At 22, Ottawa-born dancer and choreographer Emma Portner is equipped with ample talent, the confidence of youth, unbridled ambition and plenty of social-media know-how. With it, she's questioning gender and challenging artistic disciplines in the world of dance – and the collaborations and commissions are streaming in.
Bat Out of Hell is a new rock musical built around Meat Loaf's greatest hits that opens in Toronto on Saturday (it premiered in London in June), and Portner was tasked with choreographing it – making her the youngest-ever female to choreograph a West End production. "The director found my work on Vimeo and the next thing you know, I was in London choreographing to Meat Loaf," she says.
Portner is also busy taking on new commissions, one of which will premiere in 2018 at Toronto's Fall for Dance North festival. Collaboration, though, reigns supreme and the online world is the conduit through which Portner engages with her creative partners. It's also proved an opportunity for bigger players to discover and commission her.
"I can post a video to a certain music artist's work and have them contact me directly within minutes," she says. Justin Bieber is one such who came calling: In 2016, Portner choreographed and performed in, alongside dancer Patrick Cook, the video for Bieber's song Life Is Worth Living.
Portner looks back on her years spent at an Ottawa arts high school with "utter gratitude," but describes the city and the suburb of Orleans where she was raised as "a non-thrilling government town," which led her, she says, to figure out ways of "self-generating and entertaining" at an early age – a big part of which was dance.
After a four-year stint in New York (where she dropped out of the Ailey School for mental-health reasons), which she says afforded her the chance to "access this vast deepness within myself to cultivate my own voice much earlier than most," she decided to migrate west. "I felt the risk-taking was dying [in New York], in terms of what was being presented."
Her feet are now somewhat firmly planted in Los Angeles, and the city has proved to be a good fit for Portner and her work. "The concert and commercial worlds are starting to cross over," she says of L.A.'s dance scene. "Having both of these worlds existing in the same place at once makes it a hub with not one clear identity."
Her work too plays with identity; it's both gender- and genre-bending. Portner melds all forms of dance and, as a choreographer, her approach to gender is an interesting one: She says she doesn't choreograph in "typical heteronormative gender politics, in the way that the ballet world might designate the male/female binary quite clearly," and adds, "My work can easily substitute men and women as neutral."
Portner's studio is in a yet-to-be gentrified part of Los Angeles, on Melrose Avenue, and it's where she runs what she describes as a collaboration factory. She shares a wall with a space used by a religious group, and what she's been creating within her walls has its own growing following, in the real and digital world.
The photo-cum-video-sharing app Instagram is, as with many of her contemporaries, the platform of choice – but in a sea of selfies, Portner's posts stand out. Her digital presence is thoughtful and varied and her nearly 60,000 followers are presented with near-daily 60-second expressions, almost all choreographed, directed, produced and performed by Portner, many featuring other bright young movers who she meets though the app. "I don't think it is that I have any more or less power than the next person, it's just that I am brave enough to follow through," she says.
Portner is meshing minds too, with her romantic partner, Halifax-born actor Ellen Page. The pair work together on movement films and are writing a screenplay. "I just love the way she exists," Portner says of Page.
"I am finding more and more that my ideas are fitting less into the one-minute mark," she says of Instagram's limits, and thankfully her work is getting more life off the screen. At the contemporary-dance company L.A. Dance Project, Portner might guest perform or guest choreograph – "the relationship can be fluid depending on the project" – and either way, she will have access to more space, and maybe most importantly, more dancers whom she can direct.
The company's new space was launched recently in Los Angeles with a swish gala and A-list turnout, including LADP's artistic director Benjamin Millepied and his wife, actress Natalie Portman. Portner performed that night. It was her first time onstage in nearly two years, so nerves were high – especially with idols such as Mikhail Baryshnikov in the audience – but she said on the phone after the big event that the reception to her piece, titled Sun's Gone Dim, was better than warm. "A lot of people called us the jewel of the night."
Next year, she'll be back on Canadian soil for Fall for Dance North, to premiere another collaborative piece that's in the works. "The Fall for Dance model is really attractive with its aim towards accessibility, something which has really been lacking in dance. Using accessible language and platforms is something I strive to do every day."
Bat Out of Hell runs at Toronto's Ed Mirvish Theatre from Oct. 14 through Dec. 24 (mirvish.com).