Relearning empathy – from the inside out at the Gordon Smith Gallery

Ballet BC’s Alexis Fletcher uses dance to reconcile conflict within herself and in the world

light in the rafters – choreography and performance by Alexis Fletcher, Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, 2121 Lonsdale Ave, North Vancouver.  Stay after the performance to meet the artists and explore Tiko Kerr’s exhibit, Reframed: Painting and Collage. Aug. 9, 7 p.m. Artist talkback to follow Alexis Fletcher and Tiko Kerr; Aug. 17 and 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Admission: $10. On Saturday, Aug.10, at 2 p.m. the panel discussion, Empathy: A Creative Act, will take place featuring moderator Karleen Gardner, Director of Learning Innovation, Project Director, Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and panelists Tiko Kerr, Zoe Kreye and Birthe Piontek. For more information and to register visit smithfoundation.co/engage/public-programs.

From growing up in a welcoming home with two yoga-loving parents and an extended spiritual family, to time spent hosting artists in her culturally rich house called Casa Om today, it’s clear kindness and community are in Alexis Fletcher’s bones.

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“I believe that it is always possible to be kind in the world,” the Ballet BC dancer says. “I’m certainly not saying I always achieve it, but I do believe in that possibility and it is something I always aspire to.”

The concept of kindness – and its more nuanced companion, empathy – is a key component in a series of upcoming shows choreographed and performed by Fletcher at the North Shore’s Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art.

During light in the rafters, Fletcher will dance amid the backdrop of artist/advocate Tiko Kerr’s current exhibit, Reframed: Painting and Collage. She will be accompanied by a beautiful piece of music entitled Serere, composed by James Beckwith Maxwell, and recorded by the cello and harp duo Couloir (Ariel Barnes and Heidi Krutzen). Fletcher’s husband and collaborator Sylvain Senez is the visual designer.

There are five performances (on Aug. 9, 17 and 24), and each will be 20 minutes long. The 7 p.m. presentation on Aug. 9 will be followed by an artist talkback with Fletcher and Kerr.

The unique presentation – with the audience in such close proximity, and in concert with socially aware artwork – is just one of the groundbreaking cultural offerings hosted by the Gordon Smith Gallery.

Kerr’s exhibit at the gallery is being produced in consultation with the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s new Center for Empathy in the Visual Arts. The centre aims to foster empathy and global awareness through the power of art, and to share these findings with researchers, scholars other cultural influencers.

Karleen Gardner, director of learning at the institute and its new center, believes that in an increasingly divisive world polarized by politics, racial inequities, and income disparities, the failure to understand each other is fuelling prejudice and conflict.

“If we wish to develop not only a more equal society, but a happier and more creative one, we will need to look outside ourselves and attempt to identify with the experiences of others,” says Gardner, who moderates a panel discussion on empathy as a creative act at the gallery on Saturday, Aug. 10 at 2 p.m.

Fletcher believes art, and especially dance, can contribute to that understanding.

“For me, empathy is largely to do with seeing,” she tells the North Shore News. “By seeing, I mean not a passing glance, but a true and deep witnessing – seeing with one’s whole self. It implies that one is present and aware as one takes in another.

“In the live arts, we speak so much about our relationship to our viewer: Are we inviting them in? Are we keeping them at bay? Are the rich interior landscapes and powerful felt experiences we feel as performers actually transmitting in some way to the people sitting with us as audience members, and thereby allowing them to have their own experience?

“As a performer, it is always my sincere hope that if I can be present enough in my own body, the viewer can experience a felt-sense of their own personal presence, and that when we look at each other, we can see aspects of ourselves.”

Alexis Fletcher
Alexis Fletcher emphasizes the importance of creativity as a conduit in an increasingly fragmented world. - Mike Wakefield, North Shore News

In light in the rafters, Fletcher anticipates the intimate setting of the art gallery will intensify this experience.

“Viewing performance in such close proximity brings about a different layer of connection, perception and exchange between performer and audience,” she says. “I hope that dance being performed as a living installation in this space will lessen the divide between the two and allow a more intimate sharing of the things that connect us as human beings.

“I think that maybe you can feel into the emotional quality of the performer in a different way in a space like this… this working, sweating, breathing, imperfect human being right in front of you, just a few feet away, sharing their ideas. Maybe you can find metaphors for your own human journey within their dance.

“Also for me – you are right there with me. I can see your faces, I can feel your gaze. It is intense and vulnerable to be that close.”

Fletcher, 34, has been with Ballet BC for 14 years. Originally from the Comox Valley, she is a graduate of Arts Umbrella’s professional training program and an avid yoga practitioner.

“I believe that when we have the experience of connecting with our own bodies, we heighten our capacity to feel connected with the world around us and with each other,” Fletcher says. “Our bodies are our gateways into the world, and a movement practice of any kind, whether you are amateur or professional, regardless of skill level or talent, is something we are all worthy of.”

She emphasizes the importance of creativity as a conduit in an increasingly fragmented world.

“I do believe that there is an inherent disconnect in our culture between our spirits and our bodies, and that the rapidly progressing developments in technology are contributing to this,” she says. “It makes me believe even more in the power of artistic pursuits being a meaningful opportunity for education and exchange.”

To that end, Fletcher and her husband operate a bed and breakfast out of their Commercial Drive-area house, Casa Om, which features a backyard performance space – the Dance Deck – where artists have the chance to share their work at a grassroots level.

“The B&B is going well,” Fletcher says. “We get to meet people from all over the world, from so many different backgrounds and walks of life … it adds a unique perspective to our days and our home.”

She also enjoys philosophy and writing poetry.

But it is through dance that she attempts to find true connection – and reconciliation.

“We all contain paradox, opposition, delight and despair, the capacity to hold conflicting truths simultaneously,” she explains. “All the subjective aspects of this affect how we relate to each other.

“The reason I dance is to try and make sense of my own paradoxes. It is to attempt to reconcile my spirit with my Earthly body… something that all of us are trying to do in our own ways, and with our own stories attached.

“I am certainly not an expert, but I believe that the capacity for empathy is an innate ability in most people. Perhaps it has to be relearned, from the inside out, when other forces have taken over and disconnected us from ourselves.”

 

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