For 40 years, Montreal’s Margie Gillis has been a a dancer to watch. When she takes to the stage tonight in Toronto, it will be no different. A pint-sized dynamo with flowing hair that she uses as a prop, Gillis defies you to tear your eyes away. Her barefoot visceral style has made Gillis universally regarded as the Isadora Duncan of our time. And she is still blazing strong. She recently turned 60 and has launched a national tour that celebrates her staying power. The Globe’s Deirdre Kelly, who first covered Gillis’s performances in the 1980s, recently caught up with the whirling dervish to ask her about her emotional swings as well as her ability to keep on performing, after all these years.
You have always emphasized the personal in your own dances. Is dance a form of therapy for you?
I start with the personal, but the point is to transcend and transform; creating art that speaks to our humanity and the collective soul in each audience member. I start where I am with what I know, with my curiosity, desire and vulnerability, in order to create ritual and finally to touch the wildness of our souls. The point is to engage in experiential wisdom to create and share art.
You teach dance classes where you show how dance can be used to solve conflicts. Can you elaborate?
Often we can know a subject with our intellect, but until our body and soul know it deeply, we cannot make the shift. The body reveals surprising new metaphors, which offer profound and practical solutions and truths. I create dances that help explore both possibility and solution. But this question is a wee bit “catch-22” as it asks me to explain something that is to be experienced. In writing about it, I find myself pointing to a truth rather than giving you a full understanding.
What has changed in 40 years for you as a performer?
When I was younger, the work was an engagement with wild, rough motion, later I went through an age of physical refinement and now at 60, as skin separates from bone, I have a more pronounced understanding of the energy behind things. My mother and her twin sister are 91 and what they continue to model for me is that; shifting to curiosity allows us to live life fully and reveals the wisdom and joy of any age.
You are still creating. Has the work itself changed?
I think the themes of humanity, possibility and transformation are the same. As I work on my own body, I work with an older body. As I am working with and for others, I work with their particular strengths and weaknesses. I ask where do they want to go, what are their visions, and how can we explore those and create meaningful ritual to share with others.
Is there anything you are afraid to show on stage?
Not that I know of! But that being said, my curiosity has been peaked. I think the thing that is important for me is the awareness. There is a side of me that is a choreographer and a side of me that is a communicator. In order to create ritual that is social, I often argue between these two as to what can and cannot be part of the show. But what a fun question!
What do you think of the dance scene in Canada today?
The dance scene in Canada today has expanded and is diverse. The rise in community-based dance is wonderful. The vilification of much art-based dance has been a setback, though. I think we need a greater discourse between excellence and community to embrace these polarities and see each for the power and beauty they are.
What are you doing next?
This season marks the 40th anniversary of my career as a dancer and a choreographer. Since September, I have been touring with four different productions across Canada: Cavatinas and Counterpoints, On Fairness, Bulletins from Immortality … freeing Emily Dickinson, and The Light Between. I will be in Toronto at the Fleck Dance Theatre with The Light Between [tonight]. In the new year I will be gearing up for my anniversary celebration in Montreal in February.
What keeps you going?
Love and curiosity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.