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Sarah Joy Stoker: Dance as an Act of Hope

March on Between the Art brings a conversation with interdisciplinary dance artist Sarah Joy Stoker.

 

Sarah was born and is based in what is colonially known as St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the eastern edge of the most easterly island of Ktaqmkuk, her home, after spending a decade in Toronto and Montreal, Canada, training and working professionally as a dance artist. She toured internationally during that time, most notably with companies Lynda Gaudreau, Compagnie de Brune, and Pigeons International, and worked with long-time collaborator David Pressault as well as other independent creators. Sarah’s work is rooted in dance, performance, video, and installation and has always been art-for-action based. Her practice has been driven by the devastating lack of ecological care, health, and justice on this planet; and she is always affected by what continues to happen to and in this world due to such a dramatic disconnect from nature, fuelled by our colonial past and present. Sarah believes that art is an active force in life and should be used as a vehicle for action. Her most recent work comes from time spent in the Arctic Circle in April 2023, navigating the west coast of Svalbard aboard the tall ship Antigua as part of the Arctic Circle Residency. 

 

In this honest and vulnerable conversation, Sarah shares how she has developed her practice to be an embodiment of activism, addressing issues surrounding climate change, colonialism, and mental health. Most importantly, there is a strong message for hope. Discover more below...

 

Red scarf in arctic

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

I usually work either in a studio or outside in site-specific natural or sometimes urban environments. I returned to St. John’s partly because I was missing home, but also because at the time I was starting to make my own work. Newfoundland is beautiful and in St. John’s we are surrounded by the ocean. This is important to me as my life is very hectic, and unfortunately it’s rare that I get outside of the city; but just by being here, there is something that is difficult to verbalise, a feeling of being in close proximity to places that are wilder and less contaminated by the manmade world. I sometimes work somewhere completely different if I have travelled specifically for a project, for example the Arctic, where I was last April.

I create and perform from a place of profound grief and mourning. Growing up in Newfoundland, living on this island, surrounded by the sea, I’m deeply connected to the ocean and landscapes of our coastline, to the seabirds and marine life that we share space with. I try desperately within myself and my artistic expression to be hopeful, to find things to attach hope to. I’m interested in the correlation between the health and function of the Earth’s ecology and that of our physiologies and mental, emotional health. How do we grieve for loss of habitat, species, and cultures? What role can art and artists play to reach beyond lamentation for personal and collective loss relating to our place and context on this earth?  How do we manage and use our disbelief and rage for change?

Place is everything. Everything in our lives is contextualized and realized, or not, by place: where we find ourselves, where we have put ourselves, where we end up, or decide to be. The natural and social fabrics of our world are in peril. Even if you are on the other side of the globe from a place, all places can and, in my opinion, should impact us deeply. Being interested and engaged, with concern, curiosity, love, and open and active investment as far as understanding, learning, evolving, supporting, and stewardship, in my mind is essential, and the lack of that is one reason why we are in the state we are in within this world.

 

"Everything in our lives is contextualized and realized, or not, by place: where we find ourselves, where we have put ourselves, where we end up, or decide to be. Even if you are on the other side of the globe from a place, all places impact us deeply."

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

Ideas are always floating in my mind, many for years, and at a certain point they start to crystalize or take a more definite form. I generally work in a very solitary way and have mainly created solos over the years. When I started three decades ago, it was solos that came out as I was learning on and with myself. I was in a small community, most often in a room alone, finding my way with exploration and the development of a movement based process rooted in improvisation.

Around 2016, I started wanting to work on a group piece, which I did for a number of years. It was called Our Heart Breaks. Of the eight artists in the project, all but two of us lived in different provinces so it was very challenging, and expensive to coordinate. From this also came a film, Once We Were Trees. I planned to continue working with much of the same group but then Covid happened. It became a very difficult, long, confusing process, one which I was ultimately unable to manage or rectify as far as pulling it together in a way that was healthy for myself or the group. Sadly, I ended up abandoning the work, but who knows, I might return to it at some point. That was a very difficult experience. I certainly learned a lot from it, as I have from so much of what has transpired over these last many years. After that experience, I’m much more protective of myself and my heart, and I’m quite happy to work in my own solitary box again.


Dancer against green tree background

Do you have any rituals that help with this process of creating work?

Assuming there is a broom or a way to, I always sweep the floors and do a general tidying, a reorganising of objects such as chairs and tables, but especially the floors, of wherever I find myself.

My mind is always engaged in my practice as it’s where my heart and my soul live, to consider life, the world and its evolution. This might be out of necessity because I own and operate a Pilates studio which devours most of my time and energy. It’s not possible to make a living as a performing interdisciplinary artist here, so it necessitates doing other things to survive. The problem of course with owning and operating a business is how much it demands of me. It’s a constant challenge to carve out time for my artistic practice and I fail quite regularly in dedicating time to it. Therefore, ideas are always percolating in me and every now and then things will gain traction and begin to demand they take form, or I will manage to make a move to facilitate proper time to work artistically. Most of my work forms in my mind well before I step foot inside a studio.


"We experience such strong emotion in relation to place, and place houses our histories, memories, ancestry. The relationship between place and heart can exist in many forms and be felt in many ways."

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently developing a solo entitled stay staying – repeat offenders with sound collaborator Elling Lien. It will be shown in Halifax this spring co-presented by Live Art and Kinetic Studio in their Coastal Currents series and in St. John’s this summer in the incredible Sound Symposium festival. I started working on this during Covid, so it has been a long process. During lockdown, Elling set himself a project to compose a one minute score every day which he shared on Instagram. I was really intrigued and stirred by the compositions, so I asked him if I could spend time working with them which then led to us creating a score together.

The title of this work started as just stay staying. Around the time of initial creation, a very dear friend of mine died. Before he passed, I wrote an email to him to say goodbye, and I asked if he was afraid. He replied saying, “I’m not scared Sarah,” and he wrote the words “stay staying”, to keep making work and keep being me. Stay staying was also speaking to the experience of the world in the height of Covid, to stay in one place, stay safe, stay calm, stay ok, and it was also referencing the normalising of such an assault on the world through our constant complicit abandoned need and want for growth and development, devastation of habitats, such extreme encroachment on wild lands, people and animals. Repeat offenders has been added to speak to this same thing. We humans seem to never learn, never remember or reference the past and what knowledge is in the world from Indigenous cultures, from science. And, as when I started making this piece, we were watching the invasion of Russia on Ukraine on our phones each day, we are now witnessing the genocide of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, supported by the US and other western nations, in front of our eyes with seemingly no way to stop it. How is this normal? What on this earth is normal, if this is how we are allowing our world to move forward, with continued imperialist colonial oppression, aggression, forced displacement and the most extreme violence, all linked to and fuelling the climate and extinction crisis we are so deeply in.

Repeat offenders also references our most vulnerable in our urban environments. “Repeat offenders” are often so because they have no choice, they have no support, are living with trauma with completely inadequate help. Society sees them as criminals; I see them as folks that need more help and support. The real repeat offenders are the banks, governments, institutions and massive corporations.

I’m also continuing to work with the material I generated while in the Arctic on the Arctic Circle Residence. There were 42 people on board the ship – 28 artists and two scientists, the crew and guides. We flew in and out of Longyearbyen, the most northerly community in the world, which is the fastest warming place on the planet and also near where the Norwegian government has just approved commercial deep sea mining, which is devastating.

My intention was to put myself in such an extraordinary and “untouched” environment where, in my opinion, I should not be, along with materials like plastics, which also clearly should not be found there, and I documented this. Included in the materials were weaves made out of fishing line, created by my sister Stephanie, a visual artist, decades ago. I’ve always been intrigued by them because they are things of beauty, particularly in the way light interacts with them, but they are also by their nature and what they represent, very upsetting. Stephanie also created a large red weave made out of silk. The colour red was important to signal emergency, blood, death, the desperate need for action. I was placing myself and these objects into this pristine environment as an act of hope as well as to create images that would be viewed as warnings and alarms. 

The images are titled Walking the Retreats of Glaciers, and the video is called Woven Prayers on Melting Ice.  I’m searching for ways to get this material out into the world, which is a challenge from my small little hub here on the most easterly point and island of Turtle Island (North America). The work can travel as a film, photographs, those two together in gallery setting, as well as with a live performance.

I would love to go back to the Artic because it was extraordinarily beautiful, you are so separated from the rest of the world, there is such a profound letting go, and subsequent allowance for a connection to the rawness and magic of the natural environment that I have not experienced before, but would only do it if possible in an extremely low impact way.


Plastic in the arctic

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

This is so complex. It’s very present, but difficult to articulate in words. Everything is place, everyone has their own “sense” of place, or lack thereof, and everyone has their own sense of “sense.”

I question what is sensing, and how does it relate to place? Is it an actual place, a geographical place, an imagined place, a memory of place, a hope for place?

I link sense of place to our physical bodies without necessarily needing to be in an actual place. It’s a connection that’s linked to a relationship of the physiology of our physical bodies, our minds and our heart: we experience such strong emotion in relation to place, and place houses our histories, memories, ancestry. The relationship between place and heart can exist in many forms and be felt in many ways.

 

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world through your work/practice?

My work comes from a place of grief and morning over the loss of and treatment of the natural world that supports us. There is a complete denial and disassociation from the realities of our environment’s health and function by continued colonial oppression and capitalist systems brutally violent destruction through aggression and extraction in front of our eyes for generations. We need a massive shift away from colonialist, imperialist power and their erasure of resources, populations, wildlife.

We should be stewards of the natural world. Indigenous cultures’ central values, beliefs, understanding and knowledge of how imperative it must be for us to protect and foster relationships of connectivity to the natural world is led by that, stewardship: honouring, having reverence for, and protecting our natural world, the world that we rely on. I try my best to live in this way, but the world is so far off track. The ideas of slowing down, being quiet, listening more, taking and using much less are not popular ones. Can we stop, put the brakes on, and turn the ship around? It’s not going to happen in my lifetime but it’s what I hope for. And for me, making dance, any kind of expression of art, any kind of care and attention to the earth and the animals, is an act of hope.


Dancer lying on the ground in a forest

Sarah's Book List:

I sadly rarely read. I struggle with time, exhaustion and focus if ever staying still long enough to try to read. This is also related to my adult self learning and un/relearning about complex trauma and the in/ability for my brain to be available for reading and absorbing. But, I do have a mountain of incredible books, which I hope to finish reading when I am able to.

 

1. A World of Many Worlds edited by Marisol De La Cadena and Mario Blaser


2. Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive by Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue


3. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer


Dancer with black backdrop

To see more of Sarah's work, view her website at www.gutsink.nf.ca




Images 1, 3, 5: Artist's Own

Image 2: Richard Stoker

Image 4: no credit


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