Uncovering Story Through Avatars

It’s been just over two months since the completion of my time at Buddies, and I’ve had some time/space to consider all that occurred within the Seeding Work residency. 

I dove into Buddies’ Cabaret space with Anika Johnson and Indrit Kasapi in October 2021, to re-engage with a creative process which integrates movement, text and song.  We started our work together in 2016, though our creative relationship began much earlier. Anika, Indrit and I traveled the world together with Corpus Dance Projects for many years, and found ourselves sharing space in the back of cargo vans, in dressing rooms, in restaurants, living a nomadic touring life. As we spent time together, I would often bring forward various personas, voices and accents to better tell the narrative of a given story or the punchline of a joke.

In 2016, we began exploring one-such character named Sephronia, intuitively creating long-form improvisational structures to tease out more about this persona and uncover more about the potential for a character-driven work. We have been working sporadically through the years since then, as schedules allow… 

Seeding Work was the ideal context to resuscitate Sephronia.  As we started working again, it became apparent that I had changed… Anika and Indrit had changed… the world had forever changed.

Early on, Indrit cheekily exclaimed, ‘Michael, what do YOU want to say?’ This provocation formed the basis for our explorations.

A few things became very clear…

  • Sephronia was not the only ‘character’ that had something to say.
  • This work had to ‘get personal’ and I had to open up. (I couldn’t say what I wanted to say without being honest with myself…)
  • The characters that emerged in the context of this work, were simply avatars for me. (They are the masks for revealing truth.)
  • My personal story needed to come forward, coalesce/congeal, and serve as the foundation for this work.

By the end of our time together, we essentially created a 45-minute draft of a one-person cabaret/musical, integrating multiple avatars into the fabric of the work. We focused on the text and song with greater alacrity. The work delved into ideas of sanctuary, displacement and home through the development of various avatars or characters — subtly highlighting the disappearance and co-opting of queer spaces, while unpacking my personal and family history within the possibilities of cabaret as a theatrical and cultural form.

This work pushed me. Indrit pushed me to open my heart and my mind… a process that I felt ready, yet scared to do. Anika encapsulated my words into a brilliant collection of original songs. I confronted my fear of singing in public, and I’m not sure that I feel any more confident about it… but I did it. As a choreographer and dancer, this specific process was a unique challenge for me. My artistic practice often integrates voice and text with movement, though certainly not to this full-on extent! We invited a small audience to view our draft and offer feedback, and I’m so grateful.

I am excited for the future of this work. It offers time and space to consider personal history, death and loss, where we find home and sanctuary, and what is most important to us at the end of life. It plays with the imagined and the autobiographical, mixing divergent realities into a story about personal discovery and uncovery, by irreverently examining sexuality, gender and race.

There’s much more work to be done, and it’s exciting to think about where this might go, and who will interface with it, both as collaborators and as viewers. I’m curious about the agency of the viewer to become an active participant in the work. I’m curious to explore more avatars in the work, and probe more deeply into my Asian heritage. I’m curious about sound as an integral collaborative element in the work, to compliment and bolster the voice, text, and movement. With the heightened focus on text and song in this residency, I’m curious about the movement language that may now arise from this work. I’m curious about how the digital might influence the work, both in content and in how it is experienced.

I am grateful to Daniel, Aidan, Steph, Jac, Luke and the Buddies team for their support and care in the Seeding Work context.

Michael Caldwell was one of three artists in our inaugural Seeding Work program, launched during the 2021-22 season. The program supports artists in short-form residencies, allowing them to bridge abstract ideas into clear steps forward.

photos by Connie Tsang

Michael Caldwell

Michael Caldwell is a choreographer, performer, curator, director, producer, and arts advocate, based in Toronto, Canada. His choreography and performance-based works have been commissioned/presented throughout Canada at major festivals, in traditional venues and in site-responsive and community-engaged contexts. His performance-based work increasingly sits in site-responsive and community-engaged contexts, while subverting traditional modes of viewing. Playing within cycles of construction and destruction, his work mines what is essential and foundational in movement, objects, sound, and light.

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