The Dechronization of Sisyphus & the Epistemology of Dance

May 13, 2018 · 7 min read
Justine Chambers, Natalie Lefebre-Gnam & Josh Martin — Friday May 17 2018 Photographs Alex Waterhouse-Hayward — Vancouver Dance Centre — Friday May 11 2018


In Greek mythology Sisyphus or Sisyphos (/ˈsɪsɪfəs/; Greek: Σίσυφος, Sísuphos) was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it nears the top, repeating this action for eternity. Through the classical influence on modern culture, tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean (/ˌsɪsɪˈfiːən/).

There is that expression “over the top” which sometimes means that a peak has been reached and from that point it is all downhill.

On Friday I went to the Vancouver Dance Centre with my friend Ian Bateson to watch a special presentation of excerpts of Karen Jamieson’s 1983 Sisyphus (I saw it in 2008). Jamieson’s idea is to look back and try to understand how a choreographic work came to be, how it has developed through the years and to figure out its relevance 35 years later. She assembled a trio of dancers, Josh Martin, Justine Chambers and Natalie Lefebre-Gnam. Of the latter I distinctly remember going to a Vancouver Opera performance of The Magic Flute that had a First Nations theme. I don’t know why I know but I do remember that Lefebre-Gnam was pregnant when she danced in that production.

From Left with Serge Bennathan, centre — Michelle Rhode — Anne Cooper (kissing) and Donald Sales

While watching the excerpts all explained in most philosophic terms by Jamieson I realized that there were four other choreographers present, Serge Bennathan, Jay Hirabayashi, Barbara Bourget and Jennifer Mascall. I added to that list Jamieson and realized that these werefive choreographers who were of a generation that began in the mid-70s and became prominent in the mid-80s. That all three were there and the fact that Jamieson is only three years younger than I am (and she did dance on Friday!) tells you that these individuals have not peaked and surely have the best work ahead of them. I feel that I could perhaps add myself to that august company as I came into my photography here in Vancouver with an element of success in the mid-80s and I believe that unlike Sisyphus I have not yet reach the top of the hill with that heavy rock.

Jay Hirabayashi & Barbara Bourget

Some might believe that Jamieson is thinking about her legacy by returning to her previous works. For me legacy is a bad word. Legacy is a park bench with your name on it in Cate’s Park.

There is that marvellous statement by el Viejo Viscacha in Argentina’s El Martín Fierro where the old man says, “El diablo sabe por diablo, Pero más sabe por viejo,” which translates to, “The devil knows because he is the devil, but he knows more because he is an old man.”

Thus these choreographers-of-a-certain age have experience going for them. Some don’t need to dance anymore. Some still do (in spite of the pain) as Jamieson does.

“You may not teach an old dog new tricks, but “old” choreographers can certainly teach us their new tricks”

Willoughby Blew — South African choreographer.

Jennifer Mascall

In the photo of Karen Jamieson (who is noted for have created many works based on First Nations) she posed for me (a Polaroid it was) with Byron Chief-Moon. Chief-Moon is my favourite Canadian (although he was born in California) dancer and choreographer. Somehow he has been able to blend First Nations dance with modern dance and this results in a dance form that for me has no parallel. That Art Bergmann and Byron Chief-Moon are not world famous is my proof that God does not exist.

Link to: The Dechronization of Sisyphus & the Epistemology of Dance

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