quite like it—ushered her into their 2,000-seat theatres, treating her like a visiting deity. They asked her to give master classes to both the Peking and Shanghai ballets, then unofficially invited her back for next year. She became the first modern dancer to perform and teach in China.

At 26, Margie Gillis is, in her own way, the typical Canadian artist who has made it: recognized outside her own country first—in China—before being truly accepted inside it. She’s also a typical scion of the ’60s. But she’s brilliantly atypical in the way she dropkicks an “e” in front of motion. The story of this typical Canadian artist, this typical child of the ’60s, has a slight ache in it. It’s a bit of a horror story. Call it Canadian Gothic.

First, there’s her courtship with self-

abuse. Like every modern dancer Gillis has gone through her starving-artistwhat-in-the-name-of-God-are-we-going - to - do - with - the - potatoes - this -evening phase. But unlike most modern dancers she tends to forget about her well-being. In China she danced on splintered stages (the Chinese never dance barefoot) until she was bleeding badly. Doctors pursued her with antibiotics and warned her to stop; she wouldn’t. “One of the things I do to warm up before a performance,” she confides in her wispy, little-girl voice, “is to close my eyes and run around the stage to get a feel of what the area is like. During the performance I become so immersed in what I’m doing that I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The result is often the sound of bone cracking on floor. In Learning How to Die, a work she created herself (she choreographs most of what she dances), an enormous stomach contraction seems to push her all the way to the back of the stage, as though she were fisted by some invisible force. The spirit of possession seems to inform her dancing. “Pain is part of life, and you shouldn’t avoid it with Valium and TV,” she says. It’s the meek-mannered and

committed ascetic from the ’60s scowling upon the vagaries of the ’70s.

Being a confessed spiritual holdover from the ’60s, she’s quick to reject the complacent. Her fixation with the let’sself-destruct style of the past decade’s rock culture has become part of her temperament: “I became Janis Joplin for two whole months, even became an alcoholic during that short time. She was dancing when she sang—feeling so powerfully that her entire body couldn’t stop moving.” She stops for a moment, as if to confirm something with herself: “I love excess. Yes, I do like excess.”

While that excess is part of the moving performances that audiences and jaded critics alike respond to, it takes its toll on Gillis. Before every performance she has to throw up: “Every time I perform I have second thoughts about what I’m doing. Jackie [Udashkin] is always there to hold my head when I throw up. In the core of me I don’t doubt at all the validity of what I’m doing. It’s the outer part of my personality that runs around and throws up.” There’s the vaguest hint of the martyr’s delight in varieties of flagellation in the way she speaks, respectfully, of throwing up. As a child she was given

a book she constantly read—on Vincent van Gogh, who cut off his ear during a moment of depressing inspiration. Confronting the world, boiled down to the size of an audience, is perhaps for Margie Gillis a dim glimpse into her own frightening past—déjà vu sent by the devil.

Her “wacko” phase began when she was seven years old, in Oregon, and lasted until she was 13. “My father came back from Vermont one day and said to my mother, ‘Hi, Rhona, I’m splitting.’ ‘What the f— are you talking about?’ she replied. But out he walked and my mother literally collapsed, went into a state of amnesia where she didn’t realize she had children, didn’t feed us and developed typhoid fever. The minister, whose name was Reverend Church, took care of us.”

She continues, after Udashkin has suggested that maybe she shouldn’t: “After that we moved to my birthplace, Montreal, and I just couldn’t handle it any longer. My mother was involved in her own horror, her own pain, and it was just... an extremely difficult time. I felt in some way responsible for what had happened. I was screaming, banging on the windows, refusing to get out of bed, having hysterics every day. I was a horror to live with. One of the reasons I’m afraid to have children is that I’ll have one like me.”

She did return to life, but by a circuitous route. “One of the things that happened to me during that time was that my hair fell out, because my nerves were so bad. I,was sent to Arizona to visit my father and had been given a wig to wear. I was 13.1 almost felt like a human being again. I had a neighbor in Arizona who was into suicides, and we’d sit and talk rationally about it. He was my tie-string to the rest of the world. Talking suicide might appear crazy, but he was real to me.” (She doesn’t

mention that the friend did commit suicide.)

So, Margie Gillis shook hands with the rest of the world. “After you come out of a depression you get hyperhigh—super-happy. I’d bounce around, never explaining anything to anybody, go tearing in and out of the house at all hours.” At about the same time she discovered the rest of the world, the rest of the world discovered the ’60s. Mercy, danced to Leonard Cohen and Loggins and Messina, where Gillis runs round and round the stage in an outburst of profane joy, seems a valentine to that time or at least to the nostalgia people have for it. “Mercy is a place of hope, potential and possibility. I would not like to leave someone raw with, say, Waltzing Matilda—to let them walk out cold into the street. One of the things I try to do in my work is to make people remember, or re-remember, how magical things are.” It was dance that kept her from submerging back into mammoth depression. Now when she’s depressed she sleeps it off.

Breakdown aside, she had the added onus of a successful image to live up to. Her parents, Gene Gillis and Rhona Wurtele, were famous Olympic skiers in the ’40s. Her mother and aunt shared an even brighter limelight as Canada’s athletic Wurtele Twins, siblings who were second only to the Dionne quintuplets in the fame game. But instead of rebelling against the family tradition, Gillis embraced the most subtle sport of all: dance. (Her younger brother Jere plays for the Vancouver Canucks, her sister Nancy was a freestyle skier and now models, and Gillis herself has coached the Canadian National Freestyle Ski Team.) “A lot of people have been asking me lately about fame. My mother was incredibly famous. People would phone her family every day just to ask what the twins were eating. Just to ask what the twins were eating?!” says Gillis. “Fame never stopped my family from having an extremely difficult time of things and it never stopped them from having financial problems. Fame is this arbitrary concept—an ‘out there’ kind of thing where you function on an ‘out there’ level.”

Fame hasn’t yet stopped Margie Gillis from having financial problems, either. She and Udashkin are in debt, they stay with friends while on tour and Gillis dances in every space she can find. Leisure time in Montreal consists of “getting steamies [steamed hotdogs] on the Main and hanging out.” Social life is comprised mostly of “listening to hockey games on the radio,” as well as “normal people stuff.” Canadian conditioning—with ’60s argot.

To Gillis’ Trilby, Udashkin plays Svengali, watching out for her wellbeing in interviews and pushing litera-

ture her way, not to mention holding her head during the vomiting sessions. In one of the more bizarre courtship rituals on record, Udashkin walked into her living room one day, took the telephone apart, put it together again and walked out without so much as a “How do you do?” and without ever looking at Gillis. (Udashkin had had a similar, but shorter, breakdown.) Now they have their common past—and Margie’s career—to bind them together.

As fame inches up behind her, like liver spots that suddenly appear one day, Gillis receives her baptism by fire into the world of the media. “They ask me to go spill my guts and they don’t really give a damn. They bluntly stick their feet in my stomach and I feel like saying, ‘Will you kindly get your foot out of my stomach and your hands out of my heart and just f— off.’ ” Still, she succumbs to the temptation to “tell all,” which is perhaps a carry-over from the way she tells all when she dances.

On the stage she nearly flies. The remarkable thing about it is that Gillis doesn’t have a good dancer’s body; she’s too heavily muscled, not at all attenuated and elegant, and pigeon-toed to boot. Her training hasn’t been particularly extensive or encompassing. The other remarkable thing about all this is that it doesn’t make a difference. In her dancing, apart from all the cursive calisthenics, everything seems to emanate from some clear, calm centre. It doesn’t matter that she’s not so technically proficient or that her balances are precipitous. She evokes mood, works into the music whether it’s Bach or Loggins and Messina, abbreviates every raw feeling until she imprisons it for the audience to see. She shows what five o’clock in the morning is like under fluorescent lighting. She dances like nobody else.

Her abandon and her past seem to point to a free spirit. Superficially, yes; but she’s also irrefragably Canadian. “Nobody knows how to be free. Nobody knows what freedom means. Freedom means tempering one’s actions—selfdiscipline. Freedom does not mean tearing wild all over the place.” In other words, idols, such as Janis Joplin, don’t really mean a thing and freedom is not just another word for nothing left to lose. Like any good child of the ’60s, she has learned her lesson well.

And like the good Canadian she is, hockey games and all, she sees a strange kind of freedom in her careful, cold, stunningly beautiful country. “There’s a kind of freedom that’s definitely in our landscapes, here in our snow, our trees, our animals and our instincts.” And, as if to reach some definition of what she does and where she’s headed, she says, “If we could just tap that, then we would have something that is very exquisite and raw.” •£>