Still airborne at 65
by Nadine Ishak
"If my friends were to look at me right now, they would say, 'What is she doing?'" Elizabeth Langley said with a laugh. In fact, she's rehearsing hard for her first big solo show here, complete with a set designer and a Canada Council grant.
Since she retired last June, the founder of Concordia's Department of Contemporary Dance has done exactly what she liked, including living with a group of dancers and actors on the Aegean Ocean, in Turkey. At the age of 65, she has also been performing in venues as farflung as downtown Toronto and a Cuban commune.
"It's wonderful to be a senior citizen on fire," she said with characteristic enthusiasm. "I have this wonderful thing called a pension. I have free time, free choice. There has never been a time in my life like this."
Langley came to Concordia from Australia via New York and Ottawa. "I've been here for 20 years, and I've taught many of the dancers in the city," she said.
When students came into the department and Langley felt they were not sure they should be there, she would ask them a question like, "Can you live without this?" If they said, "I cannot live without being a dancer," she said, "Go for broke."
She would suddenly ask them, "What is your dance dream?" "You want the answer off the top of their heads," she said. "If they have a Hollywood-y, make-a-lot-of-money, be-a-star attitude, this is not the profession for them. Our department doesn't create stars, it creates artists, and artists don't make a lot of money."
When Alfred Pinsky, then the Dean of Fine Arts, gave Langley the task of designing the program in 1980, it was on the premise that Canada had strong dancers but was weak in choreographers. He wanted to develop a small department that never admitted more than 20 people a year, where students could develop choreographic skills and be protected for their first three or four years of creativity.
The idea was that by the time they moved into the community to present their own work and apply for grants, they would have a fair amount of experience as interpreters and choreographers. The strong choreographic element draws applicants to Concordia's Dance program from all over Canada.
"Some people do not believe that you can learn how to choreograph," Langley said. "This is incorrect. There is a craft that holds up creation, a building. You have to put down the foundation, and then you start building. I presented the students with as many structural approaches to creating work as
"The role of the choreographer is a particularly difficult one," Langley said. "Unlike painters, who can throw their canvases in the garbage, choreographers can only test their work on an audience.
"It's very expensive. You have to rent studios, find dancers who have faith in becoming your interpreters, rehearse them, and then present them to an audience. Only at the end of the performance do you know whether the work really lives."
She also established a strong tradition of student advising. "I wanted every credit to be connected either to their major discipline or some other love they had in their life, whether it was biology or English literature."
You can see Elizabeth Langley dance tomorrow, Saturday or Sunday at the Laboratoire de l'Agora de la danse, 840 Cherrier St. (Sherbrooke métro station) at 4 p.m. The show is called "In camera" and not (she also calls it "In private" and not), and while she is the soloist, it also features some of her best former students. Tickets are $10, and can be obtained by calling 525-1500.