Q & A with Calgary's Michèle Moss

Co-founder of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, and here creating a piece for Nafro Dance Productions, Moss is no stranger to Winnipeg or choreography.


by Janelle Hacault

The Dance Post: Tell us about the piece you’ve created for Nafro Dance Productions and your creative process.

Michèle Moss: Casimiro invited me because I did the first Patana program - this idea of coming together. So, because there is nothing new under the sun… it’s about a community. A global, a national, a civic, a dance community, a community of individuals coming together to support. The title I’m throwing around is something like “support this”.

I often go in with lots of ideas. This time, I tried to shake off the notion of making phrases. Just be in the moment. I’m not going to lie, it’s often hard when you are sitting there, standing there or creating a move and your dancers are waiting for you like “now what?”. That’s when I whip out the licks… but I really tired not to do that and just be in the moment. So some of it’s wafty, kind of nebulous, it’s something internal, [with] impulse and emotion. So I have to have faith in the Artistic Director and the dancers to continue to fashion it and polish it… the good news is, I know these guys a little bit. It’s my fourth time here. It flowed.

TDP: You describe jazz requiring a sense of playfulness, improvising with a sense of humour, giving into rhythmic impulses, and allowing ones individualism to come out. Do you use this approach when it is just you performing?

MM: I started many years ago during our processes that we developed at Decidedly Jazz [Danceworks] and out of my university training, and in my early years of company work, there was very much an appreciation for and a dedication to improvisation. Because it is a cornerstone for jazz and it is all about the individual artist. Sometimes we come together much like a jazz band and we play the same score, we play the same tune and so we do moves together in unison. But personal expression is really an important aspect of it. So even if it is set and I’m doing a solo, yeah [I use it] and it’s really fun! I did it recently and I had a full band behind me.

TDP: How do you juggle all the hats you wear? Assistant Professor at University of Calgary, Instructor/Choreographer for DJD, researcher in American swing and R&B/Soul/Funk social dances, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Haitian, and West African dance styles.

MM: My focus is the university now. I’m at DJD in terms of teaching company class now and then, I teach the professional training program now and then, I teach the evening program, the West African program we designed, a guess teacher in the jazz classes now and then. So a series of 3 or 4 classes. My focus over there [DJD] is modest but i’m always open for an invitation…

Being an academic, I’m not going to lie, is a whole lot more than I bargained for. I do a lot of research that is related to greater projects so often I have a writing project on the go with publishers calling and saying “Ok, we got to get this going. You haven’t got your weekly draft in”. So, I’ve written in the last 4 years, 3 chapters for [text] books. And then there are always the articles that you are working for yourself. You are researching films, you’re over at the library reading journals, you’re at home reading books. You are also doing research for your own creation projects. 

The truth is, I did have this realization at home the other day that kind of amped up my weariness that was like “ah yes, I guess I know why I’m tired”. When you look at your CV and look at each and every item, it just reads as a little 4 line thing but that represents hours and hours of preparation, hours and hours and hours and hours in the studio in creation, hours and hours in production, and then reconciling all the technology… and then there are conferences, papers, phone calls. And at university, there are services that you provide to your community.

And. And. And...

Your instrument needs special attention when you get older so I did have a total hip replacement. It BLEW. MY. MIND!

TDP: What are your thoughts on Calgary’s current dance scene?

MM: "Get moving young people! Go make it happen!"

You do your little part and sometimes it resonates, and sometimes it doesn’t resonate. You can be busy running around, maybe make a company and it really has legs. That is what happened to me and I’m really lucky. I get to be embedded into the community in a way that I feel like I’ve made my contribution but it doesn’t always happen that way. I’m happy to still contribute, it’s not like “I’m out! I’m old! I’m gone”, I’m not! But the Calgary scene? Yeah, “you gotta’ get going!” And I think that for every community in Canada.

There are individuals out there that are made of steel, full of vim and vigour; Davida Monk is an example of that. And we’ve had many, thank God, that have a bit of fire in them. I hope that our university [of Calgary] program is one of those. I look here [in Winnipeg] and I see the School of Contemporary Dancers and it’s like they [graduates] are flying out the door, graduate upon graduate, people are just get things done. They are fired up!

But you look at other places in the world where Dance Scholarship, Performance Creation are embedded and respected… but they are struggling just like we all are. There are governments and decisions being made to bring the arts forward and recognize that you can’t run it like a business. It becomes prohibitive. The finance of it, the dollar and cents of it becomes a tricky thing. Some people would say fundraising is the way, that you have to have patrons and don’t depend on the government. But in fact, that is what they are there for. 

TDP: What made you decide you wanted to pursue a career in dance?

MM: I have to say, there is a little bit of tumble weed in it. Things kind of conspired and came together. I looked at an opportunity and I then I chose that path.

It was embedded into my life. My father is of Caribbean heritage. I grew up in England, with my mother who is English and dance is very much embedded in the English school system. There is also a tradition of sending your kids to a dance school so, at 3 years old, I went and luckily I did that. I moved to Canada and found another community through the Negro Community Centre, at that time that is what it was called, in Montreal. We had to travel a long way and I went with my cousins, and it was a full on Saturday, with music works, theatre, games and lots of dance. Something in me obviously went, “I want more of this”… but there was a lot of pressure to excel academically so dance went on the side. I ended up starting up a dance club in high school and then I started to do the things I had to do. I went to CEGEP, I went west for an adventure, I ended up going to university and was going to be a biology major. I had no idea what I wanted to do, really, I just thought I better get a general education… 

And then, I met this wonderful woman, Hannah Stilwell, who is a long-time friend and collaborator. I was walking across campus and she said, “Are you coming to dance class?” and I was like, “ Dance class at university? What are you talking about?”, but she said, “Yeah! Come to dance class…” So I went to go and it was full. Within an hour, someone had dropped out and I went in. And the rest is history. 

TDP: What’s the thing you love most about what you do?

MM: I feel very very grateful everyday. I go away on a business trip and someone asks what I’m here to do and I say “I’m here to set a work. I’m here on a creative process” and they are confused. Sometimes their reaction is completely opposite and they are like “Wow!”

There is a lot of work, a lot of training, a lot of reflection, a lot of attention to the practice, and a lot of sweat equity. I like to work in this way. 

I wear a lot of hats and I enjoy that, apparently!

TDP: What are some of your favourite places to go to in Winnipeg?

MM: There are a lot of cool things in Winnipeg!

(Whisper) I have a shoe fetish. Rooster is just around the corner from here (Nafro). It’s daaaangerous. 

I bought a beautiful pair of dance pants made of bamboo at Andréanne’s studio yesterday down south Osborne. I think it's called Voila.