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Bulletins From Immortality: Freeing Emily Dickinson

10/25/2013 04:40 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

The body of Margie Gillis is an interpretive canvas. Emotions spill out like colours as she quivers through her dance, alive with joy and sorrow, pain and power, imbued with the full palette of life.

She makes her art look so natural, as if she were a woman simply dancing around her living room, and yet her finely tuned instrument of a body bears the imprint of 40 years of professional experience and 60 years of living. She is always a wonder to behold.

And Wednesday night was no exception, as she moved with grace and integrity, somehow visceral yet ephemeral, at the world premiere of Bulletins From Immortality...Freeing Emily Dickinson, performed at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (lovingly referred to as the Cultch).

A collaborative work with octogenarian actress Elizabeth Parrish, directed by Paola Styron, and conceived at the Stella Adler Studio in New York City, Vancouverites enjoyed the premiere of the work, thanks to artistic director Heather Redfern's canny tying in of the Cultch's 40th anniversary with Gillis' own professional milestone.

The fusion of dance and the words of Emily Dickinson- revolutionary for her times in many ways -- performed to the music of Mendelssohn and other Romantic contemporaries, was an interesting idea. After all Gillis, Parrish and Dickinson are all women who bucked tradition and carved their own artistic paths. But the performance had the feel of a work in progress; an experiment that never lost its sense of newness and improvisational joie de vivre. It was not polished, but it was alive with possibilities.

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Besides uniting two performing arts veterans (augmented by long-time collaborator and lighting designer Pierre Lavoie and visual artist and set designer Randal Newman) the work was notable for its celebration of the work of women, as the French would say d'une certaine age.

Redfern's interest in programming performances starring women over 60 was noted in last year's production of Dickens' Women, starring 1941 born English character actress Miriam Margolyes, and happily continues this season.

As Redfern notes, after a certain age, it's not about being pretty or looking a certain way, it's about your essence.

And essence -- not age -- and the immediacy of human experience, was what shone through in Wednesday's performance. It was an uneven one, with moments that were awkward and at times, well, somewhat saturated in Victorian twee. But there were other small epiphanies when the poetry, music and dance joined together and rose to the occasion.

As Parrish delivered Dickinson's words with a freshness that at times seemed almost girlish, she gave them new life. A poem about Jesus of Nazareth, that never seemed to speak to me in English literature class, suddenly conveyed the anguish of isolation and disconnection from the mores of conventional Christendom,

At least to pray is left, is left.

O Jesus! in the air

I know not which thy chamber is, --

I 'm knocking everywhere.

Thou stirrest earthquake in the South,

And maelstrom in the sea;

Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth,

Hast thou no arm for me?

And a simple 4-line poem:

The pedigree of honey

Does not concern the bee;

A clover, any time, to him

Is aristocracy.

Matched by Gillis' organic choreography, it was pure delight.

The performance made we want to dust off my old Emily Dickinson book from high school and read it all over again. After all even Leonard I came so far for beauty Cohen seems to have been influenced by the poetess, who never married, wrote beautiful paens to nature and mediations on life and death, and lived a reclusive life -- unconventional for her era.

And for someone who idolized Margie Gillis as a young dance student, it was a revelation to see her dance again, after so many years, in full celebration of her life, her body and her total joy and immersion in her art.

Thanks to the performance, I'm now seriously reconsidering Dickinson.

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While I remember her work as being somewhat obsessed with death, Gillis and Parrish made me appreciate its infatuation with existence.

I came home and found this line from poem XXVI

The lightning that preceded it

Struck no one but myself,

But I would not exchange the bolt

For all the rest of life.

Then I dressed in white and refused to see visitors. No, actually Emily, I think you were kind of cool. And Margie and Elizabeth, you are inspirations.

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